by Paul Deines
Late in the novel Live and Let Die, James Bond and his lady have been stripped naked on the villain’s boat; they’re about to be keel-hauled over razor-sharp corral. Bond has accepted his death, and he begins planning how to minimize the agony he and, more importantly, his lover will face. He decides he will strangle her before she is flayed alive, then use the weight of her body to drown himself.
That’s the tone of Ian Fleming’s novels. There’s plenty of fine dining, luxury vehicles and sex, but there’s also a lot of death and a lot of dread. Being a spy is a serious business, and most agents exit the game without a pulse. Over the first 25 years of the 007 film franchise, that dread sloughed away. The tail end of Roger Moore’s stretch as Bond was marred by head-slapping gadgetry and clown makeup.
When Timothy Dalton came to the role in 1987, he was the backup to a backup. Producers were vocally excited about casting Pierce Brosnan as Moore’s successor, but NBC’s last minute decision to renew Remington Steele made that impossible. Sam Neill screen-tested, and only bickering amongst EON producers kept him out of the role. Dalton, who had been courted briefly in the seventies, eventually got it. The casting of a classically trained thespian who contended with Peter O’Toole and sang Shakespeare was a recalibration from Moore. This new Bond would return to the character Ian Fleming wrote: erudite and, when necessary, brutal.
The conventional knowledge surrounding Timothy Dalton’s tenure is that it was brief for a reason, only lasting two films. He is among the least loved actors who played James Bond. Today, though, I want to focus on his first film The Living Daylights, which I think ranks among the best of the franchise.
The Living Daylights – which borrows its title, though not its narrative, from a Fleming short story – tells a deliberate, straightforward story. British intelligence smuggles a Soviet general (Jeroen Krabbé) out of the Eastern Bloc, only to have him snatched back, ostensibly by a rogue KGB commander (John Rhys-Davies). Bond pursues, enlisting the aid of the general’s cellist girlfriend (Maryam D’Abo), and uncovers a much larger plot involving elicit arms and opium.
This film was a conscious decision to break with the excesses of the Moore era here. In the atrocious A View to a Kill, Moore (nearly 60) beds something like six different women. Dalton only seduces one. Whether this was a reaction to the emergence of AIDS or simply a way to streamline the narratives, it harkens back to the source novels. More broadly, this film distills its plot to the most grounded and effective 007 elements. There is a triple-agent, Cold War intrigue, rogue malefactors and a roving henchman. Even the repeated marking of dead spies with Směrť Špionam comes from the first Fleming novel.
Maryam D’Abo’s Kara Milovy is not the most self-reliant Bond girl, but compared to what came before she’s practically a Navy seal. True, her arc is largely dependent on her being duped into abetting a covert operative (actually, two of them, if you count 007), and she’s way too trusting in the first half of the picture. Yet she has a facility once the action starts: escaping Afghan prisons, flying planes, escaping border agents in a cello case.
It also doesn’t hurt that D’Abo is a decent actress. She doesn’t match the steely archness of Honor Blackman, Maud Adams or Eva Green, but she finds a good balance: blank enough to hold some mystery, but present to the danger and betrayal. Kara’s not built for the spy game, but she does her damnedest. And she doesn’t squeal in delight or fear, which I think sets her apart from many that came before.
I’m a fan of any espionage picture that casts a handful of smarmy character actors and dares the audience to find the black hat. Tomas Alfredson’s eerie adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy did this to perfection a couple years back. The Living Daylights proves unusual in the 007 canon by playing this black hat trick.
We get Rhys-Davies as the Soviet spymaster, Krabbé as the defector and Joe Don Baker as a loathsome arms dealer. Krabbé is the lynchpin of the narrative. His fluid allegiance sends Bond over the Iron Curtain several times, and the ever-sniveling actor is great casting. His General Koskov is bumbling as he’s ferried into Western Europe through a gas pipeline, and from then on we’re trying to decide if he’s a fool or only feigning foolishness.
Rhys-Davies, meanwhile, brings his customary sage stoicism to General Pushkin. Early reports from Koskov say Pushkin is mad, but who knows whether that’s true? The truth fluid in this picture. So, Bond’s decision whether to put a bullet in Pushkin’s head is far more morally fraught than anything Moore faced. A queasy-making sequence involving Bond, Pushkin and Pushkin’s mistress in a hotel room feels closer to Munich than to Moonraker.
Then there’s Joe Don Baker, who would later return playing of sweaty CIA sidekick for Pierce Brosnan’s Bond. More than a little bit reminiscent of Oliver North, his arms dealer Whitaker is the least ambiguous of the bunch. For Christ sake, he has wax figures of Genghis Khan and Adolf Hitler in his house:
This trio of antagonists creates a narrative dynamic of perilous ambiguity. The Vienna scenes are shot like The Third Man, which is no accident. As in that Graham Greene masterpiece, the motives are secret, the protagonist flawed and the plot elusive. Meanwhile, the world is fraught with omnipresent danger. A silent blond assassin (Andreas Wisniewski) is murdering scores of western operatives, and eventually the Mujahideen in Afghanistan gets into the action. (Not necessarily the best choice from screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson, but hardly unique in this era).
See, this isn’t a plot to flood Silicon Valley, destroy flora and fauna with brainwashed vixens, or start a colony in space. It’s an oblique Cold War spy game.
The Stunts and the Gadgets
I’m not sure big action scenes have ever been this well-integrated into a Bond plot. There are four major set pieces in The Living Daylights: a truck chase in Gibraltar, a raid on an opulent British estate, the cello-sled chase at the Czech border and a harrowing fight on an airborne cargo plane.
I’d argue that sequence is in the top 10 all-time Bond action scenes. It combines an air stunt, a fistfight, a fraying rope and a ticking time-bomb. Its visuals are seamless, and, most importantly, it tends to multiple plot points at once. The same can be said of the other segments mentioned above. The Gibraltar chase establishes the ostensible KGB targeting of British agents. The raid pulls Koskov out of England, and the cello chase gets Kara across the Iron Curtain. Narrative coherence is a low bar, to be sure, but after the nonsense of the Moore years this level of cogency is commendable.
The same can be said of Q’s gadgets. Despite some unfortunate Q Branch gags early in The Living Daylights, the one trinket 007 takes into the field is pretty neat: a keychain that fires stun gas when triggered by a whistle. The writers also retired Roger Moore’s Alfa Romeos and Lotuses in favor of the classic Aston Martin that had been absent since the 1960s. It was a temporary return to sanity, pulling back from the realm of Inspector Gadget. Unfortunately, the sane spell was fleeting.
As I stated in my introductory post, the formula for a Bond picture is so immutable, it borders on a religious rite. This is primarily because the opening progression almost never changes. You get the gun-barrel introduction (except in the Craig installments), followed by a standalone action sequence (except in Dr. No), which segues into the opening credits.
The credits sequence is its own movie-in-miniature, and the song written for each film is a litmus test. A good Bond film never starts with a bad song. Several bad Bond pictures start with good songs (looking at you, A View to a Kill), but an awful opening is a good canary for bad things to come.
I think a-ha’s title track for The Living Daylights is a great opening theme. It’s sharp and brassy, though it lacks the oft-present horn section. Morten Harket’s strong falsetto marries the dual traditions of 007 vocals, the ragged belting of a Tom Jones and the lilting chanteuse tradition of a Nancy Sinatra. And much like the songs of those two – Thunderball and You Only Live Twice – the lyrics of a-ha’s piece are full of poetical nonsense. In fact, now’s probably the time to listen to it:
See: it’s not overly concerned with the plot, which is a pitfall of the worst of these songs. Conversely, it doesn’t slink back into saccharine love song territory, which has really only worked once. It’s got a catchy beat, some nervy strings, and a veritable Mad Libs of the words we want to hear in a 007 title song. Honestly, if your Bond song includes living and die in the lyrics, you’re mostly covered.
A couple cons: the song consists of, like, seven lines repeated ad infinitum. Not sure we need more than that, but it’s hardly an opus. Also, a-ha’s only major U.S. hit “Take On Me” was two-years old by the time this film premiered; so producers weren’t exactly tapping into the zeitgeist. And the legendary title designer Maurice Binder was not doing his best work here.
Still, I’m a proponent.
I think it’s a shame that Dalton is so often maligned as Bond. He was attempting what Daniel Craig is today, only he was doing it in the golden age of Schwarzenegger and Gibson. America was not buying what he was selling. We wanted our Bond to be more Martin Briggs and less George Smiley.
Perhaps given a few more pictures, the audience would have cottoned to this performance. Unfortunately, Dalton only had the two films: after The Living Daylights came the widely-detested License to Kill. That film, in which 007 goes rogue to take revenge on a Central American drug kingpin who mutilates Felix Leiter, tries hard to capture some Schwarzenegger-ian swagger, but it looks like a TV movie and leans hard on Scarface-derivative violence. It is one of only two Bond films to lose money. The franchise – and within it, Dalton – was sunk after License to Kill.
The next Bond picture would not hit theaters for six years, a hiatus during which it seemed Bond was dead (this was a period during which film franchises were actually allowed to die).
When 007 re-emerged in GoldenEye, he was no longer the Fleming-inflected world-weary assassin that Dalton created. Pierce Brosnan’s interpretation was closer to the better outings by Roger Moore. Well, perhaps that was right for the time. Dalton’s was a fine performance, but it did edge into sullenness. In dramatic scenes, he tends drop his voice into a glottal mutter. I suspect if he kept going, his films might have all started to resemble Quantum of Solace, bleak ruminations on what it is to kill for country, drained of the lust and wry humor.
Anyway, it’s too bad that Timothy Dalton was relegated to the heap. He was the lynchpin of a fine Bond picture, and everyone should check it out.
A few sundry details:
- This was the first Bond picture not to feature Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny. She had played the role since Dr. No and left the series with Roger Moore after A View to a Kill. Maxwell died in 2007.
- This is the only 007 film to feature a title song by a band or singer from a non-English speaking country.
- I'm getting this from IMDb, so take it with a grain of salt, but the two 00-agents who skydive into Gibraltar with Timothy Dalton were evidently cast for their resemblance to Roger Moore and George Lazenby.
- This was the last time a Bond film was named after Fleming story until 2006’s Casino Royale.
- If you’re keeping score, Dalton was the Welsh Bond. Craig and Moore were English; Connery, Scottish; Lazenby, Australian; and Brosnan, Irish. So, there you go.