Monday, February 13, 2017

Better In Your Head?--THE SPY WHO LOVED ME

1962 
Ian Fleming

"Bond. James Bond."
"That's a pretty chump name."

AKA, "The One Where Bond Shows Up Two-Thirds of the Way Through."


Viv Michel is a young, middle-class woman whose Canadian is in the French fashion, and whose French is in the Canadian way. Her relative speck of a life has not been spine-tingling, nor even chin-tickling. Desperately seeking stimulus, she acquires a Vespa, cashes some traveler's checks, and heads South. A stop in the Adirondacks of upstate New York leads her to the Dreamy Pines Motor Court, where the managers are quick to offer her a hot meal and a temp job behind the receptionist desk.

With vacation season at a close, the managers leave Viv alone for a night, telling her to expect the motel's owner, one Mr. Sanguinetti, who will be by to take inventory before closing up for the winter. A raging thunderstorm prompts her to turn on the VACANCY sign in hopes of attracting some company. Before long, Viv finds herself entangled in an "orgy of remembering" all the men she's loved before: an Oxford-bound upstart and a German caricature, specifically.

When a knock on the door interrupts her drawn-out, terribly unsexy memories, the good stuff--that is to say, the bad stuff--truly begins.

Rather than one man in the form of Mr. Sanguinetti, Viv is greeted with two men in the forms of "Horror" and "Sluggsy," walking pulp fiction templates who are at the motel on his behalf. Since this is a Bond novel, however unconventional, Horror has cheap steel caps on his front teeth and Sluggsy suffers from alopecia. These gentlemen are not at all, and when Viv slaps Sluggsy, everyone pretty much realizes that there's gonna be some rape going down.

Viv rustles up some late-night breakfast for these deliberate goons, then attempts to make her escape. Which only gets her expertly shot at and beaten up. (But not raped.) Viv licks her wounds, eats her bacon and eggs, and tries to suss out why these hardened thugs have paid her an unfriendly visit. Another desperate attempt to save her ass via flying silverware comes up short, and yep here it is, assault of a sexual nature, I knew it I knew it--

BUZZZZ!

At the front door is a debonair English chap with a flat tire. Horror and Sluggsy are insistent that the limey fix up look elsewhere for lodging, but he won't hear such nonsense. A staggeringly grateful Viv accompanies her surprise savior to his car to fetch his bags, making him less oblivious with each sentence she manages to complete.

Back indoors, Viv whips out even more breakfast, while James Bond--oh aren't you surprised--regales her with the highlights of his latest adventure (probably an idea for a longer story that Fleming gave up on) as Sluggsy and Horror watch on from a distance.

After midnight, with everyone ostensibly on the planet Zed-3, the motel's cabins go up in flames. Bond rescues Viv and answers at last the question that had been driving her mad--the boys were sent to Dreamy Pines by the owner to burn the place down for the insurance money. A shoot-out between a shirtless 007 and the two witless criminals ensues, with an outcome sure to shock no one.

What do a hetero man and a hetero woman do after coming out on the happy side of a life-death situation? Damn skippy. Bond leaves Viv a very polite note instructing her on how to handle the authorities, and a cop uses her for a "practice daughter" and that is, blessedly, it.

On a superficial level, The Spy Who Loved Me is worthy of commendation. For Bond No. 9, Ian Fleming took a risk. He did not throw the formula out, merely skipped over a word or five. Perhaps he aimed to demonstrate his range as a writer. Maybe he yearned to prove naysayers wrong by not only crafting a three-dimensional female character, but making a (slight) novel solely in her voice. Whatever the ultimate goal, audiences felt betrayed, and Fleming would bemoan The Spy Who Loved Me as a failed experiment, allowing the title and only the title to be used for any future film adaptations.

A title which isn't even accurate. Bond didn't love Viv. Loved making her scream, yes; but Fleming seems to be making a point of how naive the poor girl is, prone to false equivalencies of body and soul, rather than Bond being a sex god. Perhaps there's a hopeful message underneath all the half-baked prose, the promise of a wiser woman making the journey from self-absorbed to selfless. Does that mean Viv will continue on her delayed trip, winding up in the Sunshine State and living out a carefree existence? Or will she return to Quebec and settle down with the first man who doesn't tuck tail at the first imperfection?

How you rate The Spy Who Loved Me will depend on how you rate the barely-began life of a garrulous orphan. While I place it at the bottom in terms of novels by Fleming, I hesitate to deem it an abject failure. Worthy of neither adoration nor animosity, I'd recommend it to a Bond fan with the caveat that they start at the third and final section.


1977
Director-Lewis Gilbert
Writers-Richard Maibaum & Christopher Wood (and at least ten others)

"The name's Bond. James Bond."
"What of it?"

AKA, "Thunderball done right."

Take it back, take it down...to where the fish frolic...to where big-ass ballistics submarines carry weaponry capable of starting (and finishing) a global holocaust. British and Soviet subs vanishing would be definite cause for pause and put your head 'tween your knees. 007 blasts his way past some Soviet spies in Austria and heads to Egypt, where the stolen microfilm plans for a super-sophisticated submarine tracking system are being held by nightclub owner Max Kalba. Naturally, the KGB are also interested in obtaining these plans, and have to that end dispatched their own operative, "Triple X," Mayor Anya Amasova, whose lover Sergei Barsov was the same man taken out by Bond in the pre-credits (although she does not know that).


A third party is on the hunt, the man from whom the plans were stolen--shipping tycoon/scientist Karl Stromberg, who has constructed his own city, Atlantis--seriously, it's called Atlantis--in and on the Mediterranean Sea. MI6 has 007, the KGB has XXX, and Stromberg has Jaws, a 7 foot 2 inch tall man-beast with metal teeth.

Bond and Amasova meet up at Max Kalba's club, where they show off their shoveling skills before Kalba arrives. Before any transaction can be made, he's called to a phone booth, where only Jaws awaits, ready to chomp the poor guy's throat and relieve him of the microfilm.

Jaws tries to make a tidy escape, but Bond recognizes him from a prior close call. He and Amasova hide out in Jaws' van, springing forth the next morning amid some lovely Egyptian ruins to eventually snatch the microfilm. They escape in the van and upgrade to a boat. Bond sneaks a peek at the microfilm, which winds up in the Major's hands when she renders him unconscious with the old "gas gun disguised as a cigarette" trick. All for naught, rally, as the Brits and Soviets have called a temporary truce, and the plans themselves are relatively useless, save for a hidden symbol that identifies Karl Stromberg.

Posing as a marine biologist and wife, James and Anya visit Stromberg at Atlantis. They learn about the Liparus, a supertanker he launched several months prior (and one that they will later learn never visited any port or harbor), and of his belief in an underwater city as the salvation for a rapidly-disintegrating planet. Neither spy knows to be on the lookout for Jaws, but before long he's clued in his boss as to their true identities. Bond and Asamova escape sudden death with the help of one of Bond's best gadgets, the Lotus Esprit--a car that converts into a submarine. One more time for the people in the book--a car that converts into a submarine.

While helping plan their next move, Anya learns it was 007 who killed her dude. He tries the old "it was spy business, darling, surely you of all women would understand," but she is unwilling to accept the harsh truth, vowing to end Bond's days once their mission is complete.

So when the Liparus abducted the Yankee sub they were aboard, Bond probably peed a little.

Surrounded by the two missing submarines (and their imprisoned crew members), Stromberg lays out the plan: to instigate the destruction of the surface world and make his idyllic underwater world a reality, he's programmed the two subs to take out Moscow and NYC. Right after giving the go-ahead, Stromberg takes off with Mayor Amasova and orders Bond to be placed with the incarcerated crewmen. Should've hung around to make sure his dudes could do the job, since Bond escapes, frees the others and the wholesale slaughter begins.

Overseen by Bond, the American Captain uses the tracking system to reprogram the two submarine's coordinates. Instead of two major world cities, the vessels take out each other. Next, is Atlantis. In hopes of saving Triple X, Bond hops on a "wetbike" and arrives ahead of the Liparus. Stromberg is dispatched of (a pedestrian death for a pedestrian villain, I mean dude doesn't even stand up), Jaws is dumped into a shark pool, and Anya joins James in an escape pod.

007 is ready to pop bubbly and chill, but there remains the itty-bitty matter of the Major's get-back. Just joking, no hard feelings! Well, there is one hard feeling.

The Spy Who Loved Me is Roger Moore's personal favorite of his Bond performances. I'd say if not this, then Live and Let Die. His 007 possesses sophistication in spades, yet he's unafraid of snarking mid-getaway, or smacking a man off a rooftop. Both movie and actor ooze confidence. The action is smooth, the plot is engaging, and the moments of humor are organic, with the winks just perceptible.

BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
This is a weird one, the weirdest one I'll have to do. The question of whether the film outdid the book is almost one you can't ask, since all the film took from the book was the title (and a couple other little things I'll get to soon). So it's not, did Eon Productions do Ian Fleming justice, since Ian Fleming didn't do himself justice. The question, then--which story did you prefer?

For me, the answer is simple: The Spy Who Loved Me is one of my favorite Bond movies, while also being my least favorite Bond novel. One is short and sour, the other is long and strong. Yet, I feel even the movie could have been improved. 

Karl Stromberg is dull. To be kinder, he is a phlegmatic man. A brick among clay, as electrifying as a discarded box. He is the emotional and physical opposite of Ernest Stavro Blofeld...the most infamous of all Bond baddies, and the original choice for The Spy Who Loved Me. Kevin McClory refused to sign off, resulting in a Big Bad so Not That, Eon Productions immediately remade The Spy Who Loved Me with a villain portrayed by an actor who didn't seem mere seconds away from lapsing into catatonia.

The Lotus Esprit is the vehicular personification of "ridiculous and awesome."

Jaws bit a shark. He bit a shark!

The ski jump is not only one of the best stunts in Bond history, or film history, it makes a person feel proud to be English. In other words, it's the visual antipode of Theresa May's existence.

The producers took a bit more than just the title for their flashy picture show--henchman Horror has cheap silver caps in his front teeth, and his palsy Sluggsy is fat and bald. Ladies and gentlemen, Jaws and Sandor.

Upstate New York vs. Cairo. Come on, man.

Don't misunderstand my solicitous soul, the book has moments of genuine throat-clogging dread, and the mood whiplash is well-lashed when the goons show up. The eventual reveal of their plot explains their inaction, which bugged me mightily at the time. But there's too many moments where I marveled at Fleming's greasy grasp on the fundamentals of human interaction. And lest I forget, Viv's post-coital that "(A)ll women love semi-rape."

Semi-rape. Semi...rape. That's like calling yogurt "semi-pudding." Rough sex between consenting adults is consensual sex and thus, unidentifiable as "rape."

Contrast Viv with Anya. Barbara Bach (Mrs. Richard Starkey) gave an underrated performance as the Major: she's about her business every much as Bond is, but her ability to balance professional duty with personal vulnerability distinguishes her from the lesser Bond Girls that Roger Moore was saddled with late in his run. And that accent ain't bad, give her a break.

MIND THE GAP
Woman gives up the slit--slut. Woman refuses to give up the slit--cocktease. Reason I Marched, #23.

"Those men were dynamite from Nightmare-Land." What...in the uneven hell.

Atlantis looks like something Bowser Jr. would use to battle Mario.

Has anyone ever considered that Sergei Barsov was the titular spy?

Viv and Bond had sex in one motel cabin while the others were still burning...right? I didn't imagine that?


TRAPPER JENN MD WILL RETURN IN...'ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE'

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