I did not see The Spy Who Loved Me when it opened in July 1977. I was still in thrall of Star Wars that summer. Why would I want to see another movie when I could see Star Wars again?
But a friend of mine had a friend who had seen Spy. And in those awe-struck voices boys use when they talk about the cool things in movies they haven’t seen, I heard about the giant killer with metal teeth, the motorcycle that fired its sidecar like a missile, and the white sports car that turned into a submarine. I did not, thankfully, hear about the stunt at the beginning of the movie.
I got my chance to see The Spy Who Loved Me when it premiered on Home Box Office in December 1978. For those who weren’t around in the 1970s, let me explain a movie’s commercial lifespan in those days. First a movie appeared in the theaters. Then a year or two later, depending on the movie’s box-office success, it appeared on HBO or one of the other pay-cable movie channels (Showtime and Cinemax were also around, but HBO was the big one). About a year later, the movie would appear on broadcast television. The cycle ended there. Home video machines existed, but only rich or tech-savvy people had them, and the selection of studio movies on VHS tapes was slim.
Jeffrey Westhoff will host two screenings of The Spy Who Loved Me on Oct. 14 (Roger Moore’s birthday) at the Elk Grove Theater in Elk Grove Village, Illinois. For details, visit the theater’s website.
So if you missed a movie in theaters, your next chance to see it was the month it debuted on HBO. And by the time The Spy Who Loved Me arrived on HBO, I was primed to see it. Mostly I wanted to see that white sports car that turned into a submarine, but I wanted to see what this James Bond thing was all about. I had seen a few of the earlier films on television — Dr. No, From Russia With Love and most of Goldfinger — and I enjoyed them well enough, but they weren’t Star Wars.
I remember I was alone that weekend afternoon when I had the chance to watch Spy. The HBO program guide promised the movie had an unforgettable beginning, but I had no clue what it was. People respected spoilers back then, because the word didn’t exist.
So there I was, sitting on the floor of my parents’ living room watching this movie on a color TV set that probably had no larger than a 24-inch screen. The gunbarrel opened up and I got my first glimpse of Roger Moore as 007 before he shot the camera and blood trickled from the top of the screen. Then a bunch of British submariners looked all scared as their sub began to shake and the captain squinted through the periscope and said, “Oh my God!” Mystery! But that couldn’t have been the unforgettable opening. Scene change to a Russian couple in bed. A music box playing “Lara’s Theme” summoned Agent Triple X, who turned out to be not the man, but sexy Barbara Bach. Twist! Then after M and Monepenny exchanged urgent dialogue in their London offices, the scene changed again to Bond and some blonde getting busy in a ski lodge. Bond received a message from a ticker tape inside his watch. That was cool, but not unforgettable.
Bang into a ski chase. KGB assassins with rifles schussed after Bond, who must have been an easy target in his banana-colored ski suit. Some great stunts followed — a backwards flip! a ski pole that fired a rocket! — but nothing unforgettable.
And then Bond skied off a cliff. And fell. And fell. And fell. A single camera followed his descent. The music cut out, leaving nothing on the soundtrack but the wind. Bond continued to fall, twisting into the white abyss. I leaned forward, my eyes fixed on the screen, my hands clenched. What was going to happen? Would a plane swoop down to save him? Was that even possible? Bond kicked off his skis, and they took independent flight. And then a crackle was heard, like the sound of my mom snapping a sheet when she folded laundry. Something blossomed behind Bond, a parachute! A parachute festooned with the Union Jack! And then the Bond theme blared, signalling something that perhaps I already knew, that my life had just changed. This Bond thing? I was hooked. I was 13, and I was hooked deep. And I hadn’t even seen the white sports car turn into a submarine yet.
By the time the movie ended and Bond had kept the British end up, Spy had achieved something I thought impossible two hours earlier. Star Wars was no longer my favorite movie. This was. I tingled with excitement at everything I had just seen, and damn if I didn’t want to be Roger Moore.
I watched The Spy Who Loved Me again and again that month, just enough to carry me over until Moonraker opened the following summer. You can bet I was going to see that one on opening day. I loved Moonraker when I saw it, and it was the trigger that got me reading the Ian Fleming novels, but I no longer think so highly of Moonraker.
The Spy Who Loved Me, though, I still love it. It’s damned near perfect as a Bond film, polished in a way none of the others is. Most of the Bond films since have been at least 2 hours and 10 minute long, but Spy fits all its thrills into just two hours. It is a streamlined entertainment machine. The only Bond film that moves more assuredly, I think, is Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale. When Barbara Bach’s Agent Triple X declares at the midpoint that she will kill Bond after they have completed their joint mission, she adds a personal tension unique to the series. It’s the first time Bond is competing with his leading lady, and you wonder if she might win.
The action set pieces are all terrific, and so are the movie’s vivid ingredients: the settings in Egypt and Sardinia; Richard Kiel’s metal-mouthed killer, Jaws; Barbara Bach’s black evening gown; the climactic battle aboard the villain’s supertanker; and the submersible Lotus Esprit, which more than fulfilled my expectations. You can have your Aston Martin DB5 with its machine guns and ejector seat. Give me a white Lotus Esprit that turns into a submarine any day.
Spy pushed the fantastic aspects of Bond, which were present in most of Fleming’s novels, to their limits. The story and the technology were incredible, but just about believable (which would not be the case with Moonraker). Spy is the magnum opus of longtime Bond production designer Ken Adam. The world’s largest sound stage was built to accommodate his supertanker interior.
Spy is certainly Roger Moore’s best Bond film, and he’ll be the first to tell you. I rank it third overall among the Bonds, behind On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and From Russia With Love. I find it superior to Goldfinger, which suffers from wobbly footwork near the end. Spy’s stride is strong and assured from start to finish.
And that parachute stunt at the beginning? It was unforgettable. I certainly will never forget the effect it had on me the first time I watched it. It made me a Bond fan, and I remain a Bond fan to this day.