“The Spy Who Loved Me” (1977) is among the most outlandish James Bond movies, not exactly a staple of cinema realism to begin with. None of its characters can be described as three-dimensional, nor their relationships particularly meaningful. It also happens to be a rather dated Bond entry, with the 1970s hairdos, fads and the Marvin Hamlisch soundtrack that’s more than a bit on the side of disco. The film stars Roger Moore who’s hardly anyone’s idea of a ruthless assassin and it was directed by Lewis Gilbert, the infamous “Friends” (1971) director whose two other 007 entries are among the series’ bottom-dwellers (“You Only Live Twice” and “Moonraker”) and yet, the end result is unquestionably one of the Bond series’ brightest spots, and includes a good deal of its finest moments.
The film deals with Carl Stromberg (Curd Jurgens), the ocean-infatuated villain and his attempts to replace the “decadent civilization” of the time with underwater cities by hijacking American and Russian submarines, and attempting to use their warheads to start a nuclear Armageddon. This forces the British Secret Service and the KGB to compromise and put the Cold War on hiatus, an arrangement that “unwillingly” places 007 alongside the remarkably capable but not too expressive Agent XXX, also known as Major Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach), whose boyfriend was killed by Bond in the pre-credit scene. This means 007 will have to spend a good deal of the time rescuing the one person in the movie who most wants to get rid of him (though hardly the only), a terrific subtext to the main plot and about as complex a human relationship as we ever got in the dozen years of the Moore Bonds.
What “The Spy Who Loved Me” lacks when it comes to establishing the atmosphere of danger present in some the best Bond movies (“From Russia with Love”, “Skyfall”) it makes up in spades in the creation of one apparently-impossible situation for the protagonist after the other, the kind that other entries would have been lucky to include a single example. The Moore Bonds often went overboard when aiming to thrill their audience, and for every memorable sequence like the crocodile escape from “Live and Let Die,” we had our share of head-shaking cases like the Tarzan vine-swinging chase in “Octopussy” and the “California Girls” snow surfboard one in “A View to a Kill”. "TSWL" took as many chances as any Bond film in memory and still has one of the series’ highest batting averages, so to speak. It includes one of the all-time great car chases, starting on dry ground and ending with 007’s Lotus Esprit submerged in the water, the only other Bond vehicle that gives the Aston Martin DB5 a run for its money. This scene perfectly illustrates its knack for progressively escalating the fun in the action scenes and pushing them further just when one would expect them to be winding down, facing Bond against a motorcycle with a rocket passenger annex a car with a shooting giant and a helicopter piloted by the very bombshell who just managed to infuriate Amasova by flirting blatantly with her undercover “husband” (Bond) a few minutes before.
There are surely a few “futuristic” contraptions in "TSWL" that seemed amazing when it first opened but are now laughably dated. Think of the water-bike used by Bond to rescue XXX and the Casio watch (from pre-texting times) that receives M’s messages via “Dymo tape” (readers who actually know what we are talking about here might not be too young anymore). Still, many of the picture’s sequences are among the best in the series, including what’s surely the most exciting ski chase ever filmed, in which Bond slides backwards, forwards, does back-flips and caps it all with a stunt for the ages where the possibility of death can be felt all over, escaping from his enemies by jumping from the side of a mountain in one of those rare occasions of my movie going life where I can recall a whole theater bursting into spontaneous applause. This has become one of 007’s signature moments (alongside perhaps the discovery of the golden girl in “Goldfinger") and the song that follows has turned into his personal, unofficial anthem (“Nobody does it better...”). It has also derived into endless variations (many in other Bond films), to the point where watching any cinematic escape that’s capped by a opening parachute or any item displaying the Union Jack isn’t all that interesting anymore.
Ernst Stavro Blofeld was originally scheduled to be the villain here again but legal problems forced the producers to instead introduce a character named Karl Stromberg. He’s basically a cat-less Blofeld replica with hair and deformed Donald Duck type hands (believe it or not), a trademark similar to Dr. No’s that in some silly way is supposed to help explain his affinity to water, something that went unnoticed to must audiences anyway as it served no real purpose within the plot. Jurgens’ Stromberg seldom appears in any list of the best Bond villains but his scheme is intriguing enough and the standard Bond sequence where opposite teams of distinctly dressed soldiers fight each other is perhaps one of the few examples in the series that managed to be exciting, thanks to the incredible tanker sets and some very suspenseful situations, as when two nuclear warheads come close to colliding in mid-air. Whatever Stromberg’s place in the Bond villain canon, any evil-doer who’s introduced while emerging from the ocean depths in a Ken Adam-designed lair, and whose first on-screen act is throwing his assistant into the tank of a hungry shark, can’t be all that bad.
The Moore Bonds always focused more on their plot’s proceedings than on any kind of character development. They were filled with juvenile humor, which was fine when the jokes actually worked as they do in here when 007 smilingly nods to the gorgeous helicopter pilot while she’s trying to blow him away or when he’s seen activating his car’s blinkers, underwater! During his tenure as Bond, Moore sometimes went into auto-pilot and let his performance be dictated solely by the movement of his eyebrows, but, curiously enough, when he was pressed to show a rougher side here (as when he rewards a henchman’s confession by releasing him from the roof of a building), he came out remarkably well.
“Moonraker” came up next and it was basically a carbon copy of “The Spy Who Loved Me”, trading the ocean for outer space, and proving that such preposterous material can only work so many times. Take for instance the subplot involving the giant henchman Jaws (Richard Kiel), whose presence was increasingly hilarious in "TSWL" when the gags related to his invulnerability kept escalating, until the point arrived in the following movie where we came to realize he could never be hurt no matter how many times Bond (unwisely) punched him in the mouth The filmmakers would have done him a favor by cutting him lose when he was on the brink of ridicule (perhaps letting him fall to his death in the pre-credit scene of “Moonraker”), and this would have allowed for him to be remembered much more fondly in the future. The same insistence of going mindlessly for broke prevails throughout the latter film and it proves that line between excellence and embarrassment in a Bond film can be rather thin.
Another way to understand what best defines the Roger Moore era is “The Man with the Golden Gun,” a mostly enjoyable entry that greatly resembles “Skyfall” to the point that the Craig film almost feels like a remake. Both deal with assassins living in mysterious islands off Macau, and the women who try to free themselves from them by seducing 007 and getting him to do their dirty work. The first example is a middle-of-the-list travelogue of exotic locations that’s not really very suspenseful while the second became a full-blooded entry in the spirit of the early Connerys, and to which future Bonds will forever be measured. Most of the early scripts in the series were more than adequately written, but behind the delay in this achievement are the forty plus years it took the producers to realize the savvy of investing a significant portion of their budget into hiring a first rate writer like a Paul Haggis or a John Logan, but “The Spy Who Loved Me” is one of the rare cases where this didn’t matter all that much, giving Moore one of the top five James Bond movies and a good deal of validation for his often maligned era of the series.