Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Movie Review: "The Spy Who Loved Me" by David Pretty

Back in 1977 your humble narrator was a budding seven-year-old cinephile. I couldn't have picked a better time to get started. I saw Star Wars in May of that year and just two short months later I saw my very first James Bond movie, The Spy Who Loved Me. Watching that film on the big screen was a totally seamless experience for me, just as real as a day at school to my unleavened brain but infinitely more interesting. There were submarines, ski chases, guns, beautiful Russian spies, hulking henchmen, foreign countries, comic-book super-villains, undersea hide-outs, amphibious sports cars and a batshit insane climax that made my imagination seem woefully obtuse in comparison. In other words, it was a greatest hits package of a prepubescent's wet dream put to celluloid.

Bringing this up warrants a quick discussion about nostalgia. Dear fans of Full House and Space Jam: just because these were the first moving images you ever saw as a kid, it doesn't necessarily mean that these things were good. And this was my fear in re-watching The Spy Who Loved Me recently. Would it hold up to scrutiny in the eyes of this crusty ol' film reviewer?

Well, I'm here to testify that, not only does the film hold up, it's one of the best James Bond movies of all time.   

In his third outing as the famous British super-spy, Roger Moore's 007 gets paired up with a gorgeous Soviet agent named Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach) and togehter they attempt to track down two missing nuclear submarines. Sustained through a series of exotic locales including Egypt and Sardinia, the duo have several nasty encounters with a gargantuan assassin with stainless steel chompers named Jaws (Richard Kiel). Eventually they're led to the underwater lair of crazed one-percenter Karl Stromberg who's keen to re-boot civilization in lieu of a moister and considerably less populous matrix.

The film kicks off with a tense and expertly-mounted sequence which recounts the disappearance of the British sub. Sharp-eyed movie fiends would do well to keep their eyes peeled since this scene features the Jeremy Bulloch, the future Boba Fett, who plays "HMS Ranger Crewman". Talk about inspiration for all you extras out there: in one movie you could be sitting at a table playing chess in a blue jump suit and the next thing you know you're the most notorious bounty hunter in the galaxy.

One thing I adore about the Roger Moore 007 movies is that they don't take themselves too seriously. Or at least they didn't by the time The Spy Who Loved Me rolled around. In Sir Roger's first two outings, Live and Let Die and The Man With The Golden Gun, the producers tried to turn him into a bad-ass Sean Connery clone which was a huge mistake. Moore just seems too genteel for those scenes in which Bond slaps women around for info.

Spy producer Albert R. Broccoli and writers Christopher Wood and Richard Maibaum picked up on this, customizing the part for Moore, who delivered a cooler, drier, slightly cheeky and veddy British version of the famed super spy. Part and parcel with this lighter tone is a very funny script. For example, when "M" hears about the missing sub he asks Moneypenny "Where's 007?" When she replies: "He's on a mission, sir. In Austria" he comes back with "Tell him to pull out. Immediately." We then get a hilarious smash-cut of Bond putting the blocks to some orgasmic ski bunny. Pure gold.

Which brings me to the following obvious point. I'm not one to brook in ageism and this certainly didn't occur to me when I was watching the film as a sprightly seven year old kid. After all, it wasn't unusual back then for people over the age of thirty to take on major starring roles; just look at the cast of Space: 1999 for instance. But Roger was fifty years old at the time, a fact made abundantly clear when you watch The Spy Who Loved Me in high-definition. Even though one could argue that he was a bit long in the tooth to play Bond, but, just like Pierce Brosnan a few years later, Moore was delayed taking the part because of binding television contracts. For that reason, and the fact that he's so perfect in the role, I willing to let this fact slide.

The action immediately launches into high gear with a terrific pre-credits grabber sequence which sees Bond slaloming down a treacherous mountain while avoiding a squad of machine-gun toting hit men. Notwithstanding the incongruous funk music and the completely obvious rear-screen projection shots, this is a very tense and authentic-looking action set piece. After putting several of his pursuers in the powder with a patented ski pole rifle, Bond voluntarily launches himself off the edge of Grossglockner Mountain. Poles fly, skis spin away and for a few tense seconds it looks as if Bond's committed air-born seppuku. But then his backpack opens up to reveal a parachute, but not just any parachute: it's a giant union jack flag. Cue screams of delight in the packed theater. 

We then get a memorable title sequence accompanied by Carly Simon warbling the ebola-catchy, Seventies-a-rriffic hit "Nobody Does It Better". I kinda dig this Bond theme song because it isn't brassy and cacophonous like a lot of the songs that came before it, it's just kinda melodic and chill with an oil-tanker-sized amount of sexual sub-text. Which pretty much sums up the entire decade. As well as this movie.

Speaking of sexual sub-texts, the opening credits likely represent the first time your humble author ever saw boobs up on the big screen. Heavily silhouetted, back-lit, partially-covered-with-credits boobs but boobs nonetheless. And, hey, I don't wanna hear anyone out there say "Sorry, seven year old Dave, but that was just wishful thinking", 'cuz if you do then I shall be forced to counter with "I say thee nay, good sir or madam! Watch this and tell me that you don't see a nipple for about .4 milliseconds of screen time at the 2:21 mark."

The bottom line is: if Linda Carter in Wonder Woman hadn't already established my budding heterosexuality two years earlier, then The Spy Who Loved Me completely sealed the deal for me. Thank God for the Seventies and Eighties, when the MPAA and society as a whole was a lot less militant about showing casual nudity in PG films. Man, how far we've not come in the slightest. 

Sorry, I digress.

Well, not quite. Not long after we meet Barbara Bach's Anya Amasova, a gorgeous Russian spy and Bond's rival/love interest throughout the film. It's kinda hard to convey this to modern audiences, but 1977 was a better-than-average year for women in film. Carrie Fisher's Leia Organa became a hero to millions of little girls who always wanted the princess to rescue herself and Anya was cunning and capable, besting Bond in many of their early meetings. No, Agent XXX (yeeesh!) isn't exactly Gloria Steinem in an ushanka but she's still light years ahead of many of the twinkie-esque Bond girls that proceeded her. Plus Bach gives a strong and nicely-understated performance, even if her Russian accent blinks in and out of existence from time to time.

We also get the requisite scene of Bond being dispatched from MI-6 before heading out on his latest mission. Continuity fans rejoice: the positively delightful Desmond Llewelyn is on hand as Q and he has some wonderful scenes with Moore and his superiors. Speaking of continuity, fans of the novels already know that Bond was formally a Commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, and we get to see 007 in uniform here. The well-starched Moore is perfect in this capacity, doing justice to both the title, the uniform and the epic-level Britishness required to pull this off.

Next up we're introduced to the villain of the piece in the form of accomplished German-Austrian actor Curd Jürgens as the megalomaniacal shipping magnate Karl Stromberg. Between his unblinking stare and powerful voice, Curd Jürgens is positively hypnotic to watch. Whenever he's on-screen I always find myself hanging on his every word. Over the course of several brief but economically-informational scenes, Stromberg ticks off all of the qualities required for a great a James Bond villain. If you don't believe me then watch the movie with the following check list nearby:
  • Exotic accent...check!
  • Blatant disregard for human life...check!
  • Bizarre physical deformity...check!
  • Obsession with some form of animal life...check! 
  • Unconventional fashion choices...check!
  • More money than Jay-Z and Beyonce put together...check!
  • Swingin' underwater lair...check!
  • Pet selachimorpha...check!  (slight demerit, though, for not bothering to install any frikkin' head-mounted laser beams)
  • Monstrous, virtually indestructible henchman...check!
  • Insane plan to wipe out most of the planet's population...check! 
As you can see, Stromberg pretty much bats a thousand in the crazed super-villain department. In his very first scene he thanks two patron scientists for developing a submarine tracking system and then vows to pay them ten million large apiece for their troubles. Then, just for shits and giggles, he makes them watch as he feeds a duplicitous assistant to his pet shark. As if that's not crazy enough, he then proceeds to auto-detonate the the scientist's helicopter and re-divert their payments back into his own account. And that's why rich people will always be rich. It's like that old saying: "a penny saved by murdering your employees in cold blood is a penny earned."  

As a side note, Stromberg's amphibious hideout Atlantis is some pretty sweet digs. When it's deployed to "air dry" mode it looks particularly bad-ass, like the kinda place where Aquaman villain Black Manta might hang out. Between this secret base, the Soviet and British subs, and Stromberg's ship-eating super-tanker the Liparus, the model work by Derek Meddings is still some of the most convincing miniature effects ever committed to film before or since.  

Adding to the film's considerable visual appeal are all the exotic locales. The Sphinx, the Pyramids plus all the assorted temples and statuary all add up to an amazing visual panoply. Veteran Bond movie director Lewis Gilbert and renowned cinematographer Claude Renoir (grandson of the famous impressionist artist) do a bang-up job replicating the son et lumière show near the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. This stunningly- beautiful qualities of this scene are in stark contrast to the vampire-like murder of Aziz Fekkesh played by Nadim Sawalha. 

Which brings me to Stromberg's unstoppable hit-man Jaws, played to hulking, mute perfection by Richard Kiel. By all accounts, Kiel was a real sweetheart off-screen but when first laid eye on him as a seven year old kid he instantly joined the ranks of Darth Vader from Star Wars and Bigfoot from The Six Million Dollar Man as the most terrifying fictional characters of the Seventies. I didn't know if I should hide under my theater seat or chuckle at his constant misfortunes, and that was part of the magic. One minute Jaws is chomping through chains and necks or trying to murder Bond and Anya on a moving train and the next minute he's engaged in comical wrasslin' match with a telephone van and dropping giant bricks on his size 17 EEE canoes.

As luck would have it, MI-6 just so happens to have a branch office conveniently located in some Egyptian ruins, which is great since it gives the screenwriters an excuse to bring Q back for a few more scenes. The subsequent gadget test montage is one of the goofier ones in the entire Bond franchise but it's also incredibly funny. I'm pretty sure this is where Eddie Izzard got the whole Death Star canteen / "death by tray" thing from. But best of all, this whole sequence gives Q an opportunity to roll out the best James Bond car ever: the Motherfucking Lotus Esprit.

Sorry, folks, but you can cube your precious Aston Martin for all I care. I promise you right now: if I ever, ever become Stromberg-level stupid rich the first thing I'm gonna do is requisition a 1976 white Lotus Esprit with special amphibious option. During an extended motorcycle /car / helicopter (!) chase, Bond uses the vehicle's incredible agility and rear-mounted cement cannons to throw off his pursuers. But when the chopper, piloted by the fetching Caroline Munro as Naomi, proves to be more than a worthy adversary, Bond is forced to take a long drive off of a short pier. What happened next completely shattered my fragile eggshell mind.

Right before my unbelieving eyes the fucking thing turned into a fully functional sub! Needless to say I was completely blown away. Especially when, moments later, 007 destroyed Naomi's helicopter with a mini ballistic missile launched from the Lotus. Pretty cool, even if it was a dreadful waste of hottie.

Over the next ten minutes or so of screen time the car continued to amaze, giving James and Anya an opportunity to snoop around Stromberg's submerged Atlantis and even fend off an attack from his henchmen. Bonus points: when Bond finally rolls up onto a nearby beach, we get our first appearance of the recurring "drunk guy who thinks he's hallucinating" character, played by the film's assistant director, Victor Tourjansky. He reprised this role two more times: once in Moonraker (1979) and also in For Your Eyes Only (1981).

Eventually the film throws all of its fucks out the window and races towards not one but two insane climaxes. First Bond breaks free and leads a revolt of the prisoners aboard Stomberg's super-tanker, the Liparus. Between M's tweed n' hickory office, Gogol's spartan KGB headquarters, Stomberg's shag-carpet think tank and his super-swanky dining hall, all of Ken Adam's set designs are absolutely gorgeous. But, arguably, the best set in the entire Bond series is the tanker's interior sub pen. It was so expansive, reflective and huge that cinematographer Claude Renoir couldn't see to the end of it so Adam called in renowned recluse Stanley Kubrick to advise the lighting team. So, not only does this set look massively huge, it also looks positively gorgeous.

The battle aboard the Liparus is an orgy of blood squibs and explosions with more grenades casually hurled than during the entire invasion of Normandy. In a lesser film, that would be the end of it, but since Stromberg is pretty damned brilliant, Bond is forced to deal with the villain's many safeguards. When the baddies seal  themselves up in the command center behind a massive blast door, Bond is forced to overcome a tense time challenge by using his brains. To the screenwriter's credit, both the solve and the delivery becomes an almost unbearable wellspring of suspense. 

Eventually things come down to a mano-a-mano confrontation between Bond and Stromberg. Unlike so many tiresome modern action movies, there's no prolonged dust up or chase scene, the two enemies just try to murder one another in the quickest, most economic manner possible. Their battle is over so quickly that it's downright refreshing. This still leaves enough time for a final showdown with Jaws, the rescue of Anya and a Poseidon Adventure-style escape that's still pretty damned thrilling. The whole thing is capped off with a tongue-in-cheek retrieval operation that's well in step with the film's lighthearted take on the then-new concept of detente.

Where some Bond snobs like to crap the Roger Moore era for being too jokey and not gritty enough, but I'd counter this by saying that Bond has just enough dimension which leaves him open to interpretation. In the form of Sean Connery, Timothy Dalton and now Daniel Craig we've had three pretty pretty sober takes on the character so I really appreciate Roger's films for their contrasting, light-hearted tone, unabashed Austin Powers-style elements and pure spectacle.

Tilt: up.

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