• ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977)

    At the age of nine, I saw my first James Bond film at the cinema: The Spy Who Loved Me. It made such an impression that I actually suggested to my then Cub Scout leader that we try to visit the 007 Stage at Pinewood, which wasn’t far away; to her credit, she took me seriously, even if it didn’t come off. It has remained one of my favourite entries in the series, and repeated viewing as an adult – including a revelatory digital presentation almost ten years ago, when I had the pleasure of briefly chatting to its director, Lewis Gilbert – confirms its qualities. Indeed it is widely recognised (including by the late actor himself) as the best film of the Roger Moore era, and one of the most effective of all the Bonds. Why?

    Firstly, and notwithstanding previous entries’ forays into space or underwater, the film has a genuine sense of scale and scope. This was already an established part of the Bond tradition, but by the mid-70s had either degenerated into the excruciating camp of Diamonds Are Forever (1971) and The Man With The Golden Gun (1974) or been abandoned in favour of ill-judged attempts to emulate gritty crime dramas, such as Moore’s debut Live And Let Die (1973). The new film thus built on and indeed outdid previous efforts, with every single penny of its massive budget – double that of the previous entry – visible on screen, yet did so with an eye on credibility and the real world. This includes the Liparus supertanker, whose submarine-swallowing abilities remain utterly believable, Rick Sylvester’s legendary ski jump, the sleek white wedge of the Lotus Esprit (still effectively a prototype at the time of filming) and the exceptional miniature and optical work that still holds up today.

    Secondly, and closely allied to the above, glamour – that other essential element of a Bond film – was also undeniably present yet was similarly restrained. The cool elegance of Ken Adam’s production design, the sensuality of Anya Amasova’s midnight blue evening gown, the understated opulence of Marvin Hamlisch’s sublime title song; all contribute to the feeling of restrained luxury that permeates the film. Made at a time when international travel was still relatively uncommon (Freddie Laker was to launch his low-cost Skytrain transatlantic service just two months after the film premiered, thus allowing many audience members to follow in their hero’s footsteps for the first time), the use of locations is also critical. The film was shot in no fewer than seven different countries apart from Britain (Egypt, Italy, Switzerland, Malta, Japan, Canada and the Bahamas), by far the highest of any Bond film before or since, but in the hands of its veteran director this was more than simple box-ticking. Gilbert had shown considerable sensitivity for place in his films, including Carve Her Name With Pride (1958) and Operation Daybreak (1975) as well as his previous entry in the Bond series, the highly-regarded You Only Live Twice (1967), and brought the same skill to the Egypt scenes especially. The superb Great Pyramids sequence, running for a full five minutes yet containing almost no dialogue, relies entirely on camera placement, lighting and character motion within a built environment for its effect, something repeated in the fluid, lucid climactic battle aboard the Liparus.

    Thirdly, the script is deserving of praise in two respects. It contains a number of nicely-judged scenes that anticipate the more sophisticated products of later decades, such as the meeting between M, Gogol, Bond and Amasova in Egypt. Here the agents’ continual attempts to outsmart each other, much to the delight of their bosses, work both as flirtation and geo-political one-upmanship. There is also a hard edge to Moore’s Bond that is not seen in any of his other films, evidenced by the surprisingly powerful confrontation between Bond and Anya when she realises he killed her lover and, notoriously, Bond’s astonishingly brutal execution of Stromberg with not one, not two, but four bullets, each deliberately and methodically placed over time. The final script was written by Richard Maibaum and Christopher Wood, the latter an outsider recommended by Gilbert. Already an acclaimed novelist and writer, Wood’s experiences in Africa and the Near East whilst on National Service are likely to have informed this approach.

    Fourthly, there are the details; touches large and small that emerge from consideration of every aspect of a film, and which add to the whole. There are many examples. The excellent Michael Billington was cast as Amasova’s lover, Barsov, in the pre-credits sequence. Billington, best known for playing Paul Foster in Gerry Anderson’s dark SF series UFO, auditioned for Bond more times than any other actor and was apparently pencilled in for the role before Roger Moore appeared. The silhouetted women swinging round a gun barrel in the title sequence remains a striking image, even in the oeuvre of Maurice Binder. At a time when the British public was arguably closer to its armed forces than is the case today, with regular open days at suburban army camps and the Royal Tournament a firm fixture in family summers, the degree of cooperation received by the production from the Royal Navy is nevertheless remarkable, as when a submarine glides by behind Moore, in character as Bond, as he walks along a quay at Faslane, the real-life base of Britain’s nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines, and Bond and Anya’s escape capsule is brought into the landing dock of the amphibious assault ship HMS Fearless which, six years later, would play a key role in the Falklands campaign. The nudge-nudge ending, complete with the first few lines of the title song rendered by a ship’s company, feels like a lift from Gilbert’s knowing Alfie (1966).

    That all of this was achieved against a background of great difficulty – including the departure of co-producer Harry Saltzman for financial and personal reasons, the contractual stipulation by Ian Fleming that only the title of his novel could be used and an ongoing law suit – is all the more pleasing.

    By the summer of 1977, as Britain celebrated her monarch’s Silver Jubilee and with the immense impact of Star Wars (1977) yet to be felt – it would not open in Britain for another six months – the way was clear for The Spy Who Loved Me to open to unprecedented success. More importantly, the films were simply in a class of their own when it came to popular cinema – nothing else came close, and nobody did it better. And for another thirty years in the world of Bond, that remained the case.

    Sir Roger George Moore, KBE (14 October 1927 – 23 May 2017)

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

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