As the opening credits roll on 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, Carly Simon croons that “nobody does it better.” That might be a pretty tall order for the film to accomplish, especially since viewers might still have needed convincing that Sean Connery hadn’t done it better for nearly a decade before. However, this might be the most perfectly balanced of Roger Moore’s Bond ventures. lt may lack the grit of For Your Eyes Only but it also lacks the absurdity of later Moore fare such as Moonraker. Don’t get me wrong. There’s a sense of self-parody present here, but it still wants to harken back to the more serious films of the past, while leaning into Moore’s more humor-based approach.
If there’s one facet of the James Bond films that perpetually surprises me, it’s the frequency that a spy is required to ski away from danger and also encounter various man-eating sharks. The Spy Who Loved Me is neither the first nor the last to feature these plot points, but it manages to feature them both, which is an impressive feat. This particular ski chase is the most impressive of the bunch, with a climax that transitions from skis to parachute without missing a beat.
It’s goofy, but it’s also audacious, and sets the stage for the lighter adventure awaiting. This is James Bond: The Comic Book with all the excitement and ridiculousness that that implies.
The plot is something straight out of DC or Marvel, with typically megalomaniacal villain Karl Stromberg (Curd Jürgens), who hopes to start World War III, destroy the world, and establish a new civilization underwater.
It’s a plan that seems stolen from the Lex Luthor playbook, but it fits with the film’s flamboyant feel. I don’t entirely understand the “why” of his plan, but like any comic book villain, the minutiae doesn’t much matter. Of course James Bond (Moore) is called to investigate, dispatching with anonymous adversaries and practicing some verbal flirting before finally facing the film’s primary threat. Of course, a Bond villain is only as good as his best henchman, and this is where The Spy Who Loved Me truly hits the stratosphere. Jaws (Richard Kiel), a 7’2’’ behemoth with a mouth full of metal, functions as an indestructible, immovable force with an almost Rasputin-like ability to evade death.
Over the course of the film, he manages to survive buildings collapsing on top of him, attempted drownings, and perpetually ravenous sharks with little more than a mildly inconvenienced grimace. Jaws feels so instantly iconic that it comes as no surprise he’s brought back in another film. The fact that he’s given a girlfriend and a redemptive arc is more surprising, but how could you resist the temptation of putting a character this impressively imposing back to the big screen?
Bond finds himself assisted by Anya Amasova (Barbara Back aka Mrs. Ringo Starr), a KGB operative, who manages one of the more interesting Bond-Bond girl dynamics. Bach manages to make a strong impression as Amasova.
She’s beautiful, of course, but she manages to make both the character’s steely resolve and eventual thawing to Bond’s charm actually believable.
During the film’s pre-credits ski sequence, Bond manages to kill one of the pursuing henchman, who happens to by Anya’s lover. She joins forces with Bond, because she recognizes the need to put the big picture above a personal vendetta, but she vows to take her revenge once the mission is complete. They spend the majority of the film in a kind of perpetual one-upmanship, employing different approaches to accomplish the same mission. Her allusion to Bond’s ill-fated marriage provides one the few chinks in Bond’s emotionally composed armor.
Actually, the closest Moore’s Bond comes to having a reaction exclusively happens when he verbally spars with Amasova. Bach and Moore manage to work well together, with an appealing chemistry present between them, playing to the hilt the dynamic of rivals with an inherent, mutual distrust who must nonetheless work together.
Then of course, you have Roger Moore as the calm center of a ludicrous storm. Moore plays Bond as perpetually unflappable, laid back to the point of horizontal.
His quips feel less gallows humor than Connery’s due to Moore’s foppish, almost dandyish approach to the character. During his tenure, his ability to remain unruffled could be a liability. After all, how can you take seriously a threat that doesn’t seem to concern your main character? Here, though, his approach feels endearing and appealing. He sheds Connery’s brute charm for suave sophistication, and it serves the film’s less serious approach well. This is his third time downing 007’s shaken-not-stirred martini, but this is the first time that a film seems built to play to his natural strengths. His in flagrante delicto ending features one of his funniest double entendres.
Director Lewis Gilbert, best known for 1966’s Alfie, which features one of the few protagonists that could rival James Bond in the lothario department, also has 1967’s James Bond adventure, You Only Live Twice on his resume. He makes an appropriately flashy film, with impressive action set pieces and some truly entertaining stunts and explosions. He’d return to the world of James Bond with 1979’s Moonraker, which took the James Bond formula, threw it in a blender with some nearby Warner Brother’s cartoons, and then launched the resulting concoction into space. I have a bit of a soft spot for You Only Live Twice, but The Spy Who Loved Me is clearly his best Bond feature. He also takes full advantage of the film’s globetrotting. From Egypt to Malta to to Okinawa to Switzerland, the film loves showing off its various exotic locales.
The Spy Who Loved Me is the tenth film in the Bond franchise, so by now the formula was well-established. Suspiciously desirable women, power-hungry, talkative villains, visually distinctive, taciturn henchmen, and well-choreographed stunt and fight sequences—you can set your watch to a James Bond film. What distinguishes a strong entry in the franchise from a tedious entry comes down to how much the film bucks against the template or how much fun and spectacle it manages to stuff within its confines. The Spy Who Loved Me doesn’t break the mold with the strength of its inventiveness, but its playful approach to the material makes the film incredibly rewatchable. It has indirectly inspired both an Austin Powers parody (The Spy Who Shagged Me) and the more recent action comedy, 2018’s The Spy Who Dumped Me, meaning the title has more pop culture ubiquity than I would have thought possible.
There are better Bond films, but this one manages to distill down Moore’s approach to its best elements and gives him a film in which his persona fits. The film is too long, with really no reason to break the 2-hour mark, and it probably isn’t enough to eclipse Connery’s ever-looming shadow, but putting this film in your top ten Bond films would be an easy decision to justify.