Serial, Super Serial: The Spy Who Loved Me

The Spy Who Loved Me

Super Serial aims to dissect series of pop art — be it a filmography, discography or run of comics — by looking at its individual components.

Ten years after his first Bond film, Lewis Gilbert returns to direct 1977′s The Spy Who Loved Me. His previous film, You Only Live Twice, is perhaps my least favorite of the films so far, and he improves greatly with his second try. I wouldn’t yet call Gilbert an auteur, but you can see lines connecting his two films, even though they are separated by ten years and four Bond films. While You Only Live Twice was a mildly racist mess of a film, here we see strides made in the quality of the action and comedic beats. If I see one thing that Gilbert seems to prioritize over veteran franchise directors Terrence Young and Guy Hamilton, it’s that he doesn’t forget that James Bond is a spy and gives him actual spy work. Especially in the last few scenes of the film, Bond is more than a smooth-talker and baddie-puncher.

The Spy Who Loved Me gives us an all-too-familiar plot, with two nuclear submarines hijacked and the world once again threatened by a rich, crazy villain. Many of the film’s similarities may have come from legal battles that were happening behind the scenes, as long-time producer Harry Saltzman was selling off his 50% stake in the franchise and a number of other changes were being made. Initially, the film was supposed to have Blofeld and SPECTRE return, but with the legal battle happening, the filmmakers decided to create a brand new villain, not from any of the novels, who ends up seeming a lot like the head of SPECTRE.

Even with all the familiar ground being tred and the turmoil happening behind the scenes, the film holds up pretty well in the context of the series, and there are a number of things that I like about it. If there’s a major problem with The Spy Who Loved Me, it’s that there are simply too many tones it draws from. We get the typical Bond campy excellence, but there are long stretches of the film that feel like a buddy cop comedy and then dramatic shifts with horror genre tropes. Individually, all these scenes and tones work, but jammed together the film feels a little bit disconnected.

[Bond, James Bond]

Two sides of Bond are highlighted in The Spy Who Loved Me: the jokester and the super-spy. Of course, Bond is never so serious, but he seems to be on his top jokey game in this film, using a number of “witty” puns during his fights with baddies and bouts of love with the ladies. Even when he’s in extreme danger, and there are a few such moments, he never seems anxious or scared but instead very relaxed and ready to zing a one-liner at the first opportunity. When he stumbles upon dead associates, there’s no need to fret, but ample reason to put an “out of order” sign on their person. When the henchman Jaws has him cornered, he’s more interested in making woman driver jokes than in trying to help his partner escape.

We also get a good chance to see the completely opposite side of Bond, though, as the final scenes of the film give him good opportunity to do some actual spy work. James Bond is without question a brilliant secret agent, even when he doesn’t seem to take his job all that seriously, but there are strangely few occasions where he has to do the tasks we typically associate with spies. In a whirlwind final section of the film, we see him expertly disarming bombs, displaying stealth mode that Solid Snake would be proud of and programming nuclear devices to blow each other up. It’s certainly a breath of fresh air to see Bond displaying his finest work instead of having philosophical duels with megalomaniacs and fisticuffs with sumo wrestlers.

[The Mission]

As I previously alluded to, the mission plot in The Spy Who Loved Me is nothing we haven’t seen before, but there are a few minor twists along the way that make the film notable. Most importantly, this film is as much about the Bond Girl as it is about our favorite super-spy. I’ll get into more detail on Anya Amasova in the Bond Girl section, but her inclusion in the mission really shakes things up. I understand that Ian Flemming’s book of the same title is actually set from her perspective, and while the film doesn’t quite go so far, she definitely has much more impact than other girls have before.

The post-opening credit scene has been reserved for Bond’s briefing with M, but the film typifies the importance of Anya by setting her up with mission objectives with her Soviet commander. As things go on and Bond and Anya actually work together, the film blatantly states that their partnership is a sign of Anglo-Soviet relations that must happen for future world peace. We never view Anya as an enemy to Bond, even when they work against each other for the same goal, in part because of the film’s perspective on their mission together.

[The Villains]

We again have the typical main villain and main henchman here, although this is an example where the henchman is far more interesting than Bond’s villain. Richard Kiel plays Jaws, one of the more notable henchman from the series and one of my favorite characters thus far. He stands out from the rest of Bond’s villains because he seems to come from another world entirely, something from a comic book or horror film. Known for his trademark metal teeth, he can bite through seemingly anything, and his monstrous body can take an unlimited amount of punishment. In the film, Jaws survives an Egyptian structure’s collapse on top of him, being hit by a van, being thrown from a rapidly-moving train, being electrocuted, sitting in the passenger seat of a car which veers off a cliff and explodes, a battle underwater with a shark, and the destruction of Stromberg’s lair. He does so with little sense of injury or annoyance. In this way, he reminds me of another villain that came out around the time, Halloween’s Michael Myers. Given that Jaws doesn’t speak (perhaps due to his metal teeth, perhaps due to Richard Kiel’s actual voice), the elements of horror are actually increased. As I mentioned in my intro, with the film’s dramatic shifts in tone, Jaws is a character that I really love but who doesn’t always feel right in the film. Some of his incredible recoveries do point to the campy, though, even if they’re inspired by classic horror tropes.

Jaws’ employer, Karl Stromberg, is the archetypal Bond villain: he’s rich, power-hungry, reclusive, damaged and certifiably crazy. There are obvious points in the script where knowing the film was intended to feature Blofeld makes total sense, such as the fact that Stromberg is also a fan of man-eating sharks and throwing his associates in with little reason or evidence of malfeasance. Stromberg may not be a part of SPECTRE, but he has certainly compared notes. By the end of the film, though, we find out one particular trait that sets him apart as something a little more dangerous. During his final showdown with Bond, he is asked how much he wants for not destroying two major world cities — Bond certainly knows the drill at this point. Stromberg, though, doesn’t care for money; he seriously wants to destroy the world in order to rebuild it from the rubble, a thriller trope we have seen time and time again since.

[The Bond Girls]

Anya Amasova (played by less Russian-sounding Barbara Bach) is a Soviet secret agent hired to investigate the hijacking of a nuclear submarine and eventually partnered with Bond. We’re introduced to her by her codename, Agent XXX (as if you would have expected anything different). She’s played as a bit of an ice queen throughout the film, very serious about her work with little expressive emotion, at least toward Bond. Through much of the film, in fact, she doesn’t seem to be very interested in Bond sexually — she even uses Bond’s weakness of sexual desire against him by luring him in and then knocking him out. By the end she obviously has to have emotional feelings for Bond, as that’s the name of the game, sadly demolishing a lot of what made her so interesting. In fact, a major plotline of the film involves her seeking revenge for the death of her lover — a death contributed to Bond. When she realizes Bond is responsible, she pledges she has to kill him when their mission is complete — an act that is shamelessly shrugged off at the end of the film, communicating that her emotions are not as important as the life of Bond.

Anya is coded as being very much the female version of Bond, if not his complete equal. When we first meet her, we see her in bed with another man — I believe it is the first sexual arrangement we’ve seen not involving Bond. Although we don’t know much about the relationship as we see it on screen, it feels very much like one of the random, meaningless encounters Bond has had throughout the series. Her sexual relationship with Bond, albeit cheaply necessary, also comes from her seducing him — she is given the pick-up lines that Bond usually flings off effortlessly. Perhaps she’s too strong-willed a woman for Bond; perhaps he feels inadequate by her being obviously smarter and more capable than his usual conquests.

[The Gadgets]

The Spy Who Loved Me has one major gadget at hand — a car that has the ability to change into a submarine. Unlike other gadgets from the series, the film deliberately keeps us in the dark about what the car can do. We see Q briefing Bond, but from Anya’s perspective, out of earshot. She, though, knows what the car can do from the beginning, as she says she’s seen the plans for such a car previously — another way she bests Bond in the film.

There’s another scene where we see a number of unused gadgets being tested, many of which are totally unfeasible. Some of the more interesting gadgets from the scene are a hookah gun, an air propeller that can shoot a food try with enough velocity to cut off a man’s head and a giant spring chair that I think we’ve seen developed by ACME.

[The Song]

Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” is the musical equivalent of crying while masturbating. This is such a sappy, sappy song, but it also manages to feel like a self-congratulatory pat on the back for the Bond creators.

“Nobody does it better
Makes me feel sad for the rest
Nobody does it half as good as you
Baby, you’re the best”

Barf.

[Random Thoughts]

- This if the first time I’ve noticed that the Bond down the gun sight at the film’s opening is clearly Roger Moore. It was always pretty confusing when it was some random guy.

- The fact that XXX is promiscuous with another spy makes me wonder if there’s some sort of spy sex swapping program. I think I may be in the wrong line of work.

- The film’s first big action setpiece is another ski chase — this one a little too ridiculous. The obvious stunt double for Roger Moore makes what is otherwise pretty intense action completely laughable.

- It is a little strange that a film with a character named Jaws also features man-eating sharks prominently. When Jaws fights with the shark my brain nearly exploded.

- Many of the opening credit sequences are pretty tasteless, but this one takes the cake: obviously naked women in silhouette wearing only police hats jumping around making gun poses. As Jerry Seinfeld has said: there is good naked and bad naked.

- A lot of the hand-to-hand fighting in this film makes me think of 1980s WWF wrestling. Bond even gives a random baddie a power-slam. I wonder why he didn’t follow it up with the “People’s Elbow.”

- I’m not sure if Egyptian music is just awful or if that’s just Bond’s interpretation of Egyptian music.

- Wave runners must have been really cool in 1977.

- Why would you aim to shoot a gun at a guy with metallic teeth in the teeth?

- I’m no scientist, but I’m pretty sure if a dude was hanging from a super magnet from his metallic teeth, it would rip his face off.

SERIAL, SUPER SERIAL will return in MOONRAKER

tags: james bond, lewis gilbert, super serial, the spy who loved me

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