It took Sean Connery two films to reach his best, and Roger Moore three. This isn’t really down to the two actors, both started out in the role of James Bond fully formed in Dr. No and Live and Let Die respectively but there was this narrow window for both of them between their movies settling into the format and then becoming too comfortable with the conventions and starting to over do things, where they found their peak. Also, both men began to look a little old in the role before they stopped, Connery after six (five initially and seven eventually if you count Never Say Never Again) and Moore after seven. Daniel Craig on the other hand started on a high in Casino Royale with everything being slightly weaker from there on in (we’ll see if this is still the case on 30th).
Both From Russia With Love and The Spy Who Loved Me have a bit of a different feel to the other movies. They are the only two with the word Love in the title, compared to six with Die or Kill, and this other side of Bond does come through. Of course when I say love it is largely of the free kind, this isn’t On Her Majesty’s Secret Service or the aforementioned Casino Royale where the guy does properly fall for someone. Interestingly though the Moore films do reference Bond’s marriage a couple of times, here and in For Your Eyes Only, and this is clearly a part of his history and his interpretation of the character. Either way, in these two films Bond is a lover first and fighter second. The first time you see him in both movies he is locked in a kiss and it goes from there.
From Russia With Love was Connery’s second 007 movie which makes it the second of all the 007 movies. Even then they were prepared to be quite audacious with the set up. 1962’s Dr. No was a huge success so having James Bond apparently die in the precredits scene of this follow up was bold. Of course it’s not really James Bond, it’s just some guy made to look like him for a SPECTRE training exercise. Bond doesn’t actually turn up in the precredits sequence at all which feels pretty bold in itself, although Dr. No and Live and Let Die do the same thing. Instead the opening is all about the enemies and their plan to kill Bond for his actions in the previous film.
It all feels very Bondish when he does appear though, snogging Sylvia Trench (another element returning from Dr. No, where she is the one who asks him his name across a casino – prompting that famous catchphrase). Monty Norman’s Bond theme plays under a lot of the action and we meet iconic characters Q and Rosa Kleb. Austin Powers actually borrows very heavily from this film, possibly more than many others, which is a fair measure of how Bondy it all is.
Connery’s James Bond is less thuggish here than he is before and after as well (told you; lover not fighter), and the whole movie features more proper espionage and spy work than some that follow. It also has some great action sequences near the end where Bond beats Robert Shaw’s assassin on a train, then runs from a helicopter (echoing the crop duster scene in North By Northwest from four years previous) before escaping by speed boat, all in quick succession.
From Russia With Love is not perfect from a contemporary perspective, mostly (unsurprisingly) in its treatment of women. Tatiana Romanova, the Russian agent sent to catch Bond in a honey trap, is independent with her own sense of agency even though she is the object of a honey trap. She actually saves Bond at the end when her superior officer Kleb is about to kill him with her stabby shoe. Of course the reason she does this is because she falls pathetically in love with him but, one slap on the butt notwithstanding, his relationship with her is not too sexist.
The inclusion of the two Turkish gypsy girls fighting each other to win a man and for the apparent entertainment of other men is more problematic. It looks like they have redeemed this a little when Bond asks for the fight to end but then he gets to choose the victor himself, seemingly by sleeping with both of them to aid his decision. I thoughts they were scrapping because the both loved the same man, why would they then willingly shack up with someone else? It makes no sense whatsoever in any world that is not oppressively patriarchal.
There is also that ridiculous periscope that MI6’s Turkish agency chief has has installed beneath the Russian Embassy. Like no one is going to notice that popping out of the carpet. I’m sure that bug or camera technology was good enough in ‘63 for there to have been better options.
All in all though From Russia With Love is a great Bond film and arguably Sean Connery’s best.
Whether or not The Spy Who Loved Me is Roger Moore’s best is most certainly arguable. I’m wrestling with myself on this one a little and I may yet change my mind once I’ve watched For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy again. There is certainly much you need to forgive here as well. As in From Russia With Love, Bond visits a different culture, this time Egypt, and is offered a young woman for his pleasure. Again we don’t see him doing anything but the creepy smirk and the cheesy one liner suggests he is going to.
One of the other criticisms of this film is that it is quite slow and initially this is true. I see this as being in its favour though as, like From Russia With Love, it feels more akin to the classic gumshoe flicks of the forties rather than a precursor to the Fast and Furious movies and ideally Bond films should straddle both. For me there are three elements to The Spy Who Loved Me that lead it to rank above the others though; the action packed last forty five minutes – which are definitely not slow, the gender politics – Egyptian concubines excluded, and the delightful cinematic intertextuality.
Let’s start with Mayor Anya Amasova. Several of the Moore Bond films tried to present women who were his equal and here we have someone who is effectively set up as his opposite number in Russia. Bond was paired with a KGB agent in From Russia With Love but she was demonstrably there to look pretty. Barbara Bach’s Amasova is most certainly objectified but she is also supposed to be her country’s best operative. I’m not sure how much evidence we see of this but she is is capable and does outwit 007 on more than one occasion. Unlike From Russia With Love’s Romanova she doesn’t fall for Bond immediately and she uses sex as a weapon as much as he does. The first time she kisses him it is to set him up and when they do eventually jump into bed together (because of course they do) it is because that have become close following a near death experience. She is not just another woman for Bond to seduce. By modern standards Amasova is not a paragon of feminism but it is nice to see the start of an evolution that lead to Michelle Yeoh’s Wai Lin in this film series and characters like Black Widow and Mission Impossible’s Ilsa Faust in the genre more broadly. It is interesting that despite having a mean karate chop, she doesn’t really do her own fighting. She initially sends Ivan and Boris to beat Bond up and when confronted by Richard Kiel’s Jaws (more on him later) she is pretty defenceless, leading Bond to step in with another train fight which is the near death experience previously mentioned. These days she’d be able to bring the smack down herself.
The action in this film starts in earnest when the famous white Lotus Esprit rolls off the boat in Sardinia. For those of us of certain age this car is easily as iconic at the Aston Martin DB5 and this moment is almost equal to Doc’s DeLorean rolling off the back off the truck at the Twin Pine’s Mall. You see Q describing to Bond what the car does but this is seen out of earshot from Anya’s POV so we get to discover its nifty secrets as she does. The subsequent sequences as it is chased by bikes and then by a helicopter are great, scored by Marvin Hamlisch’s excellent ‘Bond 77’ remix of the famous theme, but the moment it dives into the sea only to turn into a submarine is one of the best moments of 70’s cinema, even with what Spielberg and Lucas were doing. (I only said it was one of the best moments.) Of course you finally get that pay off when Anya fiddles with the buttons and kills an enemy with a missile, because she read the blueprints for the car two years previously. One more point for Mother Russia, for her, for women everywhere.
Even better than this though is the whole half an hour firefight in which we see Bond and some rescued sailors take on the bad guy Stromberg’s army, take control of his monster tanker and then save the day. This is a superbly orchestrated and exciting action scene the scale of which is rarely seen in these ‘one man on a mission’ movies. Then Bond scoots of to save the lady (sadly now reduced to a damsel in distress) on a jetski, years before jetskis were a big thing. Moore did a similar thing on a snowboard before snowboards were a big thing in A View to a Kill. He’s such an early adopter of new extreme sports.
I think what I most enjoy about this film though, is it’s knowing nods to the filmic competition. It is no happy accident that Stromberg murders one of his turncoat employees by feeding her to a shark two years after Jaws came out. Bear in mind that director Lewis Gilbert would also riff on Star Wars two years after that film’s release with Moonraker in 1979. To compound this though, The Spy Who Loved Me then introduces its own Jaws in the shape of Kiel’s iconic henchman. As if this is not already laying down a challenge to Mr. Spielberg and his aquatic boogeyman, the large toothed assassin is then set against the same shark at the end and wins. If you think this is all coincidental then consider that this is the same film that has the music from Lawrence of Arabia playing as Bond and Anya walk through the desert. This movie knows movies and is playing with that. Love it!
So, if you’re looking to revisit some old James Bond films before the release of No Time To Die at the end of the month, here are a couple of places you might want to start, whatever your actor preference.