Spy Who Loved Me director Lewis Gilbert dies aged 97

Filmmaker whose career spanned eight decades was best known for directing three Bond films and making a star of Michael Caine in Alfie

Lewis Gilbert, the British director of a string of celebrated films including the 1966 Michael Caine hit Alfie and The Spy Who Loved Me, arguably the high point of the Roger Moore James Bond era, has died aged 97.

Bond producers Michael G Wilson and Barbara Broccoli confirmed Gilbert’s death in a statement. “It is with great sadness that we learn of the passing of our dear friend Lewis Gilbert,” they said. “Lewis was a true gentleman. He made an enormous contribution to the British film industry as well as the Bond films, directing You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker. His films are not only loved by us but are considered classics within the series. He will be sorely missed.”

Gilbert was born in Hackney in 1920 into a family of music hall artistes, and became a child actor in the 1930s, appearing in Dick Turpin and two Alexander Korda produced films, Over the Moon and The Divorce of Lady X. However his interest lay more in behind the camera roles, and he worked as an assistant on Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn in 1939.

The Spy Who Loved Me.
Benchmark ... Roger Moore and Richard Kiel in The Spy Who Loved Me. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar/United Artists

He cut his teeth making documentaries during the war, attached to the US Air Corps Film Unit, and broke into low-budget features after he was demobbed. Emergency Call, from 1952, was considered his breakthrough, allowing him to command bigger budgets and more expensive material. Reach for the Sky, the biopic of double amputee air ace Douglas Bader made a particular impact, as Gilbert profited from the burgeoning interest in heroic stories about the second world war. Carve Her Name With Pride (1958) and Sink the Bismarck! (1960) followed in a similar vein.

Gilbert’s career stepped up another level in 1966 with the release of Alfie, adapted from a play by Bill Naughton about a working-class romeo. Not only did Alfie make a star of Michael Caine as well as a box-office success, but it was a critical and awards darling (winning the Jury prize at Cannes and receiving five Oscar nominations) as well as being at the cutting edge of the swinging 60s. As Gilbert later wrote in the Guardian, Alfie “had a big effect on my career. I was offered everything; I was flavour of the month in Hollywood.”

Gilbert progressed straight on to the James Bond franchise, hired to direct You Only Live Twice in 1967, with scriptwriter Roald Dahl praising him as “a decent fellow” and for not interfering too much in the writing process. “What I admired so much about Lewis Gilbert was that he just took the screenplay and shot it. That’s the way to direct: You either trust your writer or you don’t.”

Tom Conti and Pauline Collins in Shirley Valentine.
Tom Conti and Pauline Collins in Shirley Valentine. Photograph: BBC screen grab

Gilbert returned to Bond with The Spy Who Loved Me, in 1977 – with its union-jack parachute, underwater Lotus and metal-dentured assassin – which remains the benchmark for the cock-eyebrowed Roger Moore era. It was followed by Moonraker in 1979, which capitalised on the recent publicity for the newly developed space shuttle, and sent Bond into orbit.

Gilbert’s highlights in the 1980s were both based on plays by Willy Russell: Educating Rita, for which Gilbert reunited with Caine alongside successful TV comic Julie Walters in her feature film debut, and Shirley Valentine, starring Pauline Collins as the housewife who has a mid-life rejuvenation.

Gilbert continued to work into his 80s, with Walters also featuring in Gilbert’s final directorial credit: Before You Go in 2002, about three sisters who reunite after their mother’s death.


Andrew Pulver

The GuardianTramp

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