The Living Daylights (1987)

When it’s on: Saturday, 8 September (3.20 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

Time to look at the James Bond who’s most divided the critics. Timothy Dalton is either a terrific reading of the character, closer in tone to Fleming’s spy and adding a necessary air of toughness and danger, or he’s just no fun, lacks charm and takes himself way too seriously. It’s easy to see why the latter opinion is so popular. Not helped by Dalton’s unwillingness to ‘play the game’ in media circles and instead demand the right to a private life, his 007 is an entirely different animal to the near self-parody essayed by Roger Moore for years. If he was nothing else, Moore’s Bond was a character who knew it was all a bit of a joke. Even his most serious entry, For Your Eyes Only, had its arch moments, whilst otherwise the sight of this supposedly secret agent chasing someone through central Paris in half a car was proof of a production with the collective tongue lodged firmly in its cheek.

In The Living Daylights, Bond returns to a world of spycraft, murky Cold War politics and a lead character who has little place beyond his most recent mission. Its second half is dominated by action scenes set in Afghanistan and with the Mujahideen as the good guys, but the first hour is undeniably better, particularly when Bond’s involved in a plot to defect a KGB agent from Bratislava and has a biting exchange with his contact over how to make it happen. His dealings in the Eastern Bloc provide a real sense of unease, a vanishing arena where everyone is watched and nobody trusted. It’s one where 007 feels at his most comfortable, contrasted with scenes back in England where he’s supposedly at home yet comes across as restless.

Dalton had been in the frame for Bond for some years, indeed he’d first been considered after Sean Connery’s initial departure in the late 1960s. Rightly enough, he felt himself to be far too young at the time, though in the intervening years he would do all he could to distance himself from the role. This made the casting process much tougher following Moore’s ‘retirement’, with Pierce Brosnan coming close to landing the part nearly a decade before he finally did. His wait is one of those unfortunate twists of circumstance. Approaching the end of his involvement in Remington Steele, NBC having cancelled the show, as Brosnan became more closely linked with playing Bond interest in it soared, which prompted a change of heart, another series commissioned and a clause in Brosnan’s contract activated whereby he had to commit to starring in it. The actor was subsequently dropped from The Living Daylights and, sure enough, viewing figures for poor Remington dipped and the new series curtailed. Another actor who came close was Sam Neill, and on the Special Edition documentary there’s some fascinating screen test footage of Neill alongside Fiona Fullerton. Perhaps best known at the time for his starring role in Reilly: Ace of Spies, the prospect of Neill as Bond remains one of those tantalising ‘what if’s, though those of us who grew up watching him playing villains in Kane & Abel, The Final Conflict and Ivanhoe (and being quite the best thing in all three) might have struggled to go with him.

So in the end Dalton it was, and getting back to the point at the top of this piece, I think he makes a brilliant Bond. It seems unfair on his portrayal that Daniel Craig’s 007 is close in tone to his and has been critically lauded, whereas at the time Dalton’s ‘serious’ demeanour was one of the fiercest objections of his detractors. In any event, this and his later entry – Licence to Kill – have, like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, almost been pushed into the background of the Bond canon, as though EON would far rather promote the films of Connery and Moore and prefer us to forget these aberrations. A shame. The Living Daylights is a fine film, easily a high point amongst John Glen’s contributions and, for me, Dalton convinces completely as Bond. He’s at his finest in those small moments, such as when he accidentally pulls his gun on a mother and child and looks utterly shameful at their sudden fear. The development of his relationship with cellist Kara (Maryam D’Abo) is entirely credible, winning her over during a romantic interlude in Vienna whilst getting irritable at her insistence of returning for her cello after a daring escape.

It’s this element of grumpiness that makes him such a believable Bond. You can imagine someone with his abilities growing annoyed when those around him slow him down or get in the way. There are clearly years of toughening behind his 007, times in his life when he’s learned to show his emotions sparingly. His wooing of Kara works because you imagine it would take him some time to open himself up to  her at all; it’s a million miles from when Moore had to cock an eyebrow to entice Britt Ekland into bed and a thousand times better. As for D’Abo, how refreshing it is to have a heroine who possesses some relevance to the plot rather than tick the ‘Bond girl’ box.

Elsewhere, John Barry’s score for The Living Daylights (his last following a long association with the series) proves to be one of his best, and there’s a lot of good feeling also towards A-ha’s title track. Glen clearly enjoyed this one. His shooting in Vienna must have been an exercise in joyful nostalgia, as he got to film in the same fairground where famous scenes from The Third Man (one his earliest assignments, as an Assistant Sound Director) were put together.

The Living Daylights: ****

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4 Replies to “The Living Daylights (1987)”

  1. I like what you have to say here, Mike. Dalton actually came closer to the tone of Fleming’s Bond than any of his predecessors; he just wasn’t physical enough, something that was of course rectified when Daniel Craig took the role. Hence I’ve found his Bonds more admirable than likable. For TLD, the screenplay didn’t quite match his portrayal (as EMPIRE magazine argued, it was like a Roger Moore film with Dalton in it) and as fine as LTK was, Cubby Broccoli and Michael Wilson were too obviously influenced by Die Hard. That, and drug-dealers-as-villains was a popular trope in the late ’80s…

    As an aside, I can tell you that John Barry found a-ha “a pain in the arse”. But you wouldn’t notice it judging by the title track, which is one of my favourite Bond themes. (it’s definitely better than LTK’s.)

  2. Spot on Mike – I remain a huge fan of this one, especially for its old-school Cold War feel. One wishes Dalton had been a tad more at lease with the humour but he is excellent in the role and handles the light-hearted ski chase on the cello case very well. d’Abo is very cute but is a rather dimwitted Bond bird, especially when compared with those in later films. And it is a relief not to have anything quite so silly as the half car from VIEW TO A KILL I quite agree. The scene in which he apparently turns up to execute Rhys Davies could never have been done with Moore and is splendid stuff – I dare say the Dalton ‘ere’ now feels more like a transition from moore to Brosnan but is also well-worth celebrating.

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