Friday, August 3, 2012

This Day in Film History (‘Spy Who Loved Me’ Shakes Bond Fans)

August 3, 1977—The Spy Who Loved Me, the 10th film in the James Bond series, came from the least distinguished of Ian Fleming’s original novels about the British spy. But producer Albert Broccoli managed to spin box-office gold from this unlikely dross, as the movie raked in $46.8 million in the U.S. and $185.4 million worldwide—largely because he juggled the contributions of at least a dozen screenwriters, including Anthony Burgess.

The Bond series flies in the face of the auteur theory of the director as the prime mover behind a motion picture. Ten directors have worked on the 22 movies, but the series has maintained its continuity—its “brand,” if you will—through the involvement of one family: “Cubby” Broccoli, his daughter Barbara and her stepbrother Michael Wilson.

Cubby Broccoli’s challenge with The Spy Who Loved Me may have been steeper to him than any since the founding of the franchise with Dr. No in 1962: This was his first without partner Harry Saltzman. He had needed Saltzman at the beginning, as the latter owned the rights to Fleming’s novels, but the partnership between the two strong-willed men had not always been easy, and Saltzman’s recent financial dire straits had allowed Broccoli to buy him out at last.

Broccoli was determined, then, to prove to the world that the series would continue without a hitch. With Roger Moore, far less combative about his financial rights and autonomy as an actor than the original Bond, Sean Connery, ready to go for his third time as Bond, all seemed, to the world, ready to go. The problem was that Broccoli had no real script this time around.

There was a reason why Fleming’s novel, published two years before his death, had gone unfilmed to date: it was the least characteristic and least well-received of the Bond books. It was narrated by a woman rescued by 007, who doesn’t appear until two-thirds of the way through. The critical and popular reaction was so negative that Fleming would allow Broccoli and Saltzman to film it if they only retained the title in the finished product.

What, most Hollywood people would say, would be the problem with that? Instead of “license to kill,” Broccoli (now minus Saltzman) had “license to adapt.” The only stipulation that the producer gave his vrious scribes was that the plot needed to involve a beautiful Russian spy who falls in love with Bond. But that turned out to be too much of a good thing.
I had always thought it preposterous that eight different screenwriters could have worked on the Tom Hanks canine film, Turner and Hooch. But 12 worked on The Spy Who Loved Me, and at one time or another 15 different screenplays connected with it crossed Broccoli’s desk. It was the kind of maddening chaos from which David O. Selznick extracted Gone With the Wind.

The final script for The Spy Who Loved Me is credited to Christopher Wood and Richard Maibaum, but such other writers as Anthony Barwick, Derek Marlowe, Sterling Silliphant, and John Landis had also taken a crack at it. The most famous writer who labored over it was A Clockwork Orange author Burgess.

Burgess had this in his favor for the assignment: He was an aficionado of the novels, writing that Fleming created them with "a sort of Renaissance gusto.'' (Even Fleming’s wife begged to differ on this point, once noting to Evelyn Waugh that a typical day in Jamaica for the couple involved her “scratching away with my paintbrush… while Ian hammers out his pornography next door.")

A decade after his writing assignment ended unsatisfactorily, Burgess took aim at The Spy Who Loved Me, observing that it was “a very unflemingian hotchpotch.” The novelist’s larger point—that the loud, leering tone of the series following the departure of Connery was a creative downgrade--was true enogh But the criticism was odd indeed for someone who had created as close to a parody of Bond this side of Austin Powers.

I was amused to learn that the new Bond film, Skyfall, will feature Queen Elizabeth II in a cameo, greeting 007. Burgess’ rejected script had the monarch playing a far different, more prominent—and surely less comfortable—role. Terrorist demands force Burgess’ queen to strip on live television at one point!
This, and other plot devices, made Burgess’ script a non-starter. About the only item retained in the finished film, so far as anyone has remarked, is a huge submarine silo.

None of it mattered. The pre-opening credits sequence, ending with Bond jumping off a cliff and releasing a Union Jack parachute, started what became a new feature of the series. Audiences also took to heart the theme song, "Nobody Does It Better"; the astonishing henchman, Jaws (so popular that Broccoli allowed him to escape and come back in a later film); and the familiar fast cars, fast lines and fast women (Barbara Bach this time) that was always part of the formula.

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