Timothy Dalton played 007 in 1987’s The Living Daylights, but having turned the role down three times, he insisted upon a back-to-basics James Bond.
This feature contains moderate spoilers for The Living Daylights.
“Tell M what you want. If he fires me, I’ll thank him for it.”
In the James Bond franchise, going from Roger Moore to Timothy Dalton is like swapping a favourite teddy bear for a live adult wolf. The Living Daylights may be a less cuddly and familiar film than some of the earlier 1980s entries, but it works wonders in restoring a bit of jeopardy and fortitude to 007’s exploits.
Despite being reasonably reviewed at the time, it’s only in recent years that this film and 1989’s Licence To Kill have started moving up the rankings of fan-favourite films. As many have observed in reassessing the Dalton double-bill, it’s impossible not to see the star’s work on the series as a precursor to Daniel Craig’s portrayal of Bond.
As mentioned in previous columns, Dalton was variously offered the lead role in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Diamonds Are Forever, and Octopussy. On each of those occasions, he turned the offer down either because he felt he was too young, he didn’t want to follow Sean Connery, or he flat-out didn’t like the “techno-cool” aspect of Roger Moore’s escapades.
But producer Albert R. Broccoli kept him in mind and after a near-miss in casting breakout TV star Pierce Brosnan, (whatever happened to that guy?) he finally got Dalton to sign up for the 15th instalment of the spy franchise.
The film withdraws from foiling plots for world domination and instead finds Bond going undercover to foil a criminal scheme orchestrated by a Soviet general. After two 00 agents are killed on a training exercise, MI6 orders 007 to eliminate KGB head Leonid Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies) based on information from defector Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé). However, Bond seeks out Czech cellist Kara Milovy (Maryam d’Abo) instead, realising she’s as embroiled in the wide-ranging conspiracy as he is.
Arriving in cinemas in June 1987, the franchise’s silver-jubilee year, The Living Daylights represented something of an uptick in the series’ cinema takings, grossing $191.2 million at the worldwide box office, which is $40m more than Moore’s final fling, A View To A Kill.
You can listen to a more in-depth telling of the story behind the making of The Living Daylights in this episode of the Film Stories podcast, but this week’s feature is focused is the man in the spotlight (and we don’t just mean that really cool sight gag that echoes the opening gun-barrel sequence about halfway through the film). What did Dalton to make of the series and, perhaps more importantly, did he set his hopes up way too high?
“The most dangerous Bond. Ever.”
Even before Dalton arrived, director John Glen and screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson were already plotting a departure from the comic tone of the Moore films in the next film. What Dalton wanted to get out of it, on top of that, was something closer to the tone of Ian Fleming’s stories than the blockbusting global stakes of more recent missions.
There weren’t too many Fleming stories left for the franchise to draw on at this point, but The Living Daylights pretty faithfully adapts the short story of the same name as its first act. After a pre-title sequence that tees up “Smiert Spionom” (death to spies) from earlier in the canon, the film starts proper with Bond refusing to kill the female sniper when he realises she’s not a professional, instead using his shot to scare her off.
In 1987, Maibaum told Starlog Magazine that the story provided a springboard for the script, but in continuing it for a feature-length movie they had to ask themselves “Who is the woman?”
(Folks – 15 films in, I’m relatively confident in suggesting that this question had never before been asked about the story of a James Bond film, but we’ll come back to that.)
Glen, Maibaum, and Wilson reworked the film after Dalton’s casting was confirmed, tailoring the script not only to his interpretation of the character but also to his input about bringing the character back from superhero to secret agent, making him more fallible and vulnerable again.
It’s to his immense credit that Dalton, always more a character actor than a sex-symbol movie star, utterly throws himself into it. Those blazing eyes and that lethal snarl go a long way towards making sure the new Bond lives up to the “most dangerous” label touted in the marketing.
But the star fully engaged with the action parts too, doing as many of the stunts as he was allowed from the opening car-chase kerfuffle onwards. Broccoli was understandably loath to risk his star when a professional stuntman could do it better, but there’s still a fair amount of Dalton in the more spectacular scenes.
It’s less Dalton’s idea and more a social context thing, but there’s a feeling of Bond catching up with the rest of the 1980s. The film series was borne out of the era of “free love”, (even if it never rode that wave with any conviction) and Bond’s casual proclivities are often lampooned, not least in the 1999 Saturday Night Live sketch that has Chris Parnell’s Bond learn that he has 107 sexually-transmitted infections, including 18 undiscovered ones and “three only found in sharks”.
But it was no laughing matter back in the 1980s, and so from the titles on, Bond is practically a one-woman man in each of Dalton’s films. It gives him with something different to play than the other Bond actors – for the first time since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 007’s mission is basically to be good boyfriend material. The love interests that Bond actually gets to know are few and far between, but that’s where the screenwriters asking “Who is this woman?” gets you.
The central relationship serves the dual purpose of softening the more severe tone and at least gesturing at the possibility of the Bond movies maturing a bit. But inevitably, with many of the same crew that oversaw the last few films coming back for this one, there was also more continuity than was probably intended.
Also on Film Stories:
James Bond at 60 – where does 007 go from here?
No Time To Die, one year on – a James Bond finale
James Bond, Spectre, and the trouble with a retcon
Skyfall – resurrecting and retro-fitting James Bond
Quantum Of Solace – revisiting Daniel Craig’s difficult second James Bond film
Casino Royale, and the art of disarming and reloading James Bond
Die Another Day, and James Bond as his own worst enemy
The World Is Not Enough and the “Bond girls” of the 1990s
Tomorrow Never Dies – a James Bond film ahead of its time?
GoldenEye and the “Now That’s What I Call James Bond” package
Licence To Kill and James Bond’s special relationship with America
A View To A Kill – what really makes a good James Bond movie?
Octopussy, Never Say Never Again, and 1983’s battle of the Bonds
The story of Bill Conti’s For Your Eyes Only score
Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, and James Bond’s maddest mission
The Spy Who Loved Me – celebrating James Bond’s workplace romantic comedy
The Man With The Golden Gun – a James Bond film as good as its villain?
Live And Let Die and the making of Roger Moore’s James Bond
Diamonds Are Forever and the deal that brought Sean Connery back to James Bond
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the curious case of George Lazenby’s James Bond
You Only Live Twice and the rise of the James Bond parody
Thunderball and the battles behind its film adaptations
Goldfinger – how James Bond found his gadgets, girls, and groove
From Russia With Love and its 2005 videogame remake
Dr No, and James Bond’s long road to the big screen
Acceptable in the 80s?
Some of the comments on last week’s feature said that it would have been better if Dalton had debuted one film earlier, which is fine until you watch that film. And even when you watch this one, it’s somehow significantly easier to imagine The Living Daylights starring Roger Moore than A View To A Kill starring Timothy Dalton.
Best intentions aside, the relationship between Bond and Kara only chastens and sanitises the typical imbalance of power between 007 and his love interest. Despite d’Abo’s game performance, Kara is so naïve and passive that you could imagine Moore telling her to put her clothes on so they can go get an ice cream a couple of films ago. On the other hand, stopping the Ferris wheel to surprise-proposition her feels like something Sean Connery would do with a domineering smirk. It’s one of the ways in which the film seems to be finding its feet in places, while also treading on Dalton’s.
In any case, 1987 is quite late in the decade for James Bond to suddenly arrive in the 1980s. In the grand tradition of bawdy British franchises, the Bond movies carried on regardless for the last few films (this one carries on up the Khyber in its accidentally topical third act instead). But now that there’s a seed of modernisation, contradictions bloom throughout the film.
Take the casting of the regulars, for instance. Alongside a younger and more vigorous 007, incumbent consonants M and Q are still played by Robert Brown and Desmond Llewelyn, respectively, but they’ve Rachel Riley’d Moneypenny by replacing Lois Maxwell with Caroline Bliss. We’ll say more about John Terry’s Miami Vice-inflected take on Felix Leiter in next week’s feature, but you get the idea.
Meanwhile, MI6 has relocated to the much more modern Universal Exports HQ for the traditional Q briefing scene, but he’s dishing out Phillips key finder fobs and making gags about ghetto blasters, while formidable henchman Necros (Andreas Wisniewski) strangles people with his Walkman headphone cable. In a series traditionally set five minutes into the future, these are token updates, faintly dated even at the time of production.
This even extends to the music. Composer John Barry contributes his final Bond score here, and he spent a lot of time falling out with A-ha, who provided the title song at associate producer Barbara Broccoli’s suggestion, and also working with Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders on two other featured songs – Necros’ murder-playlist bop “Where Has Everybody Gone” and the end-titles ballad “If There Was A Man”.
Also, cast your minds back a few weeks further, when we covered how The Man With The Golden Gun is a film nowhere near as good as its villain. Well, The Living Daylights manages to be good despite not having two decent villains to rub together. Exhibiting early onset Batman Forever syndrome, the film pairs its Russian baddy with American arms dealer Brad Whitaker, (Joe Don Baker).
The plot has a reputation for being a little impenetrable, but it’s merely a bit convoluted in its mystery leanings. In short, Soviet defence funds are being laundered via opium sales to make a huge profit, and British Intelligence is being manipulated by the masterminds of the scheme to help them cover their tracks.
As it goes on, it accrues the “why doesn’t the villain just kill them?” disbelief that’s easily suspended in more frivolous outings. Eon Productions has the advantage of a well-oiled machine but in a lot of the Bond films of this decade, that just makes it easier to slip into the expected habits.
Mercifully, they dispense with the same three jokes about animals and drunks reacting to Bond – one of these sequences, in which some Tangier locals watch Bond seemingly escape Pushkin’s guards via magic carpet, was wisely cut during post-production. When the laughs do come, they’re a bit different, whether in Bond and Kara rowing about collecting her cello (where 007 loses that argument and is grumpy about it) or another character’s ice-cold thinker of a Bond mot. (You don’t want to travel anywhere inside a bag, much less a diplomatic bag.)
But where The Living Daylights really excels is in its action sequences, from the training exercise that runs Dalton through the full gamut of playing 007 in five minutes flat, to the spectacular climactic plane stunt that later inspired a major set-piece in the Uncharted video games. The technical craft is brilliant as always, but giving credit where it’s due, Dalton’s take is central to restoring the sense of danger.
As he viewed it, Bond’s lifestyle – his womanising, his hard-drinking, and his gambling – is a product of his career choice. If he’s “living on the edge”, (another tagline for the film) and could really kill or be killed at any moment, then the way he goes on is understandable, if not always justified. His Bond is no gentleman – he’s a murderer, just like the ones he fights, and Dalton has said as much about his interpretation of the character and his moods. This is what makes The Living Daylights and its sequel stand apart.
Later, the Daniel Craig era covers similar ground at greater length, if not always as entertainingly. Especially on his second go-around, there’s room for nuance in this more emotional Bond. Gone is the “left eyebrow raised, right eyebrow raised, eyebrows crossed when grabbed by Jaws” unflappability, replaced by a dazzling array of emotions, whether it’s rage at the murder of a friend or occasional glee in getting one over on the global bastards he fights.
More than merely casting a younger actor, it’s this drive to ground the character that kicks off the second era of Bond. Everything from Dr No to A View To A Kill is the first era, while The Living Daylights is an already-furnished reboot, one which anticipates the real-life end of the Cold War and begins the process of moving past it so that the series can last another 25 years.
Beyond its harder edges, The Living Daylights is not so elaborate, but its plot aspires to be more demanding than the average “insert gadget A into plothole A” runaround. Dispensing with the supervillainy only yields a pair of forgettable antagonists on this occasion, but it starts and ends strongly, and the bits that are designed around Dalton’s performance give it a better handle on tone than most of the Bond films released in the same decade. It’s the best 1980s offering we’ve covered so far, even if you only see it as a foundation for the next, even better one…
The Living Daylights is screening in select Cineworld, Odeon, and VUE cinemas nationwide from Friday 22nd July. UK readers can also watch it on ITV1 on Saturday 23rd July at 8:00 p.m.
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