There’s two kinds of James Bond movies: The good ones and the dumb ones. “The Spy Who Loved Me” is far and away my favorite of the dumb ones, and if I’m honest, it’s one of my favorite Bond films of all times.
That said, I was operating mostly on memory until yesterday. I’d videotaped it off of TV, trimmed for TV, full of commercial breaks, back around 1980, and as pretty much the only Bond flick I had, I watched it endlessly for a year or two. I honestly don’t think I ever saw the complete, uncut thing until this weekend. It was better than I remembered. I was pleasantly surprised.
Firstly, for a dumb film it’s not as dumb as I remembered. Apart from Kurt Jurgens’ dumb-but-cool Legion of Doom headquarters that rises out of the sea, they play the whole thing very straight. Even Jaws, the over-the-top murderous henchman, isn’t a cartoon. He’s genuinely frightening in some scenes (Such as on the train), he’s a seven-foot-tall freak of nature, insanely strong, and his unkillability just kind of seems believable.
Secondly, despite being a terrible, terrible actress, Barbara Bach makes an unusually strong partner in the film. As Bond’s more-or-less equal-and-opposite from the USSR, she’s not helpless, and contributes a good deal to the film in the first half. Watching her and Bond try to out-spy each other to get the MacGuffin was a lot of fun, and she does get the drop on him once or twice. When they’re partnered up in the second act of the film, she contributes less, and in the final act she’s basically a damsel in distress. That’s disappointing, and her whole “I’m going to kill you when the mission is over, James,” thing is resolved way too easily. Still, I’d say she’s easily the best Bond Girl since Tracy (1969) and prior to Natalya (1995).
Thirdly: The Liparus. It is the greatest and largest villain’s lair in the entire franchise, and even now, thirty-five years after I last saw the film, I’m in awe of it. It’s a life-size set with not one, but three full-sized submarine mock ups in it, and 1.2 million gallons of water. The final battle makes the ninja assault on SPECTRE’s volcano lair in You Only Live Twice seem like a minor tiff.
This is just an unspeakably lavish film in terms of set design. It’s the most Bondian looking Bond film ever. In addition to the Liparus, there’s Atlantis, the bad guy’s OTHER lair. (Yes, that’s right, the bad guy has TWO lairs!) The Naval Base office has a cool, slanted ceiling, is all pre-stressed concrete and glass walls, and must go back two hundred feet, and it’s only in one scene. The brig on the Liparus is equally huge, and again it’s only used once. The submarine sets – unrealistically huge – are pretty impressive. This whole thing just looks super-crazy-no-way-gonzo-over-the-top, and that’s honestly what we want, right? A bad guy who isn’t content to destroy the world, he’s going to destroy it with style.
In short, up until the one hour mark, it is a genuinely good Bond movie, which I think most people have forgotten. I know I did.
Right at the one hour mark, it turns into a live action cartoon, of course. I was watching it with my son when a motorcycle sidecar turns into a rocket. He said, “FINALLY,” with a kind of hilarious weariness. From then on, it’s just sillier and sillier – a submarine car, a supertanker that eats submarines, Jaws suddenly falling hundreds of feet off a cliff and just shaking it off, Kurt Jurgens attempting to start a nuclear war so that he can play Adam-and-Even in his new underwater civilization. It’s just dopey, and I’ll be the first to admit, but it does a surprisingly good job of selling itself. The Liparus sub-eater is so cool that I’m willing to overlook the 120 or so things that are wrong with it.
They take it a little too far on occasion – such as shooting a boat out the side of the Liparus like a rocket for no good reason, rather than just putting it in the water – which breaks the suspension of disbelief. Still: This is the dumb half of the movie that everyone remembers. What I think they don’t remember is that it’s really entertainingly dumb.
There’s a lot to like here. The direction is great, the action scenes cut together really well, and the Arch Villain’s plot is the first time in the franchise that anyone wanted to destroy the world just to play God. (Interestingly, the first irredeemably genocidally insane villain in Bondom is an environmentalist). This is one of the very few films – two? Three? – that in any way deals with Bond’s pre-spy life, his dead wife gets a name check, and Bond’s reaction shows that he’s still messed up over it.
As that’s a neat scene, I’ll recount it: Bond and our Soviet agent meet at a bar (In Egypt! It was a very different, less fundamentalist world in 1977, and would remain so for about a year) and he immediately starts flirting with her. She rattles off a bunch of facts about him, “…has had many lady friends, but only married once -”
Bond [abruptly]: “That’s enough.”
Anya: “So you are sensitive, Mister Bond.”
Bond [Dryly]: “About some things. Thank you for the drink.” [Abruptly walks away without having touched it]
Of course there’s negatives. The soundtrack is a bit too disco-influenced. Bond’s “Hello, let’s bone” shenanigans come across almost like parodies of porn films, they’re so cringingly awful. As opposed to the charming guy with an undercurrent of menace, which is the way the character had always been played (And Moore is charming in this, by the way), he’s suddenly some kind of sexual superhero who’s mere presence causes women to swoon within seconds. Or, in one inexplicable scene, to sacrifice herself to save his life after just one kiss. To be clear: Bond has always gotten laid a lot, and I don’t have a problem with that, but it’s just done really badly here. Barbara Bach’s character is hopping in the sack with Bond just days after her long-term boyfriend was killed. “Ok,” you think, “It’s the 1970s. She’s a swinger or something, it means nothing.” Nope, they play it like she’s falling in love with 007. Kurt Jurgens is strangely underdeveloped as a supervillain. Why do they capture the third sub? They already have the two they need.
The movie goes way too Matt Helm in the last five or ten minutes. I’m being literal. One of the final fights resolves itself exactly like the one at the end of “Murderer’s Row,” in which an electromagnet is used to take out a henchman. The Escape Pod is rocket powered for some reason, and is a big round bed stocked with champagne and books and a premium sound system. The obligatory “The boss stumbles in on Bond in dilecto flagrante” scene honestly is smarmy in the same way the same scenes were smarmy for Dean Martin.
But this movie really is no end of fun, despite its legions of flaws.
A couple final notes:
Though it’s never openly stated, the bad guys would have gotten away with it. The only reason they don’t is because one of the bad guy’s people getting greedy and offering to sell secret MacGuffin technology to the superpowers. Had Stromberg’s staff been loyal, the good guys would never have known what was up, the plot would have gone off without a hitch, and everyone on earth would have died. I like that.
This movie marked the first time anyone had ever seen a jet ski. They were in the prototype stage, and introduced to the public here (At this point called a ‘Wetbike’ because British people are bad at naming things)
This movie also marks the introduction of the Lotus Esprit. Bond’s car in the movie is one of only two working prototypes in the world at the time. Sadly, it didn’t really turn into a submarine.
Weirdly, the very next movie in the series has almost the exact same plot: Supervillain wants to wipe out the world so he can play God and start over with his hand-chosen Adams and Eves. Bond is teamed up with a spy (CIA this time), and the basic structure and progression of the story is almost identical. It involves Jaws. “Moonraker,” just outright sucks, though, and is nothing but live-action cartoon from start to finish.
Ok, I’m done. This is not the greatest movie ever made, but it is almost undoubtedly better than you remember, and well worth a watch on a Saturday night, if you’ve got nothing better to do.