Film Nerd 2.0 and James Bond Declassified collide for 'The Spy Who Loved Me'
A quick note before we get started.
This one's going to be a little different for the simple reason that two of my semi-regular columns are going to collide in this one article, something that I don't think has ever happened before. It just so happens that this year, I'm counting down to the release of "Skyfall" on November 9th with a look back at the James Bond movies, and as a result, I found myself talking about the films with my sons, who are of course the subject of Film Nerd 2.0, my ongoing series about the way we share media with our kids.
I was seven years old when I saw my first Bond film. It was in the theater, and it was one of the first times I remember my father taking me to see a movie by himself. By that point, I was aware of the character thanks to his omnipresence on the ABC Sunday Night Movie as well as the books that my dad always had around the house. I knew it was something he liked, but I didn't really know anything else about it, and when he decided to take me to see "The Spy Who Loved Me" in the theater, I considered it a very special moment. I remember tactile details about that day. I remember the "Sinbad and the Eye Of The Tiger" poster they had in the lobby. I remember going to lunch and having hamburgers before the movie. More than anything, though, I remember that it was just us. Just the guys. No mom or little sister allowed. And I think that bond was the first part of what made me a Bond fan, the idea that I was connected somehow to the world of men because of this thing he was sharing with me.
These days, Toshi is hyper-aware of what movies are in my house, what I'm watching, what I'm working on. He has an insatiable curiosity about the movies he can't see, and I see so much of myself in him. I remember when I first became aware of ratings and the idea that some films were appropriate for me and some weren't, and I remember how urgent it seemed to get older so I could figure out what was going on in these forbidden films. Being taken to see James Bond in a theater made it feel like I was crossing a line into that forbidden world, and when I told Toshi that I was going to show him the same Bond film that I saw when I saw seven, I could see just how excited he was, and in some ways, it felt like closing a circle. Bond was my invitation into a ore adult world, and now I was able to offer that same invitation to my own son. As silly as it sounds, watching this goofy spy movie meant so much more to me, and it's a perfect example of why Film Nerd 2.0 was started in the first place.
With that said, let's take care of some of the formalities...
JAMES BOND 007 DECLASSIFIED
FILE #10: "The Spy Who Loved Me"
This series will trace the cinema history of James Bond, while also examining Ian Fleming's original novels as source material and examining how faithful (or not) the films have been to his work.
Directed by Lewis Gilbert
Screenplay by Christopher Wood and Richard Maibaum
Produced by Albert R. Broccoli
CHARACTERS / CAST
James Bond / Roger Moore
Anya Amasova / Barbara Bach
Karl Stromberg / Curd Jurgens
Jaws / Richard Kiel
Naomi / Caroline Munro
General Anatol Gogol / Walter Gotell
Sir Frederick Gray / Geoffrey Keen
Captain Benson / George Baker
Sergei / Michael Billington
Felicca / Olga Bisera
Max Kalba / Vernon Bobtcheff
M / Bernard Lee
Q / Desmond Llewelyn
Miss Moneypenny / Lois Maxwell
Aside from the fact that "The Spy Who Loved Me" was my first Bond film, there was another reason I chose this one for the boys to see, and that's because I think it might be the perfect gateway film to the series. The opening sequence features James Bond being ambushed by Soviet agents while he's enjoying a little canoodle in Austria, and it builds to one of the great practical stunts in the series. It sets a perfect tone, and if you're not onboard by the time he goes off the cliff and pops his parachute with the Union Jack printed on it, then you're just not wired to be a James Bond fan. Sure enough, when I screened it for the boys, they were immediately drawn in by the chase on skis, by the gunplay, and by the jump off the mountain.
What I thought was funny was that I almost lost them right up front because of the kissing. There is nothing that the boys find more repellent in a film than kissing, and James Bond does a lot of kissing. They asked me why Bond does so much kissing, and we're not at the point yet where I think they can make sense of something as grown-up as hedonistic pleasure, so I tried to make sense of it for them by relating it to Bond's profession. I told them that James Bond needs to get information from people as a spy, and one of the ways he does that is by kissing ladies. Once they accepted that it was just part of his job, they didn't mind it so much, and by that time, the stunts had kicked in and they were off and running.
I would say that "Nobody Does It Better" is one of the very best Bond themes, a song that works completely just as a pop song, but one that also captures Bond as a character. The Maurice Binder opening titles are fun and sexy, but not as in-your-face about it as some of the other films. Basically, by the time the film kicks in, the hook has been baited about as well as is possible, and I was pleased to see that the boys were just as hooked as I remembered being.
I only recently learned that the role of Stromberg, the main bad guy in the film, was initially offered to James Mason. What impressed me about that was that Toshi picked up something about the film on his first viewing that I've never really connected before, and that casting would have made it blatantly obvious. There was a point midway through the film, after Stromberg lays out his plan, that Toshi turned to me and said, "So he's just like Captain Nemo, right, daddy?" And once he said it, I realized how right he was, how much Stromberg appears to be chasing the same sort of freedom from the surface world that Nemo dreamed of. The idea that the seven-year-old picked this up and it has never once occurred to me in the 35 years since the film was released was somewhat humbling, and a nice reminder that just because I'm older than him doesn't mean I automatically have more insight into something than he does.
"The Spy Who Loved Me" has two separate plots running through the film. The first is tied directly into that opening sequence, as the Soviet girlfriend of one of the men who Bond shoots during the chase seeks revenge on him. At the same time, Bond works to track down stolen plans for a special nuclear submarine tracking system, and he is paired with a Russian spy named Anya Amasova (carrying the oh-so-naughty ID of "Triple X") to try to make things easier. They have to evade the deadly attentions of Jaws, a huge metal-toothed killer, and eventually track the theft of the plans back to Karl Stromberg. It's only after they visit the Liparus, Stromberg's supertanker, that Amasova realizes Bond is the one who killed her lover in the opening scene, and she promises him that she will kill him once their mission is finished.
Bond and Amasova are onboard a submarine when it is captured by Stromberg using the tracking system he stole, and he reveals his ultimate plan: to use the submarines that he's stolen to launch nuclear attacks against both Russia and the US, setting off a nuclear war that will destroy the surface world. Stromberg plans to start over with civilization using his underwater base, Atlantis, as the starting point for this new world. Bond manages to thwart the nuclear war and rescue Amasova from the underwater base before he manages to sex the revenge right out of her. While we see Bond "kill" Jaws by dropping him into a shark tank, the film eventually reveals that Jaws managed to bite the shark to death, allowing him to swim away, intact enough for a sequel.
Bottom line: the film played like magic to the boys. Jaws is an iconic Bond villain for a reason. Those big metal teeth, Richard Kiel's larger than life presence, and the way he easily physically dominates Bond all add up to him being the sort of bad guy that kids love. And once I told Toshi (a big Beatles fan at this point) that Barbara Bach is married to Ringo Starr in real life, he thought she was the coolest woman in the world.
It's interesting that there are some supporting characters introduced here who mae several appearances in the series. As a kid, I recognized Q and M and Moneypenny from film to film, but I didn't really pick up on General Gogol or Fredrick Gray as recurring players. This was the first of the films that was almost entirely invented without using material from the book, and it feels like the departure of Harry Saltzman gave Albert Broccoli room to start trying to create a larger world of continuity. I'm not sure what was going on with Lois Maxwell in this film, but I assume there's some reason they never show her in close-up. It's weird, like they're avoiding her for some reason.
When I was at Pinewood Studios for the first time, I wasn't allowed on the 007 stage since they were using it for "Casino Royale," but I did hear an amazing story about the stage and, specifically, the making of "The Spy Who Loved Me." There's a set in this film inside Stromberg's tanker where we see the full length of the thing, and it's one of the biggest practical sets I've ever seen. It was the first set built inside the then-new soundstage, and no one had ever lit a single set that large before. Ken Adam, the legendary production designer of the Bond films, tried to offer some tips to cinematographer Claude Renoir, but they weren't able to figure it out, and after several days of frustration, Adam decided to try something else. He waited until everyone had gone home and then he walked over to the offices of his frequent collaborator Stanley Kubrick. He explained the problem to him and asked him if he'd be willing to look at the set and offer any advice he might have. Word is that Kubrick took all of five minutes to look the set over, telling Adam exactly where to put lights, and when they used the plan he laid out, it worked perfectly.
I love that.
One of the things that made me fall in love with the world of Bond as a kid was the Lotus Esprit he drives in this film. I had a Matchbox version of that car for years, one of my favorite toys. As soon as the car dove underwater and converted into a submarine, both of my sons flipped out, amazed at the mere idea that a car could do something like that. I think even if the rest of the film had failed completely, Jaws and the submarine car would have been enough for them to like the film, but those were just part of what they loved. The score was also a big deal for them, and while I think the Marvin Hamlisch score is heavy on the disco, it really does work well in the film, pumping up even a few pedestrian action beats and making them feel epic and amazing. Toshi is a big soundtrack nerd these days, and when he asked me to burn him the music from the film to play in the car when he's doing things with his mom, I knew it meant something special to him. He'll play a soundtrack a hundred times without getting bored as he imagines the movie or specific scenes from it, and he must have gone crazy with this one because two weeks later, his mom gave me the disc back and ordered me to lose it somewhere so she didn't have to hear it again.
Here's how I know if something has really landed for the boys. If they incorporate something into their fantasy lives, then I know it's made some impression on them. Right now, they love to invent elaborate games that seem to fold in characters from all over the place, like an ongoing work of interactive fan fiction. In the weeks since they saw the film, I have listened repeatedly to important missions being shared by The Hulk and James Bond, their favorite combination of heroes, and I've answered endless questions about what sort of things spies do. Toshi's manic about seeing another Bond film, especially since the Blu-ray box showed up here at the house. I think it'll be a while before that happens, but like me, his first exposure has left him wanting more, and it feels like I've passed the torch, keeping alive a tradition.
When I listen to them playing, and I hear Toshi do a terrible English accent and introduce himself as "Bond, James Bond," I can't help but flash back to that day in 1977, sitting in the car next to my dad, on my way home from the theater, Monty Norman's classic theme making the whole world seem that much cooler.
THE SPY WHO LOVED ME
James Bond will return in
FOR YOUR EYES ONLY
It's funny that the film is such an easy one to share with a younger viewer just starting the Bond series, because the book is one of the more adult entries that Fleming wrote.
It's also the most unconventional book he wrote in the series, with James Bond barely appearing in it. For the most part, it's the first-person story of a woman who traces the story of her life by telling about each of the men she's slept with. It's not until 2/3 of the way into the book that James Bond enters the story, and it's literally just an accident. He stumbles into a situation where she's about to be raped and murdered and he manages to stop it. They only have a brief liaison, but it's enough to save her life, save the motel where she works, and change her life. She moves on, stronger as a result of their encounter, but convinced that Bond is the one true love of her life.
It's a very strange book, and while I think Vivienne is one of the most well-realized and authentic female voices Fleming ever wrote, I'm curious why he chose to tell a story this way. It's interesting in that it takes place in a very mundane, even grimy reality, and Bond's appearance in her world feels like divine intervention almost. The bad guys, two sleazy thugs named "Horror" and "Sluggsy," are no real match for Bond, but that makes sense because there's no world-ending threat going on. He's just moving a nuclear expert to a safe location, and this is all just a distraction, a sort of side incident that Bond would probably never think about again. To Vivienne, it's a paradigm-altering event that changes everything about the world.
It's a very lean book, and it feels like it was written in a burst of activity and then barely touched. It doesn't really even sound like the other Bond books, which is a testament to how well Fleming could write in voice, but it makes it hard to figure out how this fits into the series overall. It is, more than anything, an experiment in perspective, and while Fleming wasn't fond of the book, I do think there's something fascinating about the way he uses this story to not only show Bond in the real world but to underline that Bond isn't that different from the thugs he kills. Vivienne may romantize him, but there's no doubt that the Bond we glimpse here is just as deadly as any bad guy, and not someone to be trusted.
Toshi's just recently started reading for pleasure, and he's busy enjoying books by Roald Dahl right now, which I think are great and perfect for him. He sees the Bond books on the shelves and has asked about reading them, but while I think it's great that he's been able to enjoy one of the films finally, it'll be a while before I'm ready to hand him Fleming's work. More than almost any other film to book comparison, a study of both versions of "The Spy Who Loved Me" reveals just how far apart in intent the films and the books truly were.
Our Series So Far:
File #1 - "Dr. No" kicks off our look back at the classic series
File #2 - "From Russia With Love" is still one of the best
File #3 - "Goldfinger" takes the series into the realm of pop cartoon
File #4 - "Thunderball" is the first series stumble
File #5 - "You Only Live Twice" rewrites Fleming completely
Father's Day Dossier
File #6 - "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" changes everything
File #7 - "Diamonds Are Forever" is Connery's last shot
File #8 - '"Live And Let Die" introduces Roger Moore
File #9 - Moore is less in the silly 'The Man With The Golden Gun'
James Bond will return...