Saturday, 1 October 2011

BlogalongaBond #10 - The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

(Here is a link to a revised version of my IMDb review of The Spy Who Loved Me, May 2003)

In 1977 cinema was dealing with significant shockwaves. The nature of the experience was being changed by the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas who were creating event matinees in Jaws, Star Wars and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Just as Live And Let Die had reacted to the high watermark of the American auteurs in 1973 by assimilating something of its urban verité, so The Spy Who Loved Me undertook to stand up in the same ring as these new blockbuster heavyweights. More than ever for a film of the franchise it needed to gleam with the chrome of modernity and novelty whilst maintaining the wrought iron of its return-guarantor template.

Consequently, The Spy Who Loved Me is a film that is an exemplar of the franchise, flush with all the familiar tropes. It's also the most conspicuously - even awkwardly - modern of the Bond films to date. Nowhere is this more in evidence than the source material. The film retains nothing from the novel but the title. Ian Fleming's The Spy Who Loved Me (1962) is actually a rather interesting, third party-perspective pulp novella set in an American motel in which 007 doesn't appear until over halfway. Wood and Maibaum's screenplay unfolds in a more conventional selection of European and North African countries and puts a smart, Cold War twist on the buddy movie. It is, despite my own misgivings of the film, a very interesting story. Christopher Wood knew and took advantage of his involvement, publishing a novel based on the film (above).

This peculiar instance of being able to judge a book by its cover is characteristic of the composition of the film, a discombobulating refraction of the franchise. For example, the music is a hugely exploded envelope of style. Hamlisch retains the familiar reworking of themes in his underscoring but using a wonderful palette of poppy, disco-inflected synthetics. Opposite this is the wholesale import of classical works by Bach, Mozart and Chopin as the soundtrack to the almost feudal surroundings of Stromberg's marine hideaway.

For me the most memorable musical sequence is that of the son et lumière at Giza, where the outwardly rather gaudy audio-visual presentation at the Pyramids becomes a highly effective, diegetic melodrama. The mixing of old and new in this sequence, where contemporary disco lighting and sounds breathe life back into the oldest location backdrop in any Bond film hitherto, is almost too obvious to appreciate. It's certainly easy to overlook the editorial skill of this sequence.

The character of Bond is certainly refashioned from first principles. Gone are the cigars of the previous two films (intended to distance Moore from Connery's cigarettes). The shaken vodka martini makes a return as well. Moreover, Bond's background has been dusted off. A cheeky, Lawrence of Arabia-scored sequence in the desert sees him exchange Arabic with an old Cambridge chum. The maritime theme of the latter half of the film plays heavily on his naval training. There's also a pointed reference to Bond's deceased wife.

The action set pieces are situations recycled from previous films, from the skiing to sleeper car fight and underwater confrontation (with the Lotus). Gilbert doesn't try to make these more exciting or dynamic than in the previous outings but instead introduces twists to each situation. The clearest example of this is the opening skiing sequence which is constructed not to be exciting per se but simply to enable its spectacular final stunt.

Above all, the idea of a dangerous counter-agent is not new but the novelty of Richard Kiel's height and alloy dentata is arguably one of the most significant novelties in the film. Much is made of the indestructibility of Jaws, not least in his final shot which - in another cheeky cinematic in-joke - apes the final shot of Spielberg's own Jaws. This mix of threat and humour, though new, is consonant with the evolving DNA of the franchise and made to work very well by Moore and Kiel.

With all the self-conscious effort to modernise and invent whilst retaining the core stock-in-trade there was bound to be some sort of oversight. The Spy Who Loved Me fails to adequately address the now-dated issue of its misogyny. Our first sight of Major Anya Amasova is a visual coup as Barbara Bach answers the call for Agent XXX in place of the beefcake with whom she is found sharing a bed. The short zoom to make the gag is the equivalent of a Roger Moore eyebrow. A woman as the top Russian agent? Well I'm blowed! chuckles the camera. For all the equality in the script, Bach plays Amasova all wrong (when she does try any acting at all). She's simply uninteresting. This is despite her coming from the same acting stable, the B-movie, as both Caroline Munro (Naomi) and Valerie Leon (the Sardinian hotel manager). These latter actresses play their roles within the expectations of the aesthetic at least. Clearly an attempt has been made to leave behind the casting from beauty pageant tradition but it seems not to have worked.

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