Roger Moore finally comes into his own as James Bond in The Spy Who Loved Me, easily one of the best Bonds ever. Live and Let Die was a great performance in a story that hasn’t really aged well. So it’s already not hard to accept Moore as Bond. But The Man with the Golden Gun was such a misfire that I have to rethink whether I consider A View to a Kill the worst of the series or not. (I suspect when we watch that one, I’ll consider it’s cellar-dwelling position safe, but just barely.)
The problem is the same that George Lazenby faced in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Sean Connery had been James Bond for a decade (with a break for Lazenby’s turn.) You can’t just plug in a new actor and expect the same result. Live and Let Die had a story that allowed Moore to make the role his own, but Golden Gun was such a ham-fisted attempt to make a movie in the Connery mold that the regular cast, including Moore, sleep walk through it. Even the theme song, a Bond-era showtune with some 70s rock guitar sloppily overlaid onto it, was a lame attempt to evoke Goldfinger and Thunderball.
Enter director Lewis Gilbert. Gilbert’s Bond career would be pretty much defined by You Only Live Twice. Spy and its follow-up, Moonraker, are really variations on the same story. But Spy, a Blofeld-who-is-not-Blofeld tale (Thanks a helluva lot, Kevin McClory. You could have just cashed the check and taken some of the credit!) shot with one basic premise in mind. This is not a Sean Connery movie. It’s a James Bond movie. That’s when the Bonds work best. (From Russia With Love, Thunderball, For Your Eyes Only, Licence to Kill, virtually all of Daniel Craig’s tenure.) So Moore now owns Bond, which keeps him going through lesser efforts and makes this and For Your Eyes Only benchmarks in the series.
The premise: British and Soviet submarines disappear without a trace. Naturally, M wants 007 on the case. His opposite number in Moscow, General Gogol (Walter Gotell in his first of five appearances in the role) puts his own top agent, XXX (future Mrs. Ringo Starr, Barbara Bach) on it as well. The two eventually team up. But there’s a wrinkle. In the pre-credit sequence, Bond kills XXX’s (real name Major Anya Amasova) lover (played by perennial Bond candidate Michael Billington). Amasova learns this after she and Bond become lovers.
Their common foe is a man named Stromberg (because legally, they couldn’t use Blofeld. Thanks, McClory!) He is stealing nuclear subs to start a holocaust that will allow mankind to start over from his undersea city. His ocean-going floating city is as over-the-top as any of Blofeld’s lairs in the SPECTRE movies, but it exists in a real world setting. Plus, Gilbert ups the effects. The fight scenes, especially with Jaws (Richard Kiel), are better choreographed, and gone are the rear-projection car scenes and badly overdubbed explosions. Gilbert actually blows stuff up and uses Gerry Anderson-style miniatures. (Does that include UFO star Billington?)
Best of all, the performances are relaxed and natural. When Bond is briefed by Admiral Hargreves (the future M played by Robert Brown), Moore acts as a field operative unafraid to voice his opinion but aware Hargreves, like M, is his military superior. He chats with Minister Frederick Gray as someone he’s worked with for years.
Perhaps the best part is the tension between Amisova and Bond. In the beginning, they are rivals for the same item, clearly enjoying the game and aware that this is between their superiors, not them. Amisova is Bond’s equals, and it does not surprise they become lovers. When you find the opposite-gender version of yourself, why wouldn’t you? (Don’t answer that!) Yet when Amisova learns of her late lover’s death at Bond’s hands and vows to kill him after the mission, Bond nonetheless remains devoted to her, not as a lover, but as a partner and a colleague, risking his life several times to save her. So it makes the inevitable Bond ending, 007 in bed with the Bond Girl, more believable than usual.
Moneypenny and M are barely in this one. Lois Maxwell shows up for one scene while M has a handful, most of which he shares with the others. Q, however, has a bigger role, bringing Bond his submersible Lotus, which will be his car for the next three movies. Q’s impatience with Bond is amped up and makes Desmond Llewellyn one of the most beloved supporting players in the series. He would appear all the way through The World Is not Enough but die in a car crash prior to Die Another Day, which was to have been his final appearance.
Spy has all the Bond elements, including Not Blofeld, that let Moore seize the role for himself. It would give Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan a challenge to follow in those footsteps.