James Bond movies, part 5: Timothy Dalton

By the time A View to a Kill came out, the Bond-makers recognised not only that Roger Moore’s time was up, but that something radically different was required to prevent the series sliding progressively into self-parody. (It’s notable that when Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery came out, nearly all of its references were to Sean Connery’s films: evidently Mike Myers realised that the Moore films were beyond parody.)

That something radically different was not only a new and younger Bond, but a change of style. In fact, while much younger than Moore, Timothy Dalton was already in his 40s when he made his debut. His date of birth is not known — sources differ, some giving 1944 and some 1946, but at the time of his first Bond film, he was  41 or 43, making him only four or six years younger than Moore had been on his debut, and a decade older than Connery had been for Dr. No.

The change of style was much more significant: Dalton’s films have a harder edge than Moore’s (with the possible exception of For Your Eyes Only), in an attempt to return to something closer to Ian Fleming’s own conception of Bond.

The Living Daylights (1987)

It’s a strange thing, but even though I only watched The Living Daylights a few weeks ago, nearly all of it has slipped away from my memory. I’m left with a general sense of a more serious Bond; but paradoxically the scene that sticks most firmly in my mind is as silly as anything in Moore: Bond and his girl, in yet another ski-chase, slide down the piste in a cello case (which we can see in the picture above is nowhere near big enough for them both to fit it), and Miriam d’Abo whacks at the bad guys with her cello. That last bit is maybe the single most unbelievable moment in any Bond film, Moonraker included: having been married to a professional classical musician for 19 years, I can tell you there are no circumstance in which she’d use her instrument as a weapon. None.

Strange that this, and the magic-car-on-ice sequence, made the cut in a film that was setting out to be tougher and more realistic. These scenes undermine what the film was trying to do, so that we end up with something that lacks the courage of its convictions and in the end is neither fish nor fowl. Dalton tries, bless him, but is actually rather limited in his range of expressions, and wears much the same smirk in most of his screencaps. It’s not enough to overcome the film’s basic lack of integrity.

Licence to Kill (1989)

Here’s where Bond gets nasty. After an enjoyably daffy pre-credits sequence, Bond’s old buddy Felix Leiter is bumped off[*], along with his bride of a couple of hours[**]. This sets Bond off on an old-fashioned revenge mission, resigning from MI6 to pursue his own agenda. (That resignation gave the film its rather better working title, Licence Revoked. Shame they changed it.)

The problem with this is Dalton’s take on Serious Bond. It’s what we wanted to see in The Living Daylights, but it never really turned up there. We do get it in Licence to Kill, and … it’s just not much fun. Yes, we get something arguably closer to what Fleming imagined. The thing is, in the novels we often get to see inside Bond’s head. More than once we see his state of mind as he resigns himself to a seemingly inevitable death, or collapses in utter physical or mental exhaustion, or wrestles with distaste for the job he’s doing. But it’s in the nature of film as a medium that we can’t see those things — at least, not without intrusive measures like voiceovers, which are a complete non-starter for Bond. So we just see Dalton going about his business, joylessly killing people, until … well, until they’re all dead, pretty much.

It’s not that Licence to Kill isn’t well made. It is admirable in some respects. But in the end a Bond film that’s no fun isn’t going to fly (and no, sending Q out into the field for comic relief doesn’t get it done).

So it’s no wonder that they abandoned this approch, and oscillated back to the Moore-like end of the pendulum’s arc with the next Bond. But did Brosnan do it better than Moore? (Or does nobody do it better, as promised?) Tune in for the next installment: same bat-time, same bat-channel!

[*] … Alhough he later turns out to be on only Mostly Dead. There’s a big difference.

[**] Of course back in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond’s own bride Tracey was killed after even less marital bliss — within the hour. The moral seems to be: don’t marry Bond or any of his friends.

6 responses to “James Bond movies, part 5: Timothy Dalton

  1. Having just seen Skyfall this week. I think they finally nailed the mix of serious and fun. But you are right about License to Kill totally missing its mark. For this I personally label it as the worst Bond film. Yes, even worse than Moonraker.

  2. Worst Bond Film is a very hotly contested category :-) I didn’t enjoy Licence much, but at least it wasn’t mocking me for trying to take it seriously. For that, you want Octopussy, my vote for the worst of them all.

    I’ve still not seen Skyfall. Really looking forward to it!

  3. Just to throw out an idea, I remember thinking that The Living Daylights was trying to present a Bond for a post-imperial Britain. Bond’s more human limitations (he has to actually work to knock out two thugs early in the movie) reflecting a sense that the US and Britain were both losing dominance in the world.

    I’m not sure that actually stands up to scrutiny (they were probably just trying for a franchise re-boot that would contrast with Moore), but it is part of my association with the movie.

  4. I actually quite *like* The Living Daylights and am supremely unbothered by the cello-chase sequence, the reason being that Daylights is, like For Your Eyes Only, a fusion between a *slightly* more serious Flemingian Bond (tho’ Graham Greene’s Third Man is an obvious superficial influence) story and the familiar movie-Bond with sequences expressly designed not to be *realistic*. I also like Dalton’s Bond best of all even if he does look occasionally constipated (that said the scene in OHMSS in which Lazenby-Bond is in desperation and almost crying only for Tracy to turn up is my favourite-ever Bond moment. And poor old George does a good job there). Daylights is flawed but there are lots of good elements: a humane but tough Bond, a low-key but slimey villain in Krabbe, a delusional fantasist nutcase in Baker, a fantastic opening sequence etc. The more generic nature of bits of the film and the slight uncertainty of tone are possibly down to them not knowing who New Bond would be.
    Licence to Kill was molded for Dalton’s Serious Bond but is undermined by the brutal nature of the story set-up, Glen’s flat direction, the somewhat cheapjack faceless production values (for a Bond film), and the Miami Vice-ish air. That said Dalton-Bond, dear old Q, Carey Lowell, the clever-coldness of the revenge plot, and the action come off well.
    Worst Bond movie? Quantum of Solace followed by A View to a Kill, Thunderball (boring), and You Only Live Twice (moments and theme song aside).

  5. Pingback: James Bond movies, part 6: Pierce Brosnan | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  6. Pingback: James Bond movies, part 4: Sean Connery returns again | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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