It took two tries, but by the time The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) came around, the Bond series had finally adjusted itself, for better or for worse, to Roger Moore. Much of Live and Let Die (1973), his first go–round, succeeds outside of Moore, and the gruff The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), swing number two, worked against Moore’s playful appeal. The Spy Who Loved Me is full of camp, cartoonish visual flourishes and shallow humor. It’s a terrific vehicle for Moore, who is charming and funny (and must spend at least as much time fighting as he does bedding pretty women), but as a vehicle for anything else, I could have gotten off it about a half–hour before I was allowed to.
Nuclear submarines, both British and Russian, are disappearing, igniting a global crisis. When the missiles are acquired by a megalomaniac, the Cold War thaws considerably and Anglo-Russo relations reach a temporary détente so that Her Majesty’s finest agent, James Bond (Moore), and Mother Russia’s best comrade, Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach), can work together to find the missiles and stop the madman. The villain, a water-obsessed classical music enthusiast with webbed hands named Stromberg (Curd Jürgens), is bent on nuking the world’s cities so the human race will be forced to endure under the sea in facilities of his design.
Bond’s hunt to save the Earth takes him from the Austrian Alps, the pyramids of Giza, Sardinia, underwater and, of course, into any number of bedrooms, hotel chambers, and lady’s train compartments. He’ll be pitted against new enemies, most notably the metal-mouthed Jaws (Richard Kiel), and fitted with new gadgets, most notably a car that doubles as a submarine, both of which exemplify the goofy extravagance in which The Spy Who Loved Me trades. Jaws is a curious invention, a mute behemoth who bites through cables, bars, his targets and anything else that gets in his way. How did he end up with Stromberg? Does he share his penchant for the sea? How did he interview for the position?
The sub-car is one of many ludicrous gadgets the movie throws at us (there’s also a magnetized tea tray that has the power to decapitate, a spring-loaded pedestal that tosses its occupant stories into the air and the cutest little cigarette case/microfilm reader you ever did see), all of which have their tongues in their cheek. That’s mainly the appeal of The Spy Who Loved Me, which seems to have all the fun with its goofiness. Lord knows, Moore seems to be having a good time, but that may be because his tongue is so frequently in someone else’s cheek.
The problem with the movie is that when it has to pay off its plot during the action scenes, it treats them as a nuisance, boring homework to be done quickly so it can go back to being cheeky. Lewis Gilbert, who directed Spy and the similarly technically sloppy Bond picture You Only Live Twice (1967), simply doesn’t like taking the time to construct compelling set-pieces, preferring quick and unintelligible shots of fast-moving action to establishing an architectural plan and staying with the action long enough for the audience to connect with it. The big scenes here are either lazy (I’m thinking of the opening ski chase that creates a few nice visuals but is mostly done through rear projection) or frenetically disengaging (a siege on a battleship that seems to drag because it’s so equivocal). He’s effective in little moments of suspense (I liked a bit when Bond’s mode of transportation away from a ticking time bomb gets stalled), but during most of the action, he seems to slog through it like an obstinate teenager.
The Spy Who Loved Me rises above the level of You Only Live Twice, because with Moore at the center, the whole movie takes on a lighter identity, one that Gilbert fits more naturally into. This is a Bond movie that relishes the excesses and ill logic of the series’ more dippy side. One that is more than happy to take the sainted theme music (though it’s brutally disco-ized here), have it swell at the appropriate time during a dramatic raid, then ignobly and immediately cut it off to make a gag. This is one that has a soulful contemplative ballad as its opening theme song, then reprises it reworked as a West End musical number. Perhaps most of all, this is one with more ribald double entendres and smarmy pre- and post-death quips than the rest of the series up to this point. Some of this is over the top and worthy of eye-rolls (“How does that grab you?” says Bond to dangling Jaws who’s been suspended to a ludicrously large magnet), but much made me a little nostalgic for a James Bond who took time out of his killing schedule to crack wise. For example, can you imagine the super-serious Bond of Daniel Craig, when asked what he’s doing, while he’s clearly in the act of making love, replying, “Keeping the British end up, sir.“?
It’s in these moment that The Spy Who Loved Me comes alive. The best sequence is a standoff by the pyramids during a light show in which Gilbert can play with the lighting and add to the mood of violence taking place in the sand while a history of the pyramids is dramatically read over a faraway sound system. Unfortunately, for every inspired sequence like this, there are three between them that are stodgy and boring. Moore’s charm goes quite a ways but not quite far enough (it’s telling that the most compelling character after 007 is a mute with metal teeth). Stromberg is an underwhelming villain, and while Bach looks the part, the part in question is pretty poor. She’s mainly there to point at danger and say, “Look!” and there’s a subplot involving her past that is uninteresting and pointless. Even at its best The Spy Who Loved Me never approaches greatness, but when it’s good it’s pretty fun, like a day when cake appears in the office break room. Yes, there’s cake, but those spreadsheets still need to get filled out.