WFTB Score: 11/20
The plot: When British and Soviet nuclear submarines disappear, Commander James Bond is forced to cooperate with a Russian Major, aka Agent XXX, to track down whoever has managed to trace them. Luckily for 007, XXX is a rather lovely woman; but that doesn’t get them very far, especially when both are relentlessly pursued by the mastermind’s enormous henchman Jaws.
At the height of the Cold War, Britain’s Nuclear Submarine HMS Ranger disappears, somehow tracked under the ocean. One might be inclined to blame the Russians, except that their own sub The Potemkin also goes missing. For the Brits, trusty agent James Bond (Roger Moore) is dispatched to Cairo to retrieve a microfilm containing plans of the tracking device, where he regularly cheats death before meeting a man called Fekkesh near the Great Pyramids, just too late for the unfortunate Egyptian. Bond also encounters pretty Major Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach), sent by General Gogol (Walter Gotell, in the first of numerous appearances) to buy the same item from club owner Max Kalba (Vernon Dobtcheff). Max is murdered by Jaws (Richard Kiel), a vast, metal-mouthed henchman who menaces Bond and Anya as they vie for the microfilm and get ever closer to Jaws’ employer, Karl Stromberg (Curt Jürgens), a cultured megalomaniac who feeds disloyal acquaintances to sharks, to the strains of J.S. Bach. Stromberg plans world domination from the stronghold of his well-upholstered aquatic base called Atlantis, and the spies must work cheek-by-jowl to stop him, tracing the subs to Stromberg’s huge tanker Luparis. Unfortunately, the different ‘companies’ James and Anya work for – and a particular casualty from Bond’s last mission – mean that they are destined to be deadly rivals, even while they make eyes at each other.
There’s a distinctly businesslike air about The Spy Who Loved Me. Straight from the pre-credits sequence, which establishes the plot and gets Bond’s customary skiing out of the way – also setting up the tension between the spies – there’s a keen sense that this movie, the tenth in the franchise, is out to impress. The parachuting sequence alone is practically worth the price of admission, combining expert stunt and camera work with an awed silence which explodes into the famous theme on sight of the Union Jack. Even if the film is a bit light on action for stretches after this, it comes at regular intervals, and the climaxes – wherein Bond saves the world, then the girl – are huge affairs, filled with competing colour-coded armies and massive explosions against the backdrop of Ken Adam’s wonderful sets, particularly Stromberg’s mad, futuristic Atlantis. Most of all, Lewis Gilbert directs with a veteran’s eye for what makes a decent cinematic shot, often filming from a distance that allows the viewer to take in the whole sweep of the scenery, which works especially well in Egypt (and prompts the pleasing appearance of Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia theme).
The plot, too, is pleasing, giving Bond a (more or less) full-time companion who’s more than simply the damsel in distress; and terrific foes in Jürgen’s thoroughly unpleasant Stromberg and Richard Kiel’s irrepressible Jaws, all 7ft 2 of him – the way he throws Bond about with one giant hand and vampirically dispatches his foes is both entertaining and creepy. Of course, the film does essentially follow the template of Bond’s other adventures – the plot and train journey specifically recalling From Russia With Love, the underwater shenanigans Thunderball and others – but this one does it with style, from the simple name-checking of Q as ‘Major Boothroyd’ to the glorious Lotus Esprit hybrid car/sub and the exciting Wetbike*.
It all sounds like good news, then; but hold on a minute, because there are flies in the ointment. I’m aware that there are big fans of Roger Moore’s laconic style, but for the life of me I can’t think why. To my eyes and ears, Moore plays Bond like a crashingly boring know-it-all, rolling his eyes at the pretty girl’s useless driving and telling her – and everyone else – how it should be done with heavy-handed sarcasm. He’s much more athletic here than he would be later on, naturally, and is by no means bad; compared to Connery at his best, however, he’s a lumbering, overbearing presence who imposes himself on women not because he’s irresistible, but because he uses his licence to kill like a droit de seigneur. Barbara Bach, sadly, is not much better – though the film takes every opportunity to enjoy her physique (including a gratuitous but funny shower scene on board a US submarine), she doesn’t convince as a top Soviet agent; the novelty of her accompanying Bond for the larger part of the film is lost because she’s a weak, almost vacuous presence. The film does its best to ramp up the tension between the two, Anya mentioning Bond’s murdered wife and vowing revenge on her lover’s killer, especially when it’s revealed to be her travelling companion; but between Moore’s lazy style and Bach’s lack of gusto, the relationship never finds the spark it needs to catch fire.
Nonetheless, The Spy Who Loved Me is undoubtedly the best 007 outing to feature Moore, even if it’s largely because the scale and drama of what’s going on distract the viewer from the nominal stars’ failings. I’ve only ever seen Daniel Craig’s Bond in the cinema, but if I were offered the chance to see any other film in the series on the big screen, this entry would make a strong case.
NOTES: Funny how the name Wetbike never took. Everyone went with jet ski, even though only one company actually make Jet Skis. It’s like all the other PA systems in the world who must still sulk about Tannoy’s success.