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The Six Faces of 007: Timothy Dalton

To celebrate James Bond’s 50th birthday on screen (and the release of Skyfall), we’re going to take a look at the character and his films. We’ve already reviewed all the classic movies, so we’ll be looking at his iconic baddies, and even at the character himself.

Timothy Dalton’s tenure as Bond is almost as divisive as that of George Lazenby, the only actor to serve a shorter term in the iconic role. However, in the years since Dalton departed the franchise, I’ll admit that I’ve grown quite fond of his interpretation of the British secret agent. Between The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill, I think that Dalton portrayed the most human and most tangible of the character’s screen personas, and I think that he suffers from being cast twenty years too early in the part. Certainly, one can see a lot of Daniel Craig’s whittled-down take on the character in Dalton’s two outings as 007.

Dalton’s taken quite a beating…

Of course, there’s a sense that Dalton was really just a place-holder in the grand scheme of things. Although Dalton had been screentested for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and briefly considered for For Your Eyes Only, the plan had been to recruit Pierce Brosnan to succeed Roger Moore in the wake of A View to a Kill, but the unforeseen resurrection of the cancelled Remington Steele saw Brosnan unable to take up the mantle as scheduled. Dalton would make two films, and the financial disappointment of Licence to Kill, along with other concerns, forced the Bond franchise into hibernation until it was revived with GoldenEye in the nineties. Brosnan ended up succeeding Dalton in the role, and managing a massive reversal of Bond’s on-screen fortunes, with critical and financial success that had been largely absent from the franchise for quite some time.

As a result, it’s easy to overlook Dalton’s time in the role. His two films are fairly divisive among fans, but neither has really attained the sort of critical re-evaluation that made George Lazenby’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service something of an underrated cult classic. Most would agree that The Living Daylights is a solid old-school espionage thriller that works well after the excesses of the late Moore era, and that Licence to Kill was a bold attempt to update Bond for a new audience. Whether that work, didn’t work, or was cheap pandering, remains in the eye of the beholder.

The actor’s tenure just smacks of the eighties…

In fact, Dalton’s time as Bond was very much anchored in the eighties, an aspect of his tenure that tends to date it quite severely. While the Cold War setting of the older Bond movies gives them something of an antiquated appeal, eighties nostalgia has yet to make the war in Afghanistan or cocaine manufacturing retroactively cool. Bond assisting the soon-to-be-Taliban is a moment that I reckon the Bond producers would be happy to forget, while Licence to Kill occasionally feels a little bit too much like a tribute to Miami Vice.

Still, I think it was an interesting time for the character. Despite being a second choice, Dalton himself seemed honoured to take the role. In interviews at the time, he was keen to stress that he was returning to the books for inspiration:

Your opportunities for depth and for developing a character depend on what the story allows you, of course. But I went to the books – not the films, even the early ones – I went to Ian Fleming’s books for the character of Bond. It happens that the early films captured the spirit of Fleming’s Bond best. That Bond is capable of behaving in an objective way, as a professional, but he can respond with revulsion to the terrible things that happen.

Lazenby’s version of Bond was perhaps the most human iteration of the character in the franchise, almost playing a version of Bond who didn’t know how to act as a secret agent, and unable to cope with the brutality or deception required. In contrast, Dalton plays Bond as a character who understands and appreciates the necessity of violence and dishonesty in the work that he does, but who is never entirely comfortable with it – or even about what it says about himself. Ian Fleming himself famously described Bond as a “blunt instrument”, albeit one that developed over the course of the series. Unlike Moore, Dalton plays Bond as something of a living weapon rather than an international rock star.

I’ve got his number…

The introductory teaser to The Living Daylights treats us to Bond on a training an exercise, a shrewd and conscious effort to emphasise Dalton’s relative youth. After all, Moore’s advanced age had been one of many sticking points with A View to a Kill. Certainly, Dalton seems almost like a sharp contrast to Moore, and The Living Daylights doesn’t always seem aware that Dalton’s strengths lie in different areas.

Roger Moore always seemed charming and sincere, and he honestly seemed like he could sweep any woman off her feet. In contrast, Dalton’s romantic scenes are somewhat stilted. In fact, the teaser ends on a bit of a bum note after Dalton lands on a boat with a beautiful woman. Moore’s Bond would consider it deserved rest and relaxation, while Dalton’s Bond seems almost frustrated. When Dalton finds himself taking care of Kara, he seems more like a hen-pecked husband than a genuine romantic interest. That joke cut about returning for her cello doesn’t make either character seem especially charming.

“Sorry, I’m too busy working this portable telephone to flirt with you…”

Of course, the AIDS scare of the eighties explains this shift in attitude somewhat, with Dalton portraying a more monogamous type of Bond than any of his predecessors. In fact, even during Licence to Kill, the romances seem strangely stilted and brushed to the side, with Dalton’s Bond clearly disinterested in anything that might distract him from his mission. He’s oblivious to any possible tension between the two women in the film, and it seems that he only really takes on Pam as a lover once the danger has passed.

(It is worth noting, though, that Dalton seems much more comfortable and casual in his romantic scenes in Licence to Kill, as Bond and Pam approach one another as equals. In contrast to Moore’s almost predatory sexuality, Dalton seems much more relaxed and spontaneous. There’s a lovely moment in Licence to Kill where Bond and Pam accidentally set off a boat’s horn. A Roger Moore movie would use that as an excuse to cut away to the next morning, but Licence to Kill gives us a lovely few seconds of Pam and Bond laughing at how they just killed the romantic atmosphere. It’s a very human moment, and Dalton’s tenure has lots of nice little touches like that.)

Dressed to kill…

Similarly, Dalton seemed uncomfortable with the one-liners that had become a staple of the series. Admittedly, they’d become progressively sillier during the Moore era, with Connery fond of uttering them in contempt for fallen adversaries, or as a way of deflecting an awkward question. During Moore’s time the role, the one-liners came to be treated as hilarious jokes in their own right. Dalton doesn’t handle these well, and I think that The Living Daylights has some problems in what it expects from him.

Again, Licence to Kill does a bit better. It gives Franz Sanchez most of the more traditional Bond one-liners, and Robert Davi enjoys the opportunity to ham it up. While Dalton gets a few one-liners here and there, they’re more brutal, and more in the style of the earlier films. Licence to Kill doesn’t expect Bond to arch an eyebrow or to cheekily smile at the camera, and it’s certainly the stronger for it. Brosnan would reintroduce a bit more of the “showy” side of Bond, but Dalton down played his overt theatricality.

Well suited to the work…

That said, there’s still a lot of finesse to Dalton’s Bond, and he’s certainly still recognisable as the iconic character. After all, when he sets out to avenge Felix, he doesn’t simply put a bullet in Sanchez’s head. (Although, to be fair, he’ll take the opportunity if it is presented to him.) He cleverly sets Sanchez against his own men, playing on the drug dealer’s sense of loyalty and eventually reducing one of the more level-headed Bond villains to little more than a psychotic mess. Licence to Kill isn’t about Bond becoming a brutal thug, it’s about Bond using the skills he’s developed after a life in the Secret Service to wage a personal vendetta.

Dalton’s Bond is certainly a bit rougher around the edges than most of the others – certainly most earlier than Craig. You can even hear it in the language he uses. He calls Sanchez a “bastard.” When a fellow agent attempts to take him in, Bond responds, “Piss off.”You wouldn’t bat an eyelid at such language today, but it must have seemed quite a shock in following the family-friendly Roger Moore era of the film franchise.

Kicking Bond while he’s down…

One of the lasting legacies of Dalton’s time in the role, and one I think informed his successors, is the way that he portrayed Bond as more emotionally-closed off. Again, this is most obvious in contrast to his immediate predecessor. Lazenby was easily the most earnest Bond, but Roger Moore also worked well as a somewhat sincere paternal figure. (I consider For Your Eyes Only to be the best of the Moore era because it plays to that aspect of his portrayal.) Moore’s Bond could be violent, but he came also across as honest and emotionally open. Consider, for example, his justifications to XXX in The Spy Who Loved Me.

In contrast, Dalton made a conscious effort to make Bond as buttoned-down as possible. His version of the character never opened up. If you accept the argument that the films form one clearly identifiable continuity with one single lead character, then Licence to Kill works well as a belated sequel to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, with Bond avenging the death of his fiancé by proxy. Tracy isn’t mentioned in the film by name, and the death of Bond’s wife is only fleetingly alluded to.

Our man in Miami…

When Felix’s wife makes a joke about marriage, Bond politely excuses himself, “Thanks, Della. It’s time I left.” Felix explains to his wife, “He was married once, but it was a long time ago.” He doesn’t go into any more depth. He doesn’t talk about it, but Bond’s own failed marriage makes a great deal of sense about his reaction to the murder of Della on their wedding day. After all, Licence to Kill suffers a bit because it never convinces us that Bond is really that close to Leiter. I think there’s a valid case to be made that Licence to Kill is simply Bond releasing all the pent-up rage inside him following the death of his own wife.

(Of course, continuity within the Bond series is a bit of a mess, and I’m more likely to believe that each actor is playing a different character – as I find it nigh impossible to believe that George Lazenby’s Bond could grow into Timothy Dalton’s. Certainly, there’s nothing in the films between On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Licence to Kill that really supports the idea Bond has been bottling up that kind of rage inside of himself. This is, of course, one of the reasons I’ve never subscribed to the idea of excessively rigid fictional continuities. I just make sense of everything on its own terms. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service feels relevant here, but Diamonds Are Forever doesn’t.)

Bond is on the case…

Of course, I think that one of the reasons I’m so fond of Dalton’s portrayal is that it’s a bit of the other side of the coin, so to speak. Dalton’s version of the character is very much the dark side of James Bond. Licence to Kill really feels like an especially brutal deconstruction of the series, as Bond finds himself becoming less-and-less of an overtly heroic figure, and more like the kind of person that he would have to be to survive (and thrive) in a world like this. Bond’s quest for revenge against Sanchez undermines two separate operations designed to erode the drug baron’s power – preventing the CIA from confiscating his stinger missiles and getting several undercover agents killed. I have a very hard time, despite Q’s hint at the end of the film, that this version of Bond ever got his job back, after causing that much collateral damage on his personal vendetta.

“We have laws in this country too,” a DEA agent reminds Bond after the agent murders several armed guards in a Miami aquarium. However, this isn’t the first time Bond has been this brutal – it’s just the first time he’s been called on this. Goldfinger features Bond travelling to the United States and saving Fort Knox, to hell with the CIA’s jurisdiction. Bond operates internationally throughout the series without the sanction of local governments, friendly or otherwise. Licence to Kill actually dares to examine the morality of Bond’s “cowboy” approach to international espionage, and I think Dalton’s Bond works remarkably well in that context.

It’s a dirty job…

Dalton portrays Bond as the kind of character he would – logically – have to be. Despite Roger Moore’s warmth, Bond would have to be cold. There’s a reason even the alive Bond girls don’t recur, and there must be a way he can cope with so much death around him. Despite Lazenby’s sensitivity, Bond would have to be brutal, because he lives in a world populated with people who would kill him without a second’s hesitation. It’s a surprisingly mature and considered interpretation for a mainstream movie franchise. In fact, I’d argue it was too mature and considered for the time in question. I don’t think that either EON or audiences were entirely ready for this version of James Bond.

I do hope that Dalton’s portrayal gets a serious reappraisal in the years to come. Certainly, we wouldn’t have the Daniel Craig era without it.

The six faces of 007:

We’ve got full reviews of all of Timothy Dalton’s Bond films, if you want to check ‘em out:

8 Responses

  1. I generally like Dalton’s performance, though he’s quite humorless–much like the more successful Craig. In fact, I’d say those two actors give the most similar performances out of any in the series. However, Craig benefits from quite good films (even “Quantum of Solace” is far better than Dalton’s duo). While neither of Dalton’s films are bad (and a huge improvement over Moore’s last couple), they still are saddled with silliness, formulaic writing, and uninspired directing. I think if Dalton had been put in better films, he would have had a more successful run.

    • I don’t know. I think QoS gets a bad rap, but I have a very soft spot for Licence to Kill. Living Daylights is generic and now a little awkward politically, though.

  2. Dalton was always my favorite, I’ve argued with a lot of people over this.

    • I think he’s a polarising Bond. You either “get” his portrayal, or you don’t. As opposed to Moore or Brosnan, shere there’s more of a range (and less consistency overall), Dalton is very clearly pushing a particular angle ont he character. I think it works, and I think that Craig’s approach somewhat vindicates it in retrospect.

  3. I loved Dalton’s take on the Bond character. No, not every Bond film needed to be serious, but he’s exactly what the series needed at the time.

    His dark literary interpretation of the role turned people off. Kind of like drinking sweetened & creamed coffee for years and all of a sudden drinking it black. Connery established the trend of being sexy and super interesting. But Fleming’s books stressed the opposite thing. Bond himself wasn’t as important as his adventures.

    Dalton portrayed a logically sound Bond like you said. He wasn’t a charmer. He was a killer facing a burden of stress which has taken a toll on him. I liked Dalton’s anger. He had a sense of passion and vigor none of the other actors had.

    The one liners and the romancing were his weakest points. They weren’t necessary for every movie to have but they were established tropes and he could’ve done them better nonetheless.

    All in all, Dalton is my 2nd favorite Bond behind Moore.

    • I like Dalton quite a bit. I don’t think anybody except Dalton or Brosnan could have done License to Kill. Connery, Lazenby and Moore would have seemed out of place in the story; Craig would seem far too comfortable. Dalton is just enough of a traditional Bond that it feels strange, but also has so much passion that it doesn’t feel surreal. I’m disappointed he only got to do two Bond films, but it’s weird how Dalton’s Bond films sit on opposite ends of the “traditional vs. radical” spectrum.

  4. Dalton was a great Bond. He added a lethality and believability to the role that none of the previous actors have. He rough to the edge, but also isn’t too macho hold a teddy bear at a carnival. He’s monogamous and treats the ladies with respect. One of my favorite Bonds for sure.

    • I’d argue Dalton is criminally underrated. I’d have loved to see him get a Bond film like GoldenEye or Casino Royale, one of the greats. But I think he does very well with the material he’s given in both of his films, which is a pretty great test of range for a Bond actor. “Can they do both Living Daylights AND License to Kill?” Let’s call it the “Dalton Bond Test of Range.”

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