These days, it’s difficult to imagine the James Bond franchise being on the rocks. But before 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, that’s exactly where it was.
Now regarded as almost inevitably profitable, by the mid-’70s the series was staring irrelevance in the face. The Man With the Golden Gun from 1974 was skewered by critics for being too comedic, relying too heavily on gimmicky Hong Kong-style martial arts in an attempt to play off of Bruce Lee’s success and featuring a flat performance by Roger Moore. Audiences seemed to agree with this assessment, and Golden Gun performed poorly at the box office (earning $70 million less than its predecessor You Only Live Twice); the fact that it had been vastly out-earned by more serious fare like The Godfather Part II seemed to indicate that maybe post-Vietnam War audiences might be moving away from escapist entertainment.
On top of this, the franchise was embroiled in above-the-line difficulties. Harry Saltzman, who, along with Albert R. Broccoli had produced all the previous Bond films (Thunderball is credited to Kevin McClory, but he produced it in tandem with Saltzman and Broccoli) had been forced to sell half his stake in the series, leaving Broccoli on his own. And because of legal battles over the rights to Ian Fleming’s original books, there was no way to base a new film on one of them. In addition, Guy Hamilton, who had made several earlier Bond films, including 1964’s classic Goldfinger, turned down the chance to direct a new Bond to work on Superman instead. (In classic Hollywood style, Superman would end up being taken away from Hamilton and given to director Richard Donner.)
Broccoli knew that without a hit, the franchise might have reached the end of the line. So he commissioned screenwriting work from writers ranging from John Landis, famous for comedies like Animal House and Trading Places, to Anthony Burgess, the British writer and composer who had written the novel A Clockwork Orange, before ending up with a final draft credited Christopher Wood and Richard Maibaum. For a director, he turned to Lewis Gilbert, whose Alfie won numerous awards in 1966. He had also directed 1967’s You Only Live Twice.
But the most momentous decisions Broccoli made were in the realm of size and tone. When all else fails, he reasoned, go bigger. And when you have a gorgeous debonair British agent at the center of your franchise, don’t try to turn him into a wisecracking doofus, as The Man With the Golden Gun had threatened to do. Instead, play up what he is: a gorgeous debonair British agent.
The result is The Spy Who Loved Me, which eschews nearly every decision that would require lowering the budget, introduces one of the most famous Bond bad guys (the metal-mouthed giant named Jaws) and features a performance from Moore as a retooled Bond who is sardonic, unflappable and even manages to make his brown, circa-1977 suits look respectable. While the movie is curiously flat in a number of sections, it proved a rousing financial success, and scored Oscar and British Film Academy nominations for its production design, original score and song, “Nobody Does It Better” sung by Carly Simon.
The movie opens with one of the franchise’s greatest sequences, in which Bond skis away from some bad guys and then flies off a cliff thousands of feet high, only to open a parachute emblazoned with the Union Jack and float peacefully to safety.
From there, the familiar Bond mechanics are rolled out. The mysterious evil mastermind this time is shipping magnate Karl Stromberg (Kurd Jurgens), who loves the ocean so much that he dreams of starting a nuclear war that will decimate Earth and drive humanity into living underwater. To do this, he captures two nuclear submarines, one American and one Soviet, setting them up to launch missiles on the opposing country. He feeds his enemies to sharks by means of a trap door in the elevator of his oceanic hideout and is defended by Jaws (Richard Kiel, who was 7’2″ and taught math at a night school in Burbank before breaking into the film industry), who’s virtually indestructible and such a bad ass that when he gets dumped into the shark tank he kills the shark.
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To save the world, Bond must team with a Soviet agent named Anya Amasova, known as “Agent Triple X” (Barbara Bach). They travel to Egypt and Sardinia, drive a Lotus Esprit that helpfully turns into a submarine and invade Stromberg’s massive ocean tanker, inside of which he keeps his stolen submarines. Although Amasova vows to kill Bond once their quest is over, because 007 caused the death of her lover in the initial snow-escape sequence, in the end she becomes, as the movie’s title proclaims, the spy who loves him.
Throughout, the movie displays Broccoli’s bigger-is better approach. The opening ski stunt cost half a million dollars and was, at the time, the most expensive ever filmed. For the submarine berth inside Stromberg’s ocean tanker, set designer Ken Adam built a new soundstage at Pinewood Studios in England for $1.8 million. The scenes in Egypt were filmed on location at various historical sites; the production also traveled to Sardinia, Scotland, Malta, the Bahamas, Okinawa and Canada.
Even by ’70s standards, the sequences produced by all this are no more than middling. There’s no chase that generates the excitement of the motorboat escapade in From Russia With Love, no scene matching the suspense created by the final duel between Moore and Christopher Lee in The Man With the Golden Gun, no ticking clock to compare with the handcuffed-to-the-nuclear bomb ending of Goldfinger.
But that’s good enough. The Spy Who Loved Me managed to reignite fascination with the suave British super-spy, launching the franchise toward a productive decade that would see the release of seven installments. From the brink of irrelevance, Bond was suddenly taking the world by storm again.