This article is dedicated to Paul Baack (September 26, 1957 – October 28, 2017), film buff, lover of life, and co-editor of Her Majesty’s Secret Servant, the now-defunct Bond website where the original version of this piece was published several years ago. Paul also reviewed and gave me comments on several of my early pieces on genre film. Peace brother, and save me a dry martini.
Shaded by film noir blacks and greys, Daniel Craig’s James Bond bludgeoned his way onscreen as Ian Fleming’s blunt instrument for Her Majesty writ large. The beginning of Casino Royale (2006) was a bold statement of intent for a brand new, rebooted 007. Given the playground-level insults that greeted Craig’s casting announcement, the actor striding up to the screen at the end of Daniel Kleinman’s extraordinary title sequence, and staring defiantly out into the audience with those piercing ice-blue eyes, was the perfect capper to the pre-credits burying of the orbiting lasers and invisible cars to which the Pierce Brosnan era had stooped.
The long-running series was back, and with one of the most radical reimaginings of a familiar cinematic character ever attempted. Casino Royale stripped Bond down to his bare roots, shedding the cosy familiarities of Q Branch, Moneypenny, campy humour, and cartoon villainy, bringing bone-crushing violence and a psychopathic antagonist and taking Bond face to face with the crushing fallout of the life of a secret agent. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005), which imagined the beginnings of the caped crusader sans comic book fantasy, was a touchpoint for Casino Royale. Craig has said that what convinced him to do the role was the moment in the screenplay when asked by a bartender if he wants his martini shaken or stirred, Bond snaps “Do I look like I give a damn?” This rebuilding of the cinematic James Bond, using the Ian Fleming novels as scaffolding, continued throughout the four Craig films to date (as of this writing his final Bond film, No Time to Die, has not been released due to the COVID pandemic). Though none of the subsequent movies have quite equalled Craig’s first, they have continued in portraying Bond as a tragic and vulnerable figure, doomed to ultimately live (and die) alone.
As audacious as the Craig films have been in the 007 cinematic pantheon, there was a Bond actor who was there before to light the way. He is an actor who often gets lost in the shuffle, whose similarly radical and ahead of its time reinterpretation of the character as a flawed and vulnerable secret agent laid the tracks down for the enormously successful Craig era. This is the Welsh actor, the Cult Movie Bond, Timothy Dalton.
Timothy Dalton took over the part of James Bond at a time when the EON film series had veered far away from their literary source. Though mostly identified with actor Roger Moore, the era of the so-called Comedy Bond began in earnest with Diamonds Are Forever (1971), where Sean Connery returned for the last bow in the official series after George Lazenby’s one-shot performance in the excellent On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). As directed by Guy Hamilton, who never took the character seriously, Diamonds is a bit of farce, full of jokey humour and ridiculous scenarios that Fleming never would have dreamed up in a million years. This light-hearted thread continued into Moore’s first Bond outing, the blaxploitation-influenced Live and Let Die (1973), the nadir of which is the bumbling, racist white southern sheriff caricature, J.W. Pepper. The Moore Bonds got progressively more ridiculous, finally hitting the overblown comedic low point with 1979’s Moonraker. After that, even the producers realized they’d gone too far, briefly returning to Ian Fleming minimalism for 1981’s For Your Eyes Only before trotting Moore out for two more fairly silly entries, whereafter the actor finally retired his Walther PPK and raised an eyebrow.
Enter Timothy Dalton, who was offered the part after Pierce Brosnan could not get released from his Remington Steele contract. Dalton, who had previously turned the producers down in the late ’60s figuring that he was too young and nobody followed Connery, approached the role with the Ian Fleming novels and stories as the essence and foundation. In the press conference that officially introduced Timothy Dalton as the new James Bond, the actor noted that “I approached this project [the film The Living Daylights, 1987] with a sense of responsibility to the work of Ian Fleming.”
At that presser, Dalton went on to further discuss his interpretation of the Bond role: “The essential quality of James Bond is a man who lives on the edge…he never knows when, at any moment, he might be killed. Therefore, I think some of the qualities we might associate with Bond, the qualities we´ve seen in this series of movies, the qualities that Ian Fleming wrote so well about, reflect that sense of danger in his own life…the qualities of the man are very much the qualities of someone who lives on the edge of his life.” Backing up Dalton’s interpretation, in the novel Moonraker Fleming describes Bond´s “ambition to have as little as possible in his banking account when he was killed, as, when he was depressed, he knew he would be, before the statutory age of forty-five.”
In the second Bond novel Live and Let Die, Ian Fleming writes that there are times when a secret agent “takes refuge in good living to efface the memory of danger and the shadow of death.” Dalton skillfully captured this idea of somebody who lives in “the shadow of death.” Within the parameters of the scripts he was given, in his two cinematic appearances as James Bond, Timothy Dalton brought a welcome course correction to the film series, porting the core essence of Ian Fleming´s immortal secret agent to the screen.
In Fleming´s writing, James Bond is vulnerable to the sheer tension that the danger of his job inspires. Fleming writes of this in The Living Daylights, the short story that inspired the first Dalton 007 film, with Bond returning to the apartment in Berlin where he must assassinate a KGB sniper, and giving “a light-hearted account of his day while an artery near his solar plexus began thumping gently as tension builds up inside him like a watch-spring tightening.”
And so while on the job and building up to a potentially deadly situation, Fleming´s Bond is a curt, focused professional. Dalton portrays this best in the introductory sections of The Living Daylights, often in smaller movements or gestures. As Bond and Saunders (“Head of Station V, Vienna”) are about to step into the door of the building where 007 must kill the sniper, Dalton coolly glances both ways down the street, scanning for threats, and does the same briefly when they enter the ground floor room. “Turn off the lights,” he almost snaps to Saunders, capturing some of the displeasure Bond feels in Fleming´s short story, where 007 notes the sight of Captain Paul Sender´s tie (the Saunders equivalent in the short story) and his “spirits, already low, sank another degree…He knew the type: the backbone of the civil service; over-crammed and under-loved at Winchester…” His opinion of Saunders as an officious bureaucrat is revealed in Dalton´s contemptuous glance at him and curt tone as he counters Saunder´s assumption of ammunition type with “No, the steel-tipped. KGB snipers usually wear body armour.”
Dalton shows mild contempt through his clipped responses to Saunders while allowing the buried coil springs of tension to the surface, in sometimes subtle ways. There is a small, almost imperceptible moment, where Dalton sits on the bed, preparing his sniper rifle, and his fingers slip as he loads the bullets into the rifle cartridge. Perhaps my favourite moment during which Dalton portrays this subsurface tension is where he, sniper rifle in hand and ready for the kill, turns to Saunders, exhales distinctly, and quietly asks him to “Bring the chair.” Compare that moment with Fleming´s Daylights: “Bond said, ‘Yes.’ He said it softly. The scent of the enemy, the need to take care, already had him by the nerves.”
Fleming´s Bond takes brief refuge in sensual, carnal pleasures to help steel his nerves for the coming confrontation. In the beginning of the film version of Living Daylights, which follows the basic plot of the short story, Dalton scans the crowd at a music recital, looking for the defector Koskov, and casually notes the “lovely girl with the cello.” His expression while he says the line is a small, tight-lipped smile, an indication of the underlying tension as he gratefully takes in the beauty of Kara Milovy (Maryam D’Abo).
An underlying distaste and loathing for his profession also manifest in Fleming´s Bond stories, and this is another facet that Dalton brings to the screen. After Saunders expresses his anger at Bond´s commandeering of Koskov´s rescue and threatens to report to M that he deliberately missed shooting Kara, Dalton snaps back “Stuff my orders. I only kill professionals…Go ahead, tell him what you want. If he fires me, I´ll thank him for it.” Dalton´s forceful delivery of this dialogue, tinged with an edge of cruelty and contempt, brings out James Bond´s uneasy relationship with the hard, soul-eroding surfaces of his Double-O status.
Dalton is helped by similarities to some lines from the Fleming original: “ ‘Look, my friend,’ said Bond wearily, ‘I´ve got to commit a murder tonight. Not you. Me. So be a good chap and stuff it, would you? You can tell Tanqueray anything you like when it´s over. Think I like this job? Having a Double-O number and so on? I´d be quite happy for you to get me sacked from the Double-O Section. Then I could settle down and make a snug nest of papers as an ordinary Staffer. Right?’” (Side note: It´s amazingly easy to imagine Dalton delivering those lines exactly as written by Ian Fleming.)
Fleming´s Bond has an uneasy relationship with the killing that is a necessary part of the job of a Double-O. In Chapter I of Goldfinger, Fleming details Bond´s self-reflection after completing a kill for Her Majesty´s Secret Service: “It was part of his profession to kill people. He had never liked doing it and when he had to kill he did it as well as he knew how and forgot about it.” Though it is “his duty to be as cool about death as a surgeon,” James Bond finds himself running the death over and over in his head, a signal that a part of the secret agent is uncomfortable with executing his licence to kill. Dalton´s performance in the opening of The Living Daylights captures this weariness, this tense introspectiveness, and brings it out through his clipped, almost cynical line delivery, quietly bringing to the surface the Bond that has an inner struggle between professional killer and the regret that lingers in him.
Even though there is an element of self-loathing at his profession, Fleming´s Bond was tough, ruthless, and cunning when his job demanded it. One of the key sequences from The Living Daylights illustrates Dalton´s strength at bringing this facet to the 007 film series. In this sequence, Bond has been assigned to assassinate Russian General Pushkin (John Rhys Davies), who MI6 suspects is behind a plot to kill British agents. He finds Pushkin in Tangiers, and stakes out Pushkin and his bodyguard to find the right moment to make the kill. Bond follows Pushkin to a hotel, where he sees him meet his mistress at the front, obviously for a romantic rendezvous in one of the rooms. As Bond notes this opportunity, Dalton gives a satisfied smile, obviously preparing the trap in his mind.
Pushkin enters the trap when he steps through his mistress´s hotel room door. Dalton slowly pushes the door closed, drawing the steel teeth of the trap together, and with gun extended with dead steadiness steps forward and says quietly, but with deadly assurance, “Don´t make any sudden moves, General.” As he frisks Pushkin and circles him like a predator, Dalton never allows the gun to waver for a second. “I take it this is not a social call, 007,” Pushkin notes wryly, to which Dalton grimly responds, “Correct. You should have brought lilies.” As Pushkin and Bond talk, there is a point where Dalton lifts the gun up off its deadly focus on the General, subtly indicating that Bond is reconsidering whether killing Pushkin is justified. As in the novels, Bond kills professionally, and never without reason. When he briefly points the gun away from Pushkin, he also glances at the frightened mistress sitting watching them, aware that if he shoots the General, it will be in front of this innocent woman. It´s a beautifully subtle touch of humanity, one that Fleming´s Bond would be capable of.
Dalton segues seamlessly from the humanistic to the ruthless professional—his cold, forceful delivery of the line “Stay where you are. Get down on your knees. Hands behind your back.” as he is apparently about to execute Pushkin is utterly believable.
Though Fleming´s Bond may sometimes loathe his professional requirement to kill, when personal vengeance is at stake he does not hesitate. For revenge, he is as lethal and unhesitant as a cobra, and this is the key theme of Dalton´s second appearance as 007 in Licence to Kill (1989), is mirrored in Fleming´s Live and Let Die, which also provides the source material for several of Licence to Kill’s plot elements. In the novel, the criminal mastermind Mr. Big has Bond´s ally Felix Leiter fed to a shark, leaving him mutilated and barely alive. James Bond quietly prepares to hit back at Mr. Big; at the end of Chapter XIV Fleming writes that “Bond took out his gun and cleaned it, waiting for the night.” The same incident incites 007 to revenge in Licence to Kill, though it takes place in the setup of the story, not towards the end as in the novel, and the act of revenge is directed at drug baron Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi). As in Fleming´s writing, Dalton never allows revenge to take 007 to histrionics; he does a forceful, deadly, slow burn.
When Bond discovers the bodies of Felix and his fiancee Della, in a key scene Dalton effectively projects the grief 007 feels. After finding Della´s lifeless body, Dalton walks into the next room looking almost stunned. He lets out a breath as he catches sight of a body bag laying on a couch—notice how good the actor is at using breathing to indicate underlying emotion—then slowly transforms Bond´s face into a grim expression, then to outright anger as he reads the note placed next to Leiter´s body. In this scene, Dalton brings from the page to the screen the bitter anger Bond feels at the attack and mutilation of a good friend, straight from Fleming´s Live and Let Die.
Dalton also pays tribute to the Bond/Leiter friendship that Fleming wrote of extensively in one of Licence to Kill´s key turning points: the confrontation with M at the Hemingway House in the Florida Keys. M, played by Robert Brown, chides 007 for getting involved in a mess that doesn´t concern him and Dalton, with clear emotion, almost pleads “Sir, they´re not going to do anything. I owe it to Leiter. [breath] He´s put his life on the line for me many times.” After M dismissingly notes that Leiter “knew the risks,” Dalton turns Bond to anger once more as he snaps in response, “And his wife?” By allowing the undercurrent of anger to bubble up so quickly in response to M, Dalton shows the depth of feeling that is driving Bond on this personal quest to avenge a friend.
As an agent of vengeance, Dalton´s Bond is merciless. To the DEA agent´s remark of the chances of capturing Sanchez “We can´t even get an extradition order,” Dalton coolly replies “There are other ways.” That the actor delivers this line not with overt anger but with quiet, determined forcefulness only adds to its effectiveness, plus the look on Dalton´s face is reminiscent of “the look of controlled venom” that Fleming describes on Bond´s face in You Only Live Twice as he learns that the villain he is pursuing is in fact Blofeld, the killer of his wife.
Dalton displays this same quiet venom in the later nighttime sequence set in Milton Krest´s warehouse, which offers the added pleasure of watching something inspired directly from a Fleming novel. The book Live and Let Die offers a similar scene with Bond dodging gunmen in a dark building filled with aquariums. Further along in the same sequence, when Bond gets the drop on Kellifer, he shows no compassion or emotion as he watches sharks attack and begins to devour the crooked agent who was responsible, albeit indirectly, for the murder of his friend´s wife.
As a final example of this deadly, barely submerged anger, consider the scene where Bond confronts Sanchez´s girlfriend aboard the Wavecrest, and watches from the cabin window as a boat approaches carrying the corpse of Sharkey, an ally cruelly killed by the villain´s henchmen. As Dalton turns away from the window, he pauses, staring into the distance as if imagining a cathartic future moment of vengeance, and stoicly mutters to the woman “You´d better find yourself a new lover.” Dalton makes us believe that, from this moment on, Sanchez is doomed.
Another noteworthy reference to Fleming in License to Kill is a brief scene as Bond takes his leave of newlyweds, Leiter and Della, on their wedding night. Della removes the garter from her stocking to give it to Bond, hinting that he will be the next one to be married. In a clear connection to Bond´s murdered wife Tracy from Fleming´s On Her Majesty´s Secret Service, Dalton projects Bond´s painful memories as he suddenly seems uncomfortable, remarking “No. No.” (the second “No” is almost inaudible) “Thanks, Della. It´s time I left.” Dalton quickly turns away to walk to his car, hinting that Bond wants to escape from the revisiting of old wounds.
Overall, in the two Bond films that he starred in, there is a sense that Dalton fought for the words of Ian Fleming to return to their place as the inspiration behind the films, and that this fight was a difficult struggle, a fact that has been confirmed in interviews Timothy Dalton gave to promote the release of Hot Fuzz in 2007. Scenes and snippets of scenes influenced directly from Fleming´s writing sit uneasily aside the usual Bond-lite moments that the film series had become comfortable with. It is this schizophrenia, this lack of complete conviction, that stop the Dalton 007 films from reaching the pinnacle of success. However, the Fleming tone is there in key moments and is indelibly imbrued upon the films through the powerful performance of Timothy Dalton.
To paraphrase Bond producer Albert R. Broccoli at that initial 1987 press conference, the privilege of the actor is their interpretation. And Timothy Dalton´s interpretation, assimilating as it did the literary 007 of Ian Fleming and bringing so much of it to the screen, often in very subtle ways, stands as one of the very best. Of Dalton, Cubby Broccoli remarked “We´ve always liked him. We liked his work; we liked his style. And we´re sure his interpretation of James Bond will be one that we´ll be happy with.” Since Daniel Craig has helped push the series in a more serious, grittier direction, it’s past time to give Timothy Dalton his due for doing essentially the same thing decades earlier. The comparatively lower box office returns of the two Dalton 007 epics show that audiences simply weren’t ready for his portrayal of Bond as a dark and tragic romantic hero, perhaps one step away from the psychiatrist’s couch and light-years away from the quipping punster the cinematic character had become. He is the Bond that a small but die-hard contingency of fans appreciates. The Cult Movie Bond.