Book Review: The Spy Who Loved Me by Ian Fleming

First published in 1962, The Spy Who Loved Me is easily the most controversial of all of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels.

The Spy Who Loved Me was not the first of the Bond novels to keep James Bond off-stage for the majority of the story.  From Russia With Love, one of the best of Fleming’s novels, keeps 007 offstage until about halfway through the book.  The difference is that, even before he makes his first appearance, everyone else in From Russia With Love is obsessed with Bond.  As well, From Russia With Love dealt with a world that Fleming knew well, the world of international intelligence operations.

The Spy Who Loved Me, on the other hand, is mostly about a young Canadian woman named Vivienne Michel who spends most of the novel discussing her background until, eventually, she finds herself being held prisoner by two cartoonish American gangsters named — I kid you not — Sluggsy and Horror.  Fortunately, James Bond eventually shows up and rescues her.  Vivienne not only narrates the novel but Ian Fleming even gave her co-writing credit on the title page.

In the book’s prologue, Fleming explains:

I found what follows lying on my desk one morning. As you will see, it appears to be the first person story of a young woman, evidently beautiful and not unskilled in the arts of love. According to her story, she appears to have been involved, both perilously and romantically, with the same James Bond whose secret service exploits I myself have written from time to time. With the manuscript was a note signed ‘Vivienne Michel’ assuring me that what she had written was ‘purest truth and from the depths of her heart’. I was interested in this view of James Bond, through the wrong end of the telescope so to speak, and after obtaining clearance for certain minor infringements of the Official Secrets Act I have much pleasure in sponsoring its publication.

So, The Spy Who Loved Me is a bit of an experiment.  That Fleming often grew tired of Bond as a character is well-documented.  Not only did Fleming have to come up with a new adventure every year but Bond himself couldn’t change from being who he had been since the early 50s, a serious-minded civil servant who occasionally saved the world.  With this book, Fleming largely used Bond as a plot device, a deus ex machina.

Instead, the novel is dominated by Vivienne.  Oddly, for someone who wants to tell us all about James Bond, Vivienne spends a good deal of time focusing on her life before she ended up at that hotel.  We find out about her first boyfriend, an insincere British boy named Derek and also about her second boyfriend, an autocratic German named Karl.  The scenes with Derek and Karl almost feel like a parody of the coming-of-age genre.  That doesn’t mean that there aren’t compelling scenes to be found in The Spy Who Loved Me.  Fleming was too good of a storyteller for anything that he wrote not to have some sort of value.  But, at the same time, it’s still obvious that the story is being written by a British man in his 50s who is trying really, really hard to sound like a Canadian woman in her 20s.

And then — oh my God!  Sluggsy and Horror show up!  I’m sorry but there’s no way that you can take anyone named either Sluggsy or Horror seriously.  They are, without a doubt, the weakest villains since Diamonds are Forever gave us the Spang Brothers.

On the plus side, Horror did apparently inspire Jaws, the henchman played by Richard Kiel in the film versions of both this book and Moonraker.  And, even if the experiment didn’t quite work, it’s still interesting to see Bond through someone else’s eyes.

Fleming was so dissatisfied with this novel that, when he sold the film rights, he specifically required that the film not use any material from the book.  While The Spy Who Loved Me may not be Fleming’s strongest work, he would follow it up with the last great Bond novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

We’ll look at that one tomorrow.


Music Video of the Day: Nobody Does It Better by Carly Simon (1977, designed by Maurice Binder)

Yesterday, veteran British film director Lewis Gilbert passed away.  Gilbert directed several films, in all sorts of different genres, but he’s probably best known for directing three James Bond films, including The Spy Who Loved Me.

Since The Spy Who Loved Me is one of my favorite Bond films, I thought it would be appropriate to pick Carly Simon’s theme song, Nobody Does It Better, for today’s music video of the day.  However, the closest that I could find to an “official” video was the Maurice Binder-designed title sequence from The Spy Who Loved Me.

Written by Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager, Nobody Does It Better was Carly Simon’s longest-charted hit and it’s a song that has continued to have a long life outside of the Bond franchise.  It was the second Bond theme song to be nominated for Best Original Song.


4 Shots From 4 Films: Alfie, The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, Education Rita

Rest in peace, Lewis Gilbert.

4 Shots From 4 Films

Alife (1966, dir by Lewis Gilbert)

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977, dir by Lewis Gilbert)

Moonraker (1979, dir by Lewis Gilbert)

Educating Rita (1983, dir by Lewis Gilbert)

6 James Bond Films That Should Have Been Nominated For Best Picture

James Bond and Jaws

Other than a few song nominations (and wins) and the occasional technical mentions, the Academy has tended to snub the James Bond franchise.

However, I love the Bond films so here are 6 times that I think 007’s latest adventure should have been nominated for best picture!

From Russia With Love

  1. From Russia With Love (1963)

I not only think that From Russia With Love should have been nominated for best picture, I also think that it should have won.  This film featured Sean Connery at his best and it’s one of the few Bond films to work not only as an adventure but as a romance as well.


2. Skyfall (2012)

I’m not a huge fan of Daniel Craig’s interpretation of the character.  If Connery was Killer Bond and Roger Moore was Charming Bond, Craig often seems to be Whiny Bond.  That said, Skyfall was not only one of the best Bond films but one of the best films of 2012 as well.

The Spy Who Loved Me

3. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

Nobody does it better!  Not only was this Roger Moore’s best Bond film but it’s a wonderful piece of pop art.


4. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

This is one of the most underrated of all of the Bond films.  Ignore all the gossip over how George Lazenby came to play James Bond and you’ll discover that it is a Skyfall for the 60s.


5. Goldfinger (1964)

“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”  Goldfinger is over the top perfection.


6. Live and Let Die (1973)

Live and Let Die will probably never be acclaimed as the other Bond films but I don’t care.  I love it.  It’s the closest the Bond franchise ever came to achieving the anything-goes insanity of a classic grindhouse film.

Will a James Bond film ever receive a best picture nomination?  Normally, I’d say no.  But Mad Max: Fury Road changed the rules (for the better).  Given the right Bond, the right director, the right story, and the right year, who knows what could happen?



James Bond Film Review: The Spy Who Loved Me (dir. by Lewis Gilbert)

For the past few days, the Shattered Lens has been taking a journey through the history of the James Bond film franchise.  Today, we continue that journey by taking a look at 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me.  This was the 10th film in the “official” James Bond series and the 3rd to star Roger Moore as 007.  It was also the first of Moore’s films to be embraced by contemporary critics and it’s still considered to be one of the best films in the entire series.  It’s also one of my personal favorites.

The Spy Who Loved Me opens with one of the most of brilliant pre-credit sequences in the history of the franchise.  British and Russian submarines are mysteriously vanishing.  M (a returning Bernard Lee) summons James Bond (Roger Moore) to investigate.  Not surprisingly, Bond is with a woman at a ski resort when the summons comes.  As Bond starts to leave, the woman says, “But James, I need you.”

“So does England,” Bond replies.

Now, this was long before my time so I can’t say for sure but I always like to imagine  that line got some applause when it was first heard in theaters.  It is with that line (and, even more importantly, with his self-assured but humorous delivery of that line) that Roger Moore truly claims the role of James Bond as his own.  No, this scene seemed to be telling us, Moore would never be Sean Connery.  But he would be James Bond.

After leaving the chalet, Bond finds himself being pursued by several Russian agents.  This downhill ski chase, filmed by real people who were truly putting their lives in danger in the days before CGI, is one of the most exciting of all the chases to be found in Bond films and it builds up to a perfect climax.  After Bond manages to kill one of his pursuers, he skis right over the edge of a cliff.  Luckily, he has a parachute in his backpack and, of course, it’s a union jack parachute.  Again, I like to imagine that audiences applauded at this moment.

Bond’s escape leads to the opening credits and, even more importantly, Carly Simon singing the film’s theme song, “Nobody Does It Better.”  Seriously, I love this song.

Both MI6 and the KGB discover that the plans for a submarine tracking system are being sold on the Egyptian black market.  Suspecting that this is connected to the missing submarines, both James Bond and the Russian agent Anya Asamova (Barbara Bach) are sent to Egypt.  Bond and Anya team up to find the plans.  Along the way, they are attacked multiple times by Jaws (Richard Kiel), a hulking man with steel teeth.

Eventually, Bond and Anya discover that the man responsible for the missing submarines is Karl Stromberg (Curt Jurgens), a shipping magnate who is planning on destroying the surface world so that he can start a new society underwater.  The two secret agents work together to defeat Stromberg even though Anya assures Bond that she’s going to kill him as soon as their mission is completed.  Remember the man who Bond killed during that opening ski chase?  It turns out that man was Anya’s lover and she’s only putting off getting her revenge so that she and Bond can save the world first.

With its confident mix of humor, intrigue, and spectacular action, The Spy Who Loved Me remains one of the most popular of the Bond films.  It’s certainly one of my favorites.

Along with From Russia With Love and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, this is the most romantic of the Bond films.  Roger Moore and Barbara Bach have a very real chemistry and, as a result, you actually care about whether or not Bond and Anya will still be together after the end credits.  As played by Barbara Bach, Anya is one of the strongest of the Bond girls.  For once, Bond and his lover are truly equals.  For anyone who doubts the importance of having a strong Bond girl, I invite them to compare this movie to The Man With The Golden Gun.

For those who are more into action than romance, The Spy Who Loved Me will not leave them disappointed.  This film features some of the best set pieces in the history of the Bond franchise.  Along with the ski chase at the start of the film, there’s also a genuinely exciting car chase that features Bond and Anya being pursued by a helicopter piloted by Caroline Munro.

(Speaking of cars, this film also features one of my favorite Bond gadgets — a car that doubles as a submarine.)

Karl Stromberg makes for an interesting villain.  His plan makes absolutely no sense but he may be the first Bond bad guy to motivated by perverted idealism as opposed to pure greed.  As you would expect from a Bond film, his secret underwater HQ is quite an impressive set.  However, the best thing about Stromberg is that he employs Jaws.  With his stainless steel teeth, Jaws was the best henchman since Goldfinger‘s Oddjob and he proved to be such a popular character that he actually returned in the next Bond film.

One final note: As has often been noted, The Spy Who Loved Me was the first Bond film to have absolutely nothing in common (beyond a title) with the book that it was based on.  This is largely because the literary Spy Who Loved Me wasn’t really about James Bond.  Instead, it told the life story of Vivienne Michel, a Canadian woman who just happens to meet Bond towards the end of the book.  Fleming reportedly considered this book to be a failed experiment on his part and reportedly he only sold the film rights when he was assured that only the book’s title would be used.

That said, I recently read The Spy Who Loved Me and it’s not that bad.  Vivienne Michel is a compelling character and it’s interesting to, for once, see James Bond through the eyes of a lover as opposed to the other way around.  If it is a failed experiment, it’s still an experiment that’s worth reading.

As for the cinematic James Bond, he conquered the sea in The Spy Who Loved Me so it only made sense that, in his next film, he would attempt to conquer space.  We’ll take a look at Moonraker tomorrow.