March 19, 2013

The Spy Who Loved Me (Bond #10) [Bond 50 BluRay Set]

Although I had seen 1977's The Spy Who Loved Me before, it had been a while.

For whatever reason, I was expecting that the movie - the 10th "official" Bond - would be a little cheesy and campy ala the less dignified moments of the previous one, 1974's The Man With The Golden Gun. I was really surprised, however, that while this movie does have a few silly moments, much of it is actually pretty exciting, and at times quite intense and scary… all making for one of the best Bond movies of this era and many another.

A key difference between this picture and Golden Gun is that the threat level is set pretty high in the very first sequence: Atomic submarines from both Britain and Russia mysteriously disappear, and so naturally MI6 and the KGB send their best agents into action to find out what happened. The best British spy is, of course, James Bond, played by Moore for the third time. The best the KGB has to offer is Major Anya Amasova (aka Agent XXX) played by the stunning American-born actress Barbara Bach. Just a few years later, Bach would marry Ringo Starr, meaning that she must have really really really wanted to be married to a Beatle, no matter what.

Anyway, the two independently track some stolen microfilm (Yay! Microfilm!) to Egypt where they compete with each other to get it first. Upon completing that phase of the mission, their two agencies decide that they should work together for, oh, say the rest of the movie in the name of ushering in a new era of Anglo / Soviet cooperation.

After nine movies full of hot women who basically just hang around until Bond decides to sleep with them, it's a relief and a pleasure to finally have a strong female character who can stand up to Bond and at least be his foil, if not his equal. Anya does have her "damsel in distress" moments in the picture, particularly in the last part of the film, but she never devolves into quivering jelly the way TIffany Case did in Diamonds Are Forever nor is she just there to stand around in a bikini like Mary Goodnight in The Man With The Golden Gun.

The other surprising thing to me that Moore's Bond has continued to have some really cold, steely moments in his three movies that always shatter my previously-held impression that his version of Bond was primarily silly. A neat moment is the scene where Bond and Anya first meet at a bar in Cairo… each rattles off vital statistics about the other to show how well-versed in the opposition they are. When Anya mentions that Bond had been married, but his wife was killed (at the end of On Her Majesty's Secret Service), Bond gets testy and cuts her off. It's a really interesting character moment for him the likes of which make his portrayal 1000 times more interesting to me.

Another striking moment is when Bond mentions he was in Switzerland a few weeks back on a mission (as seen in the pre-credit ski chase). Anya was in love with another KGB agent who was killed there around that same time. "Did you kill him?," she asks. Moore takes this revelation in, and then his face becomes cold and emotionless: "When someone's behind you on skis at 40 miles per hour trying to put a bullet in your back, you don't always have time to remember a face. In our business, Anya, people get killed. We both know that. So did he. It was either him or me." And then the finisher: "The answer to the question is yes. I did kill him."

It's a much darker sub-layer to the film than I remembered or expected... and I really loved it.

I also didn't expect to really dig the film's heavy: The ocean-obsessed Karl Stromberg, excellently played by Bavarian actor Curd Jürgens. Stromberg believes mankind is corrupt and in decay, and he means to trigger atomic armageddon by nuking both New York City and Moscow with his stolen subs. Humanity will then rebuild itself in Stromberg's proposed cities on the ocean floor. Jürgens is so chilling in the part that it somewhat transcends the usual Bond villain malaise, although I'm hard pressed to describe what about him exactly is making me feel that way. I think part of it is that he's not after some kind of ransom, as many of the other Bond baddies have been: He's destroying the world for ideology, which is far more unsettling.

The show-stealer, however, is Richard Kiel making his first appearance as the steel-toothed henchman Jaws. Moore is a pretty big guy, but the 7'2" Kiel easily dwarfs him. He positively looks like a giant during a train fight with Anya mid-way through the movie (that seems to pay homage to a similar train fight way back in 1963's From Russia With Love, I think).

Anyway, Jaws is one of the aspects of the movie is that truly scary, and I again I was surprised by how effective a baddie he was in this flick: When he popped out of nowhere to ambush a character, I jumped… when he does that slow, malevolent lean-in to kill someone with his teeth, I squirmed. A certain aspect of Jaws is played for laughs too, of course (such as the scene where he rips a service van to pieces with his bare hands while Anya and Bond attempt to drive away), but somehow the semi-comic aspects of him never diminish the fact that he's huge and terrifying.

The action sequences are quite excellent and varied in this picture: The pre-credit ski chase (an homage to On Her Majesty's Secret Service?) complete with the brilliant finisher of Bond skiing off the side of a mountain, falling through the air for what feels like an eternity, then releasing a parachute that has the Union Jack on it…. The eerie sequence at the pyramids where Jaws chases and kills a key informant… The thrilling high-speed helicopter chase in Italy that ends with Bond driving his car into the water and turning it into a submarine…. Even the sequence in the last part of the film where Bond is desperate to get into the control room of the supertanker so he can stop the stolen submarines from firing their missiles. Bond is forced to use his head and take the warhead out of a nuclear missile to blow through the security door… a fantastically tense sequence that is all the more urgent in the film because it is only small component of the much bigger problem that Bond has to solve.

It's worth mentioning that the director is Lewis Gilbert who had also directed You Only Live Twice 10 years earlier. The two films oddly share a number of similarities… In Twice, Blofeld steals American and Russian spaceships to try to get the two countries to go to war with each other… in Spy, Stromberg has a supertanker that swallows atomic submarines for very much the same purpose. The interior of the volcano in Twice is cavernous and contains a monorail system… so does the interior of the supertanker in Spy, and so on…

Other thoughts….

-Unlike the previous movie, the plot actually feels big and consequential right away. It's amazing what a difference that makes.

-The martini returns! Anya orders one for Bond at the bar when they first meet to demonstrate how much she knows about him. Bond's shaken (not stirred) signature drink had been absent from the previous Moore movies.

-They really ramp up the double entendre in this picture. In the opening, after M has been informed of the missing atomic submarines, he asks Moneypenny where Commander Bond is. "He's on a mission sir. In Austria," she replies. M says, "Well, tell him to pull out! Immediately!" and then we cut to Bond making love to a woman. In another scene, an MI6 agent stationed in Egypt persuades Bond to stay the night in his camp by introducing him to a particularly gorgeous local there. A cheeky look crosses Bond's face, who wryly reasons, "Well, when one is in Egypt, one should delve deeply into its treasures!" Classy.

-"Nobody Does It Better," performed by Carly Simon might be my favorite Bond song. It's in my top two or three, at least.

-2 of the 3 Roger Moore Bond movies have NOT been scored by the series' regular composer, John Barry, thus far. I actually kind of prefer what George Martin did on Live And Let Die and what the late Marvin Hamlisch did on this picture to what Barry did on Golden Gun and what he would do on Moonraker. I wasn't expecting to feel that way.

-Director Lewis Gilbert started to have fun with some of the Bond conventions. The one I thought was really clever was when Q introduces Bond to this amazing new car in Italy (before the helicopter chase). It's done from Anya's point of view… she sees Q pointing to parts of the car and explaining things, but she's too far away to hear any of the words. Later, when the car can fire missiles and go underwater, it's as much a surprise to us as it is to her.

-Again, not sure why I found Stromberg to be such a refreshing bad guy… Blofeld dominated three movies in a row: You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty's Secret Service and Diamonds Are Forever. Then it was Dr. Kanaga in the next movie, and then the ridiculously three-nippled Scaramanga in the one prior to this... both had more modest goals. I guess it's just fun to have an evil heavy around hell-bent on world destruction again who gets you to believe that he really means it. It's not even that clear what exactly Stomberg's plot is until 90 minutes into the movie, which was kind of cool as well.

In conclusion, I was expecting a campier movie, and was surprised and delighted to find that that's not really what this picture is. Certain camp elements do start to work their way in during the 2nd half, however. This movie feels just about pitch perfect, though, with very few missteps, if any.

I'm told that the next movie, 1979's Moonraker, doesn't stir all the elements together into quite as pleasant a cocktail. I guess there's only one way to find out if I agree with that...

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