21 June 2019

"But just keep it comin'": The Spy Who Loved Me

Some of the Roger Moore James Bond films are just ridiculous, and go for it utterly: Moonraker or Live and Let Die. I don't think either of those are good films, but at least you can see what they're trying to do. Others try to balance the serious with the ridiculous. Sometimes this actually works: For Your Eyes Only goes straight from brutal assassination to comedy car chase, and it's Roger Moore's best film, and one of the top-tier Bond films overall. But often it does not; I think A View to a Kill and The Spy Who Loved Me were trying to do the same thing, and it just doesn't take off. We get the occasional intense scene-- tons of sailors being machine-gunned down in the climax-- but then the movie will turn goofy. Sometimes in a fun way-- Bond's Union Jack parachute is amazing-- but too often you just roll your eyes-- the bad guys try to take Bond down with a motorcycle where the whole sidecar is a missile.

The more Roger Moore films I watch, the more I'm convinced he's just not a very good James Bond. Especially as someone coming to Bond (now at least, if not initially) via books, Bond is best when he's charming, sexy, and dangerous. There should be this contained sense of jeopardy beneath his flirtations. Sean Connery and Daniel Craig both do a great job at this, and you believe women would want to be with their Bonds. (Other Bond actors are still forthcoming in our Bond journey; George Lazenby's sole outing is actually next.) Roger Moore just comes across as this boor that has to make a sexual comment at every woman he sees. Like, c'mon dude, why do you got to make a comment about the breasts of the hotel employee who comes to your room to give you a note? I can't imagine the book Bond doing that, and Moore just comes across as sleazy in those scenes.

C'mon, Bond, show some class.

What's striking given Bond's reputation for charm is that Bond has four sexual/romantic partners in this film-- and all four are faking it and/or doing it under duress! At the film's opening, Bond is sleeping with a woman in a mountain cabin, but then it turn out that she's working with the KGB to kill him. Then when he visits an Arab sheikh / college chum for information in Egypt, the guy gives Bond one of his women to sleep with. Then Bond goes to see another guy for information, but finds a woman who is part of a trap set for him; she kisses him to distract him (and gets killed anyway). And then he puts the moves on the KGB agent he's competing with, and I rolled my eyes because how quickly she went for it wasn't convincing at all... but it turns out she was tricking him! Bond is much more convinced of his charms than I am. Later, of course, he seduces her for real, but it doesn't really make him seem sexy when four out of five encounters are not actually about him, and in fact, does just the opposite. This guy can only get women to sleep with him under duress; how un-sexy must he be!

Speaking of that KGB agent, she was one of the best and worst parts of the movie. The film opens with both a Soviet and British nuclear submarine disappearing; both powers send their best agent to figure it out. Agent XXX (eye roll), Major Anya Amasova, is introduced in a nice fake-out scene: there's a man and a woman sleeping together, and the guy kind of looks James Bond-y so you figure he's the Soviet agent, but it turns out he's a lover she's leaving behind for a mission! I knew about Agent XXX going in, so I wasn't fooled, but my wife was. The problem with her is that she alternates between hyper-competence and hyper-incompetence. I really liked it when she lets Bond think he seduced her, then knocks him out, steals his stuff, and runs off, and she occasionally demonstrates that she has more knowledge about things, including cars (though first we have to suffer through a lot of women driver cracks from Bond, of course), plus she can usually hold her own in a fight. But at other times, especially once she's not competing with Bond, but working with him, she just sits there, going "Oh, James!" whenever danger is approaching. What happened to the KBG's best agent?

I was about to criticize her for impractical desert spywear, but I suppose a tuxedo doesn't make much more sense.

The film was lifted by its villain. Though Moonraker is essentially this movie right over again (millionaire villain wants to depopulate Earth and start over, just with a space colony instead of an underwater one), I really liked Curt Jurgens's performance as Karl Stromberg, which was slightly off in the way that a good Bond villain should be. I loved the scene where he plays classical music while his treacherous assistant is eaten by sharks. His performance is aided by the special effects, in that the grandeur of his scheme is very apparent because it all looks grand. His underwater base is amazingly, improbably huge, and the supertanker that can swallow submarines also looks fantastic. In fact the whole movie has an above-average visual sense. I particularly liked the way the Egyptian landmarks were used; both the Sphinx/pyramids and desert temple locations look great, and make for great fights.

I love when Bond uses one of the turn signals underwater.

And there are times the ridiculousness works. Like a lot of Roger Moore movies, there's a goofy form of transportation. The chase with his new car starts kind of boring, but becomes amazing when the car he's in reveals it can transform into an underwater submersible! Sublime. On the whole, this was a promising movie that went in unpromising directions, a weaker Bond film of the middle tier, I would say.

Other Notes:
  • This is the third Roger Moore film where there is skiing: A View to a Kill and For Your Eyes Only both had it. (And wasn't there water-skiing in Live and Let Die?) Plus, if On Her Majesty's Secret Service (which I've read but not yet watched) is at all faithful to the novel, there will be skiing in that too. Was skiing just really popular in the 1970s and '80s?
  • When Bond's car drives out of the water onto the beach, I commented that like the other Bond films where he drives something goofy (e.g., the hover-gondola in Moonraker), there's always a guy who does a double-take. But then when I read Wikipedia, I learned that it's actually the same guy in all three movies!
  • The Spy Who Loved Me basically owes nothing to the book, which is a first-person narrative by a young woman who gets in criminal trouble that a passing Bond rescues her from; he's only in about a third of it. The one exception is that in the book there's a criminal named Sol "Horror" Horowitz, who has steel-capped teeth, who is seemingly the inspiration for Jaws. Horowitz's are just normal teeth, though; he can't chew through metal! It's weird watching Spy Who Loved Me after Moonraker, because Jaws here is a menacing, almost vampiric figure, a cold-blooded killer... then in Moonraker we're meant to cheer as he gets a happily ever after send-off!
  • A few thoughts on (re)casting:
    • Robert Brown appears as Vice Admiral Hargreaves; he would play M from Octopussy through License to Kill, and some figure that his M is Hargreaves.
    • Desmond Llewellyn's Q is called "Major Boothroyd" here, the only time this happens. (The only other time his name was used is Dr. No, when he was played by Peter Burton.)
    • Having already seen A View to a Kill, I kind of wonder if Pola Ivanova, the KGB agent that Bond has a preexisting romantic relationship with, was originally meant to be Anya, instead of a new character.
  • In the book, the "spy who loved me" is James Bond... but here I feel like it actually refers to Anya.
  • Why do Bond villains always have a thing for sharks? So far: this movie, Live and Let Die, Thunderball, and For Your Eyes Only have all featured shark battles.

Film Rankings (So Far):
  1. Casino Royale
  2. Dr. No
  3. From Russia with Love
  4. For Your Eyes Only 
  5. Thunderball
  6. Goldfinger
  7. The Spy Who Loved Me
  8. Moonraker
  9. Never Say Never Again
  10. A View to a Kill
  11. Live and Let Die 
  12. Diamonds Are Forever

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