Friday, September 12, 2014

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

With Richard Kiel’s recent passing, I felt like pouring one out for him in the form of watching his most famous role (outside of Happy Gilmore and inspiring idiotic tooth-wear, anyway). So I checked out his first appearance as Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me.

I should warn you, the reader, that I actually like Roger Moore. Most people like Connery the best, and I agree, but I think Moore made a great James Bond for his time. Sure, the stunt scenes look ridiculous with his footage intercut in, but he brought a sense of humor and camp sensibility to Bond that I thought did the series a lot of favors at that point in its history.

You can really see how stressed Roger Moore looks…

… while his stunt double does this.
Like all James Bond films, I found this one a bit overlong and overambitious, but I still enjoyed it. Of course, in keeping with this blog, I’ll begin by talking about Egypt.

Bond & Egypt

The Egyptian government worried themselves quite a bit over their country’s depiction in this film even before its creation. The government only allowed shooting in Egypt after approving the script. A government representative remained on the set throughout shooting to make sure the film depicted Egypt in a flattering light. From a cinematographic perspective, Egypt looks gorgeous in the film. Material-wise, as the government undoubtedly concluded, I didn’t find much to offend me as an Arab.

Hosein, the most prominent “Arab” in the film, totally doesn’t look at all like an Aryan Englishman who dresses in a dimly-lit thrift shop. Nope. No siree Bob.

The Egyptian people served largely the same purpose as the native people in any of the various lands Bond visits throughout the films. The women indulge his predatory pick-up-artistry. The men arrogantly play both sides of the Iron Curtain. They give Bond information or they die. Often both.

The Egyptians in this film stood out to me mostly for their abject sexism. Most of the Egyptian women serve as mute servants in the background. Only one utters any scripted words on-screen and she turns out to work for the enemy. Nevertheless, calling characters in a Bond film sexist feels a bit like calling someone in AA an alcoholic. Considering Bond seems to occasionally forget that women can vote now, any friend of a his would probably take “sexist” as a compliment. As someone who’s seen a lot (but not all) of the series, I didn’t really find anything about Egypt’s sexism more offensive than the usual Bond-movie sexism.

Let’s not get me wrong; I find this offensive.
But the entire series treats women as hotel amenities, so this by itself doesn’t exactly stand out.
Of course, Bond ignores the hordes of Egyptian extras who don’t inexplicably want in his pants.
Only one moment stands out as a dig against the Egyptian people. Bond tricks Jaws into triggering a scaffolding collapse and then drily quips, “Egyptian builders.” I didn’t personally find this terribly offensive, since I suspect the writers would have Bond say that in any country in that context. Also, the line got a huge laugh amongst Egyptian audiences, so if they took it as good-natured raillery, I don’t consider it my place to tell them not to.

If I really wanted to feel offended, Max Kalba here has a surname very close to “كلبة,” which means “bitch.”
So at no point does this movie really offend me as an Arab. Frankly, it didn’t really give me enough material to care one way or the other. As a feminist, well, here, that issue has a bit more complexity…

Public vs. Private

Some people watch Bond films for the cars, others for the girls, and others to look at the gadgets and all the disparate ways in which the writers didn’t think of smartphones.

This still looks more appealing than the Apple Watch.
Also, I suppose we all like to see Q sass it up while he fails to anticipate the Internet.
I, for one, like Bond films for the villains. If I had my way, I’d put Oddjob & Jaws in every Bond movie as the Bebop & Rocksteady of spy films. This film has at least one of the two, so I approve.

Even animated, just look at this badass and tell me you don’t want to buy his action figure off eBay!

In the characterization of the villains, The Spy Who Loved Me stands out as unusually progressive and autocritical for a Bond film. The film’s very plot calls for Russia and the west to put aside their differences and fight a common enemy: privatization.

You can always spot a lair of evil by how much it looks like a spider.
We know the antagonist, Karl Stromberg, as a megalomaniacal plutocrat beset by a Herostratic desire to remake the world in his own image. Unlike Bond’s usual stripe of villain, Stromberg doesn’t lower himself to extortion; no ransom would stop him from annihilating Moscow and New York to consolidate a hegemon of his own creation. In this, Stromberg represents the dark side of corporate oligarchy, the desire to use money as a destructive force to make oneself more powerful.

I know evil when I see it, especially when it looks this much like Rupert Murdoch.
His main henchman, the vertiginous Zbigniew “Jaws” Krycsiwiki, acts like a vampire: a nigh-indestructible superhuman who kills people with a bite on the neck. In literature, vampires have traditionally represented a special kind of predator that becomes more powerful by weakening others. Jaws’ actions, then, reflect on the predatory nature of plutocracy and far-right greed. Jaws exists to help Stromberg get richer and more powerful by making many, many other people worse off.

Like many of the 1%, Jaws also tries cutting-edge medical techniques to address his iron deficiency.
Partway through the film, Jaws realizes he always wanted a convertible.
Like Roger Moore, though, Richard Kiel brings a sense of humor to the film. He knows when to look menacing and when to look silly. He imitates just enough of Boris Karloff’s mannerisms to sell the latter.

In another example of plutocracy run amok, Stromberg employs an entire private military—with officers and enlisted ranks and everything—to act out his orders. This private armed force feels like a precursor to Blackwater, soldiers in a military with a lot more money and a lot fewer rules. We see these soldiers participate in (at worst) or condone (at best) kidnapping, murder, and treason. Again, the film sends the same message: the state—which has to please the people on some level or risk revolution—has, by its very nature, a level of accountability for which the private sector has no use.

The film depicts the Soviet Union with surprising sympathy. The film seems to advance the idea that extreme privatization affects both sides of the Cold War enough to put it on hold.

The conversation of an ancient tomb into a base also strikes me as a tacit admission of first- and second-world imperialism.

Sex & Sexism

News sources recently reported that infamously abusive, greedy megachurch potentate and accomplished piece of shit Mark Driscoll once referred to women as “penis houses.” In a display of the sort of loyalty and rectitude typical of organized religion, his Mars Hill church only recently started acknowledging this and distancing themselves from Driscoll after they noticed Driscoll’s detrimental effects on their fundraising. I bring that up here because Driscoll’s sort of misogyny seems like the exact kind of attitude one would acquire from watching too many James Bond movies in childhood.

We all know James Bond films have a reputation for sexism. It often seems remarkable that a series that never (intentionally) does nude scenesi can so consistently depict women as objects deficient of free will. But for a pre-Judi Dench Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me actually comes closer to shining a light on its own sexism than most. The film achieves this by giving Bond a foil, a Russian (near) equal and opposite. You’d never know it from the name, but Bond meets his match in… Agent XXX.

Barbara Bach plays Agent XXX, Major Anya Amasova. Bach’s Russian accent could have really used a little work, but other than that, I really liked her character. She possesses a level of training and proficiency relatively close to Bond’s. Several times, Bond underestimates her and to his own humiliation. Unlike virtually every other character in Bond history, she succeeds in striking a nerve with him when she mentions his dead wife. She actually plays an active, relevant role in the story, with a motive that makes her part-friend, part-enemy.

Their mutual distrust goes a long way toward making the characterization appealing.
Her method of delivering knockout gas also teaches a valuable lesson about dating smokers.
Unfortunately, in Bond movie tradition, the film still depicts Major Amasova as somewhat inferior. The film makes a point of showing that Commander James Bond still outranks her. As a major female character in a Bond film, perforce, she gets kidnapped and Bond risks everything to rescue her like a knight in shining armor.

See what happens to even the most progressive Bond girls?
Also, of course we never see Amasova again after this film. So I can’t call this film a sterling example of feminism, but it still stands out amongst its parent series.

As much as I like this shot, I could do without Amasova always walking several steps behind Bond.
More than most Bond films up to this point, The Spy Who Loved Me really does seem cognizant—even critical—of Bond’s sexism. On two occasions, henchwomen nearly kill Bond by distracting him with their secret technique of “having boobs.” It seems to have become an open secret amongst Bond’s friends and enemies alike that a pretty face will take his mind off his job and make him vulnerable.

Frankly, behaving like this, he deserves it.
I really liked The Spy Who Loved Me. It has its weaknesses. I really disliked the score and even a less-sexist Bond movie still has an annoying amount of sexism. The plot remains predictable throughout.

More often than not, in a Bond film you can look at a character and know when s/he will die.
But the film clearly exists as a product of its time, a time of unusual trepidation within a relative lull in the Cold War. Considering Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher would both take power only a few years later, I can’t help but wonder how this film’s narrative would have changed under the leadership of two arch-conservatives who couldn’t spend enough time touting men like Stromberg as admirable captains of industry. Considering how much Thatcher and Reagan had in common with Bond—with their love of black & white morality and self-determination—this film feels, more than any Bond film I’ve seen before it, like the first time Bond’s creators established that they could step back and think critically about what they’ve made.

i I consider myself a feminist and I find America’s female breast taboo antiquated, sexist, and irrational. But I have needs, Broccoli family! I’d have a much easier time sitting through these 2+-hour Bond movies if they’d at least throw me a nipple or two! 23 nipple-less movies now?! Come on!


  1. Jordan, I've been blogging for a while, yours is the first one I've wanted to recommend on mine! Fresh funny perspective, keep them coming!