Tag Archives: Marvin Hamlisch

Skyfall Countdown Day 14: The Spy Who Loved Me

“What do you mean you think Pete Best was a better drummer?”

The most common complaint about the James Bond film series among Ian Fleming purists is that they stray too far from the original books.  The screenwriters would keep the title, a few of the characters and maybe one or two scenes, but generally be permitted to make things up from scratch.  The Spy Who Loved Me, released on July 7, 1977 (or 7/7/77) is a case where not only does the movie have absolutely nothing in common with the Fleming book, but it’s because Ian Fleming himself wanted it that way.  The novel, a low-key tale told from the first-person perspective of a woman named Vivienne Michel (and containing Fleming’s misogynist and dubious observation that “all women love semi-rape”) with Bond appearing only late in the story, was a source of embarrassment for the author, and he stipulated when selling the rights that no material from it could be used, save the title, should a film adaptation be undertaken.  This must have been liberating to Albert R. Broccoli, now the sole producer in charge of James Bond following Harry Saltzman’s departure, and having to chart a course back to respectability after the disappointment that was The Man with the Golden Gun.

The core element Broccoli latched onto, wisely, was the idea of Bond as spectacle.  The previous few films had been very gritty and muted, in keeping with the early 70’s trend in cinema, but Broccoli knew that 007 fit more comfortably alongside the widescreen epics of the previous era.  He rehired Lewis Gilbert, the director of You Only Live Twice, and commissioned a story – after an abortive attempt to bring back Blofeld and SPECTRE that was thwarted when Kevin McClory’s lawyers reared their heads – that would see Bond pitted not against a villain merely interested in selling drugs or cornering the renewable energy market, but against an utter madman with designs on destroying the entire world.  As the story begins, one British and one Soviet nuclear submarine have gone missing, stolen out of the water it seems by someone who is able to track their movements.  James Bond and Soviet agent XXX, Major Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach) are assigned by their respective governments to Cairo to trace the origin of the tracking system, and team up to pursue the architect of the entire affair:  billionaire, webbed-fingered Karl Stromberg (Curt Jurgens), who is obsessed with the oceans and intends to accelerate what he feels is the inevitable decline of civilization by using his captured subs to start a nuclear war between Russia and the United States.  Adding a wrinkle to their reluctant collaboration, Bond has unknowingly killed Amasova’s boyfriend during a previous mission, and she has sworn that once their mission is complete, she will take her revenge.

Clearly this was not a tale that could be told in the buttoned-down, economic manner of the last two movies.  Spectacle requires a spectacular talent in the designer’s chair, and for Broccoli, there was only one name who could measure up:  Ken Adam, fresh off winning an Oscar for Stanley Kubrick’s period costume drama Barry Lyndon.  Adam’s sets open the movie up beyond the reach of the most imaginative audience member.  The staple of the villain’s lair this time was the interior of Stromberg’s enormous supertanker, large enough to contain three nuclear submarines and so large in fact that not only did the world’s biggest soundstage have to be built to contain it, but the film’s director of photography Claude Renoir could not see from one end of it to the other.  (In what has become the worst kept secret in the James Bond canon, Adam invited Kubrick himself to the set to advise on how to light it properly.)  Each set, from the warmth of M’s office to the sterile environs of General Gogol’s retreat, from the curves and spheres of Stromberg’s underwater home to the sandy brickwork of Q’s Egyptian laboratory, brings with it a lush and meticulous character that occupies the screen with as much presence – and in some cases, far more – as the actors wandering through the space.

Until recently, Bond movies were never renowned for their great acting, and while The Spy Who Loved Me is a visual banquet stretching from ski slopes to desert dunes and finally beneath the waves, the supporting performances are just a few notches above bread and water – doubly ironic given that this is the movie where Roger Moore finally cast off the shadow of Sean Connery and came completely into his own in his interpretation of James Bond.  Gone for good is the macho cruelty and slapping women around.  In its stead is a polished gentleman who kills when he has to, even if it is with great reluctance and only as a last resort.  Moore was never better as Bond than he is here, both in physical presence and manner, blending his ability to play quips with a forceful dramatic presence, particularly in the scene when Anya discovers that Bond is responsible for her lover’s death.  In that brief moment, Moore unveils the darkness lurking beneath the playboy surface, reminding those audience members who might aspire to be James Bond that his life, despite its exterior appeal, is destructive to the soul.

If only the actress opposite him in the scene could provide a solid counterpoint; alas, Barbara Bach, wife of Ringo Starr, is not up to the challenge.  She’s fine as eye candy but doesn’t really have the chops to be a leading lady, speaking her dialogue with unchanging facial expressions in an accent which defies location (but certainly isn’t Russian).  Caroline Munro, as Stromberg’s bikini-wearing, helicopter-flying accomplice Naomi, radiates more character and sex appeal in one seductive wink at Bond than Bach manages in an hour and a half of screen time.  Jurgens is effectively creepy as Stromberg but is as straightforward and one dimensional as the anonymous henchmen he sends after the heroes, and is not as interesting a social foe for Bond.  The most memorable villain is of course Richard Kiel as Jaws, the unstoppable behemoth with the metal teeth.  Without speaking a word, Kiel injects his lumbering brute with personality and a sense of humor, making him oddly likable even though he kills several innocent people (and eats a shark).

Despite not being so surefooted with his actors (Moore excepted), director Lewis Gilbert stages action extremely well and keeps the pace tight even in sections where it would be natural to let it sag a little.  The geography of the massive final battle between Stromberg’s men and the captured British and Russian naval crews aboard the supertanker is capably handled with no confusion ever about who is doing what to whom (Michael Bay, take notes!)  Interestingly enough, the movie’s signature moment occurs within the first ten minutes.  The filmmakers had seen a print ad with a man skiing off a mountain precipice and contacted the stuntman in question, Rick Sylvester, who confessed that the photo had been faked but that he could execute it for real.  A small filming unit spent weeks hunkered down in the Arctic waiting for the right conditions.  Finally, the weather broke and Sylvester had one chance to nail it – and when audiences watched James Bond, pursued by Soviet gunmen, ski over a sheer cliff ostensibly to his doom, only to be saved by a parachute emblazoned with the Union Jack, theatres exploded in cheers.  It was the surest indication that James Bond was back in the biggest way possible.  Marvin Hamlisch, who had achieved the rare feat of winning three Oscars in a single year, supplied his services for the music and composed for Carly Simon the movie’s famous title song to reinforce this point:  “Nobody Does it Better.”  In that moment, at that time, nobody did.

Tomorrow:  Moonraker shoots for the stars and gets lost along the way.

Don’t “Like” this post

Marvin Hamlisch, one of the most successful and most honored composers of our time, passed away unexpectedly yesterday.  My better half posted a lovely tribute for him in her Facebook status update, acknowledging his decades-long career and some of the amazing songs he had a hand in creating, like “Nobody Does it Better,” arguably the best James Bond theme song ever recorded.  Hamlisch was Barbra Streisand’s go-to music guy and had a reputation as one of the most creative and nicest people in the industry, writing hundreds of tunes that have gotten stuck in your head at one point in your life or another – and I’m eulogizing him by clicking a little thumbs-up icon.  The Facebook Like is one of the most dehumanizing tools in social media:  wildly misleading, grossly inaccurate and ultimately, utterly useless.  The contradiction nags at me; by clicking Like am I saying that I’m happy that Marvin Hamlisch is dead?  When someone posts a status update about some horrible situation unfolding on the other side of the world, is me Liking it announcing I’m positively chuffed silly that people I don’t know are being oppressed and murdered?  Siskel and Ebert pretty well defined for all time the meaning of the thumbs up versus the thumbs down, and I can’t believe that saying I like something is anything less than a full endorsement of it (which is why I tend to be very reserved in doling out my Likes).  I can understand why Facebook doesn’t include a “thumbs down” or a “Dislike” button; such functions would only be opening up avenues to trolls.  But I suspect that the original intention of the Like has been corrupted leagues from its original purpose – to demonstrate acknowledgement and interest.  (Of course, an “I Acknowledge and Express Interest In This” button would be a bit unwieldy.)

Facebook users can get carried away with the idea of Likes.  Status updates are often posted as little more than Like Bait (I’m copyrighting that term if no one else has already), with shameless emotional bromides such as “Like if you wish cancer never existed.”  As someone who lost his mother to cancer I find these more than a bit pedantic and insulting, particularly since my click will do less than nothing to contribute to the cause of ending of cancer as a life-threatening illness – it certainly won’t bring my mother back.  “It’s about awareness,” comes the rejoinder.  First of all, I’m pretty sure that apart from those unfortunate souls so disadvantaged they do not possess the mental faculties required for basic comprehension, most people on the planet know what cancer is and why it is bad.  Rich, poor, cancer doesn’t discriminate.  It’s an evil f***ing disease and because there is more money in giving men erections we have fifteen different varieties of hard-on pills and we’re still decades away from a workable cancer cure.  The only thing clicking on these sad pictures will accomplish is rack up meaningless numbers on a Facebook server and give the person who posted it in the first place a transitory feeling of accomplishment.  People will still die from cancer every day.  Worse in the category of Like Bait© are those pushy status updates which not only play to your sympathies but then brazenly challenge readers to copy and repost them, sneering through the screen with remarks like “I know 90% of you won’t repost this, but I know the ones who aren’t selfish, uncaring, contemptible slime-sucking chunks of weasel vomit will.”  Which makes me wish Facebook had a “Drop Dead You Condescending Prat And Don’t Tell Me What I Should And Shouldn’t Post” button.

What is most ironic about “clicktivism,” as it is called, is that any social media expert worth their weight in pixels will tell you that Likes are meaningless.  Marketers, who as Gary Vaynerchuk reminds us eventually ruin everything, have conspired diabolically to pervert Likes into a bludgeon to try and sell you stuff.  It comes in so innocent a form:  “Like our page to help save kittens!  Once we get 6000 Likes everybody gets a popsicle!”  Your reward for Liking that one ad that made you chuckle last Thursday, of course, is to have your news feed clogged from now until the apocalypse with special offers for every crappy piece of kitsch that company’s marketing guys feel inclined to spam you with.  The majority are no different than the jerks who sold your home phone number from the application you don’t remember filling out to the window & door replacement and duct cleaning services who consider it good business practice to bombard you during dinner, and we know how much we love those folks.  Regardless, believing that a high number of Likes means you’re winning in the social media stream would be like a stand-up comedian thinking that as long as every seat in his audience is filled, he doesn’t actually have to say anything to them.  Likes are a snapshot of a fragment of time when for a moment you captured someone else’s fleeting notice.

Methinks therein lies the rub of the Like.  It is fleeting.  It’s saying “I don’t have time to contribute anything worthwhile to the discussion, but I don’t want to seem rude by not saying anything at all.”  For all the capacity of social networks like Facebook to present increased opportunities for human connection, our lazy first world brains have still found a way to spare it the barest minimum of our attention.  When someone wrote you a letter back in the day, the only way to let them know you’d received it was to write back – imagine the impropriety of returning the letter to sender with “LIKE” scrawled across the envelope.  No doubt the people of that era felt as busy and stressed out as anyone does today (everything is relative after all), but they made the time to respond.  It was the human touch, and a factor that is utterly beyond the capacity of the Like button.  When our friends take the time to upload photos of their family, their latest vacation, their amazing cake creations or a simple piece of wisdom that they want to share, clicking Like is quite literally the least anyone can do in response.  With this amazing tool at our disposal, it seems a colossal waste of resources.

I know 90% of you won’t agree with me, but… forget it, I’m not going down that road.  Like, don’t like, it’s entirely up to you.  Just pause to think about what you are actually saying when you click that little thumb – and wonder if there’s a way you could say it better.