Once again it is time for Fleming Revisited, the Last Movie Outpost quest to re-read all of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels in order of publication and discuss them here. Before we get to The Spy Who Loved Me… You can read all of our previous entries here starting with Casino Royale, Live And Let Die, Moonraker, Diamonds Are Forever, From Russia With Love, Dr. No, Goldfinger and For Your Eyes Only.
Last time around we covered the sorry tale of Thunderball, and how the introduction of 007’s most famous adversary very nearly killed the franchise. Arguably it did contribute to the death of Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming.
Now, with James Bond hot on the heels of a fleeing Blofeld and a scattered S.P.E.C.T.R.E. we take time out to experience Fleming’s strangest, most experimental Bond novel. Not classed as one of the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. trilogy, but nonetheless following on from Thunderball.
This time we tackle The Spy Who Loved Me.
Nobody Does It Better
In 1974 the James Bond franchise was in trouble. The lead actor had changed from Sean Connery to George Lazenby, back to Sean Connery, to Roger Moore. Live And Let Die was a smash-hit, but The Man With The Golden Gun received terrible reviews and performed more sluggishly at the box office than its predecessors despite the huge budget.
Twelve years on screen, nine movies made. The questions were being asked as to whether Bond as a cinematic franchise was over.
One half of the producing duo behind the movies, Harry Saltzman, was in financial difficulties and was forced to sell his half of the rights to 007 for £20 million in 1975. United Artists bought the share, causing the MGM/UA connection that endures today, and hence why Bond is mentioned frequently in the news of Amazon buying MGM recently.
Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli went for broke. It took him four years, at the time an unheard-of gap between Bond movies, but he pushed on with the biggest Bond movie yet. It was a stellar success. Appearing on many fans’ top ten lists, it was wildly financially successful and is even Roger Moore’s own favorite portrayal of James Bond.
However, the story we eventually saw on screen has absolutely nothing in common with the original novel. There are no disappearing submarines, wet bikes, aquatic Lotus Esprits and Russian spies with tremendous cleavage.
Instead, we get a very contained story. A story in which Bond does not even appear until halfway through. A novel in which Bond is not even the main character, and which is not told from his point of view. It is a story that is told in the first-person, from the point of view of an entirely different character completely. A woman.
Ian Fleming, writing as a woman.
First published by Jonathan Cape on 16 April 1962, The Spy Who Loved Me is the shortest of Fleming’s 007 adventures. It is also the most sexually explicit. In a clear departure from previous Bond novels, the story is told from the point of view of a young Canadian woman, Vivienne Michel.
It was not well-loved by fans, and this caused Fleming to become unhappy with the book. As a result, he blocked the paperback edition in the UK, and when he sold the rights to the movie he stipulated that only the title and the character of James Bond could ever be used. The rest of it must not be made into a movie, ever.
The remaining producer, Cubby Broccoli, respected his wishes when it became the basis for the tenth movie in the series. There are two characters in the book called Sol Horror and Sluggsy Morant. Horror is very tall and is described as having steel-capped teeth, while Sluggsy was shorter with a round, clear bald head, however as Fleming said nothing from his book should be on screen then this is absolutely not the inspiration for anything whatsoever in The Spy Who Loved Me movie. No way. Nope. Nothing from the book is in the movie.
Anyway… moving on. The Spy Who Loved Me novel is divided into three parts. The first is simply titled Me. The second is Them, and the third is Him.
In the first part, Me, Vivienne recounts the story of an unhappy love affair, her first true love with the man who deflowered her. This is followed by an affair with her boss and her eventual pregnancy. She is forced by him into an unwanted abortion and leaves him.
She now finds herself as the remaining employee of the Dreamy Pines motor lodge, an isolated motel in the Adirondack Mountains which has been sold. She is caretaking the property for one night as the managers move on, and associates of the new owners arrive for an inventory.
Vivienne is a classic Bond girl, a bird with a wing down, fragile and damaged by the kind of men Fleming regarded as not really men at all. It is unclear why Fleming chose to present the story in the first person, but from the point of view of the female lead. He did create a fanciful prologue for the story which was attached to early editions, explaining why this story was told this way:
“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.”
As her story unfolds it is clear this character is very injured. Things are about to go from bad to worse for her. Down on the highway, the neon “No Vacancy” sign is showing, ensuring that no new customers arrive at the empty motel. The novel transitions into part 2, Them, as the associates of the new owner, a Mr. Sanguinetti, arrive.
It turns out that Sanguinetti is not a benevolent owner. “Sluggsy” Morant and Sol “Horror” Horowitz arrive and say they are there to look over the motel for insurance purposes. It transpires that the two have been hired by Sanguinetti to burn down the motel, allowing Sanguinetti to claim for a profit on the insurance. The blame for the fire would fall on Vivienne, who will die in the fire.
They clear out valuables such as TVs and cutlery and then they turn their attention to Vivienne. Growing increasingly desperate she flicks the switch turning the “No Vacancy” sign to read “Vacancy” in the faint hope that somebody may stop by.
The Mobsters attack her, holding her down, and start to remove her clothes. As a rape seems imminent they are interrupted by the door buzzer.
Makes Me Feel Bad For The Rest
Him. An Englishman, traveling through, has suffered a flat tire out on the highway and he intends to stay the night in the motel. Unfortunately for Horror and Sluggsy, he is not a traveling salesman.
Fleming wrote The Spy Who Loved Me at Goldeneye in Jamaica over January and February 1961. The original manuscript was only 113 pages long. He effectively hammered it out. The speed at which he wrote it may indicate he was angry at the time. This would also explain his desire to try something different and radically alter the style of the story.
The Spy Who Loved Me has been described by Fleming biographer Andrew Lycett as Fleming’s:
“…most sleazy and violent story ever…”
Lycett also concludes that this may have been indicative of Fleming’s state of mind at the time. At this point in Fleming’s life, the Thunderball legal battle would have just been concluded and he would have suffered his first heart attack.
Vivienne herself is a surprisingly sensitively drawn character. Fleming’s attitude towards women did not stop him from creating Vivienne carefully and sympathetically. However other characters in the novel are given less attention.
Bond scholar and Academic Jeremy Black notes that Vivienne Michel is the closest Fleming gets to “kitchen sink realism” out of all the James Bond adventures. There is little or no escapism in her story.
Vivienne’s second lover, Kurt, is a cruel and cold German who forces her to have an abortion (illegal in England at the time) and then finishes the affair. Sluggsy and Horror are paper-thin bad guys but this somehow adds to their menace as second-rate professional killers. The way they act and react is believable.
Another reason for the dark tone of the novel could be Fleming’s desire to somewhat alter perceptions of Bond himself.
The question of morality and duality between Bond and the villains is touched on several times across the whole Bond canon, and in fact, Bond is practically the birthplace of the trope where the villain points out:
“We’re not so different, you and I!”
This morality theme is discussed in detail by a third party, the police detective who comes to investigate what happened at the motel after Bond has departed and called in local law enforcement. Was Bond just as bad as the hoods here, given that he is a trained, professional killer?
Bond continuity novel author Raymond Benson argues that this is a completely different view of Bond from the heroic last line of defense frequently witnessed.
In his writings Jeremy Black seems to agree, stating that he sees The Spy Who Loved Me as being:
“…an account of the vulnerable under challenge, of the manipulative nature of individuals and of the possibility of being trapped by evil…”.
Fleming may well back up this view in a letter he wrote to Michael Howard at Jonathan Cape, to explain why he wrote the book:
“I had become increasingly surprised to find my thrillers, which were designed for an adult audience, being read in schools, and that young people were making a hero out of James Bond … So it crossed my mind to write a cautionary tale about Bond, to put the record straight in the minds particularly of younger readers … the experiment has obviously gone very much awry”.
Like Heaven Above Me…
As usual, Fleming used real-life inspiration for the settings and character names. On his way to his friend Ivar Bryce’s Black Hollow Farm (itself an inspiration for a villain’s lair in the short story For Your Eyes Only) he would pass a motel. This motel was in the Adirondacks in upstate New York. This became the Dreamy Pines Motel.
Vivienne Michel loses her virginity to her first true love in a box in the Royalty Kinema in Windsor. According to Fleming’s biography, this is where he similarly had his first time. The name Vivienne is taken from one of his neighbors in Jamaica, Vivienne Stuart.
So how does it read? It is worth your time?
It may not officially be one of the “S.P.E.C.T.R.E. trilogy” but Bond is still hot on the heels of them following the events of Thunderball.
Bond is in America in the wake of Operation Thunderball and is now en route to Toronto to protect a Russian nuclear expert who defected to the West. The Russians want the scientist dead and are thought to have outsourced the hit to S.P.E.C.T.R.E.
They have taken to contract in a desperate attempt to rebuild their balance sheet after Bond and Felix Leiter foiled them in the Bahamas.
Bond is very much a transient in the story, almost playing the role of the lone gunslinger who arrives in town just in time to help the townsfolk fight off the bandits. He arrives, uses his particular skills to deal with the killers who suddenly find themselves very much out of their depth, and after spending the night with the damsel in distress is gone in the morning.
As a result, the novel itself feels somewhat transient. Knowing that the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. trilogy continues in the next book it almost feels like something of a detour. That said, that may be the point.
A detour for Bond is at the heart of this novel, just as writing it was a detour in Fleming’s life. It’s a good book. It could be made today for whatever the cost of the lead actor’s salary, was plus around $10 million all in. A sharp 90-minute caper. Maybe serve it up between big Bond movies as the first R-rated Bond adventure?
Certainly an intriguing idea.
You don’t just have to be a Bond completist to enjoy it though. It is a tense and tight thriller that clips along and can be finished in a couple of evenings.
To see a different side of Bond it is worth picking up. If only to marvel at how it is a world away from the globally important submarine caper that basically saved the Bond franchise, rejuvenated Roger Moore, and gave Cubby Broccoli what he needed to strike out on his own.
Next time the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. trilogy continues with the middle installment. There are only three full 007 adventures left to go in Fleming’s series as Bond’s obsession with hunting down S.P.E.C.T.R.E. has deadly, and tragic, consequences.
Fleming Revisited will return with… On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.