Posted in: by David C. Chute, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: The Spy Who Loved Me

[Originally published in Movietone News 55, September 1977]

We’d probably have to go back to the Fifties, when Hollywood first joined battle with television by offering lavish spectacles the small screen couldn’t match, to find out why commercial movies have recently become fixated on special effects and technology. The disaster films. along with Jaws and King Kong, helped set us up for Star Wars, in which the human actors are upstaged by robots. The Spy Who Loved Me, the latest James Bond film, is so overstuffed with mammoth sets and special effects, and so utterly lacking in human balance, that it falls right in with current trends. Like Star Wars, which has been called “subliminal propaganda for technology,” the new Bond makes you feel cool and powerful as you drive your car away from the theater; it may not be a space cruiser or a modified Lotus Esprit, but it will do. But do what, and how? James Bond’s present audience may have forgotten that the earlier films in the series, though already tending in this direction, also gave us a fleeting sense of our own power, not just of the power of machines. Boys watched Sean Connery as Bond, and the way he moved and talked and held himself, as if conscious of his own weight and strength, affected us almost subliminally, giving us a sense of what it meant to be a man. Connery has taken that side of the Bond films away with him—the “powerful masculine presence” (as Pauline Kael put it) which helped to humanize those well-oiled entertainment machines.

Roger Moore, who has now played Bond three times, is a lightweight in every sense: conventionally handsome, chunky and graceless, with a thin, priggish voice and a minimum of talent. The sheer physical scale of The Spy Who Loved Me is so huge, and Moore such a puny personality, that he just about disappears. And it doesn’t help that a collage-like plot is constantly reminding us of the earlier films and, hence, Connery. The Spy Who Loved Me shares only a name with Ian Fleming’s novel, and the “original” screenplay is mostly a collection of cribs from previous Bonds. A supertanker swallows nuclear submarines (shades of You Only Live Twice‘s spacejacking), a supervillain plans to launch missiles against American and Russian cities (cf. Thunderball and Diamonds Are Forever), the gadget-filled car takes us back to Goldfinger, the underwater scenes echo Thunderball again, an opening chase on skis recalls On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the beautiful Russian spyperson conjures up From Russia with Love, and on and on. This isn’t screenwriting, it’s a commercial recycling operation.

The almost ritual familiarity of everything, and its treatment as a glossy spectacle, eventually leaves us numb and unconcerned. Bad guy Stromberg (Curt Jurgens) wants to provoke a nuclear holocaust which will destroy the world’s corrupt civilization and pave the way for a rebirth of true culture in undersea cities. His classic nihilism (not really so different from some current revolutionary/terrorist doctrines) hardly seems crazy in the context of this corrupt film: at least he has a vision, which is a lot more than we can say for Bond. It may not be entirely a bad idea to make this the most lavishly expensive Bond to date; the beautiful stunts and action scenes in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service made that picture one of the series’ best in spite of a dismal cipher named George Lazenby. But part of the fun of the extravagance in previous episodes came from the throwaway recklessness, from the way the most elaborate sets and vehicles were introduced and then cleverly demolished at breakneck speed. The Spy Who Loved Me, in contrast, moves with solemn, plodding slowness, like a “distinguished” Hollywood behemoth; a brief quotation from Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia music barely raises a chuckle because it seems to belong here. There are a lot of long, static, beautifully photographed (by Claude Renoir) landscapes and luxurious interiors, which seem to be held on camera so that we will have time to realize how classy and expensive they are.

It’s not that the material is altogether hopeless. There are a few clever inventions that could have worked out beautifully: a pursuit and showdown sequence set during a sound-and-light show at the Sphinx, an enormous hired killer with metal teeth named “Jaws” who gets to bite a shark to death, etc. But Lewis Gilbert, who also directed You Only Live Twice, has no talent whatsoever for the action scenes which were—under stunt director Peter Hunt—one of the series’ crowning glories. Gilbert’s fights are clumsy and brutish, without a trace of elegance or fantasy. His movie has the substance, which was never central to our pleasure, without the style, which used to be wonderful. This one isn’t as boobish as the last two Bonds with Moore (that awful Southern sheriff is missing, for one thing) and it’s the first 007 adventure yet to look big and safe, like every other big picture we see. But who wants that? We want the clever stuff in the script to be handled with the crackerjack skill we’ve come to expect, and we want speed and grace and some good wisecracks. The commercial genius of the early Bonds was that they were lavish and expensive without being stuffy; they juggled and danced with their hardware, and Connery held things together. In The Spy Who Loved Me Bond becomes a laborious, respectable bore.

Direction: Lewis Gilbert. Screenplay: Christopher Wood and Richard Maibaum (only titularly based on the novel by Ian Fleming). Cinematography: Claude Renoir. Second-unit direction and cinematography: Ernie Day. Production design: Ken Adam. Editing: John Glen. Music: Marvin Hamlisch. Production: Albert R. Broccoli.
The players: Roger Moore, Barbara Bach, Curt Jurgens, Richard Kiel, Caroline Munro, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewelyn, Walter Gotell, Shane Rimmer, Sydney Tafler, George Baker, Bryan Marshall, Edward De Souza, Vernon Dobtcheff.

© 1977 David C. Chute

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.