Retro-View: The Living Daylights (1987)
As part of a group blog effort, other online agents are rolling out their own indispensable takes on various 007 films. Check out Getafilm and Coleman’s Corner in Cinema and Living In Cinema and our own femme fatale at Cinematic Passions.
I am a James Bond fan. The first erotic movie image I ever saw was Maurice Binder’s luxurious Panavision titles for THUNDERBALL (1965) at the drive-in; that’s about all I remember of the film (and my only memory of the second feature that night, BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967) was Faye Dunaway). It wasn’t Sunday night at our household without the ABC Movie of the Week and Ernie Anderson’s cool voice intoning, “Tonight…James Bond is back…” Followed by the awful pan-and-scan prints with the ever-present “Edited For Television” chyron at the bottom of the screen. I still have VHS recordings of a few of the 80′s Bond films on ABC — youtube here we come.
I grew up on a steady diet of Bond and 60′s spy culture via not only TV and film, but stereo. My parents had a lovely double record set from 1966 called “36 Years of United Artists” which celebrated their recent output with plenty of John Barry 007 compositions. Also included was Monty Norman’s original Bond theme for DR. NO (1962) a twangy Mancini-esque riff that bears little resemblance to Barry’s dynamic, unique theme. There’s no doubt that possibly the most integral esthethic to the series was John Barry; rarely has image and sound been so perfectly synched. In a serious essay on the James Bond novels and films, Ayn Rand wrote of the audience breaking into applause on the opening night of the first Bond film, DR. NO, when Sean Connery was introduced with his famous line soundtracked by the iconic theme. No wonder; along with John Wayne in STAGECOACH, it’s arguably the greatest intro scene in the history of cinema, a rare time when a star is born in one moment.
So of course Sean Connery is still the best, most charismatic Bond on film, if not completely faithful to Ian Fleming’s more chronological, interesting and damn readable series of books. Once I was of age, I devoured all of the novels and short stories in the order they were written, intrigued by the vast differences between Connery’s cold-blooded sex and death machine and Fleming’s more human, introspective and heartbroken hero. It’s a shame the producers never let Connery explore that side of the character’s psyche, it might have given him a reason to stay Bond, at least through ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969).
The literary 007 carries a Walther PPK in one hand and a faded rose in the other. The best thing about Fleming’s novels was not so much the pulpy action, but Bond’s insights as a person and his expert attention to details of a place or person. He was not at all the kind who would toss a quip after killing somebody. In the novel “Goldfinger,” Bond is disgusted with himself after having to kill a petty Mexican drug dealer, and his most typical response after an assassination is to block it out:
“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. As a secret agent who held the rare double-O prefix – the licence to kill in the Secret Service – it was his duty to be as cool about death as a surgeon.”
The novel Bond is a closet romantic, who often ends up without the girl. His attitude towards women is more concerned and empathetic, and he is clearly only interested in women that have their own stylish independence. Sure, Fleming named a bisexual character “Pussy Galore” — I didn’t say that aspects of the books weren’t an adolescent holdover from prep-school days. That’s part of their British charm.
But even Ayn Rand nailed the secret to James Bond’s literary and movie success in her brilliant 1964 essay, “Bootleg Romanticism” from her groundbreaking book, “The Romantic Manifesto.” Whatever you might think of Rand and her Objectivist philosophy, her essays on art and cinema are unique and insightful; she is quite prescient to note the Bond films will be undone by the campy, winking tone after seeing only the first two:
If you think that the producers of mass-media entertainment are motivated primarily by commercial greed, check your premises and observe that the producers of the James Bond movies seem to be intent on undercutting their own success.
Contrary to somebody’s strenuously spread assertions, there was nothing “tongue-in-cheek” about the first of these movies, Dr. No. It was a brilliant example of Romantic screen art—in production, direction, writing, photography and, most particularly, in the performance of Sean Connery. His first introduction on the screen was a gem of dramatic technique, elegance, wit and understatement: when, in response to a question about his name, we saw his first closeup and he answered quietly: “Bond. James Bond”—the audience, on the night I saw it, burst into applause.
There wasn’t much applause on the night when I saw his second movie, From Russia with Love. Here, Bond was introduced pecking with schoolboy kisses at the face of a vapid-looking girl in a bathing suit. The story was muddled and, at times, unintelligible. The skillfully constructed, dramatic suspense of Fleming’s climax was replaced by conventional stuff, such as old-fashioned chases, involving nothing but crude physical danger.
I shall still go to see the third movie, the current Goldfinger, but with heavy misgivings.
She praises Fleming’s crisp clear writing and the fact that Bond represents a hero to people. Rand correctly saw that by playing up the Playboy sex and sadism of the series, the film producers were degrading the character at his expense.
Still, the books and films are different creatures and it’s only us purists who are always dying to see a faithful adaptation of a Fleming novel. But what the films often forget is that they have an incredible hero whose exploits have spanned decades; to jettison what makes that character tick makes no sense, which is why many of us never warmed to Roger Moore, gracious, wonderful person though he is. Moore’s Bond had little sense of danger or physical grace, with far too much winking at the crowd. If your lead doesn’t believe it, neither will the audience. Though Moore’s films were undeniably popular and some to this day crazily prefer him (mainly because they grew up watching him).
I have enjoyed some of the Moore Bonds, though I rarely revisit them. Oddly, I actually quite like THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974) the least successful film in the series and one that almost caused its downfall. Anything with John Barry, Christopher Lee and Herve Villachaize is worth watching. Certainly THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977) is the best Roger Moore 007 production, combining more serious spy elements with some classic Panavision action. All that was missing was John Barry. I also liked A VIEW TO A KILL (1985), Moore’s swan song with one of the great Bond themes by Duran Duran and Christopher Walken’s fun villain. But I groaned opening night when the archetypal pre-credits action sequence cued up the Beach Boy’s “California Girls” for Bond’s ski chase. That represented the worst of the series and how far it had fallen from the 60′s template. With Moore exiting stage left, the producers knew they needed to kick start James Bond for the next generation.
Enter Timothy Dalton.
After poor Pierce Brosnan was signed to play 007, fulfilling a lifelong dream, the super-villain producers of his canceled TV show “Remington Steele” decided to contractually squeeze a couple bad TV movies out of him and the character, effectively dashing his dreams (for the moment…) In 1983 when Moore threatened to quit, incredibly, James Brolin was almost cast (the Bond producers have always been open to unique casting) and in 1986, Sam Neill was tested among others but the Brocoli’s picked one who had actually turned down the role in 1969 after his debut in THE LION IN WINTER (1968) — Dalton, Timothy Dalton. A graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Dalton had the most classical theatre training of any of the 007 actors and showed that the producers were determined to shift course from the comedic gimmicky Moore years. He was also a devout fan of the books and that was the character he wanted to play. One Dalton quote was all I needed: “I don’t believe Bond is superman, a cardboard cut out or two-dimensional. He’s got to be a human being. He’s got to be identifiable, and that’s what I’m trying to be….It’s not a spoof, it’s not light, it’s not jokey.”
So it’s important to recall that in 1987, a new Bond and tonal direction was as necessary as Daniel Craig and CASINO ROYALE (2006). Another fanatic, Eric Lesh, and myself attended the first screening on Friday afternoon at the Cinedome (RIP). I was fairly giddy at the height of my own personal Bondmania, and this would be the first 007 film I would be seeing with Fleming-saturated gunmetal blue eyes. And this was in the days sans internet, so I went in knowing only that the theme song was by one of my favorite bands, a-ha, another pop vindication after Duran Duran was selected to do AVTAK. This would also be the last time maestro John Barry would compose the score for the series he helped immortalize with his fuzz guitar, brassy horns and sweeping strings. And this is Maurice Binder’s next to last title design, leaving behind one of the most distinct and beautiful film credits in history next to Saul Bass. I wasn’t such a major fan of director John Glenn, who seemed to reflect his style depending on the scripts, but there’s no doubt that his editing helped establish the Bond action paradigm. Based on the goodwill over Dalton, I was willing to give him a chance.
THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS begins in high style with one of the best pre-credits sequences in the series. After a double-o training exercise in Gibraltar is interupted by an outside killer, our first reveal of the new James Bond is terrific: the camera dollies into a reaction shot as 007 watches a comrade fall to his death. Bond immediately goes after the interloper and you can’t imagine how thrilling it was to see the actor playing Bond actually running, jumping and fighting without an immediate cut to a stunt double oh seven. Dalton is graceful and aggressive as he hangs from the jeep, tearing into the roof with a knife and headbutting the bad guy. Meanwhile, boxes of explosive drop from the back and ignite behind the runaway jeep, John Barry bringing up the James Bond theme to complete the action. By the time he parachuted from the exploding jeep to land on a beautiful socialite’s boat, I was sold on Dalton and he hadn’t even said a word yet. His clipped “Bond, James Bond” could never match Connery’s level of suave lady and man killer, but it showed he was playing it straight, not camp.
Though I am an unashamed a-ha fan, I still don’t like the sound mix used in the theme song. Neither did they and they re-recorded it for their 1988 album, “Stay On These Roads.” Apparently John Barry and the band did not get along, leading to Barry’s infamous comment on working with the “Hitler Youth” (a-ha?). Here is a nice clip that reveals the whole dramatic story. Oh, and for you a-haters, “The Living Daylights” was the third most successful Bond song in England and one of the band’s biggest hits, if not one of their favorites. Actually, the Pretender’s song used as a back-up theme, “Where Has Everybody Gone” would have been a perfect opening. Fortunately, the Barry score is one of his best and an excellent sonic coda to the series. I wish Barry had been more brassy in the 80′s but he was more interested in a synthesizer sound, which he had first used for the opening gun-barrel all the way back in 1969 for OHMSS.
The film proper starts in grand Fleming fashion with a faithful adaptation of the short story, where Bond must assassinate a potential female sniper in order to protect an informant. One of Fleming’s best microcosm tales showing 007′s revulsion at his night work and his strained relationship with another agent, I was bouncing in my seat with joy at seeing Timothy Dalton play Bond just as he was in the story. He even says he’d be grateful if stripped of his license to kill after having to make “strawberry jam” of the female sniper — which of course he doesn’t (he grazes her knowing that she will probably be killed anyway for her failure). This opening is one of the best pure Bond sequences on film, and no fan of the books could be unhappy with this glimpse at the new Dalton era. This incident nicely dovetails into the movie’s main plot of Her Majesty’s Secret Service helping a KGB general (the affable Jeron Krabbe) defect to the West.
INTERMISSION: Christian Divine will return after a light dinner of scrambled eggs on toast with Tiptree jam, a rasher of smoked bacon and a chilled bottle of Taittinger ’64, then topped with an after-dinner espresso and one of his specialty Morland cigarettes. Despite the tightness of his gut, he was looking forward to the drama of the evening. Could he finish off this post before the QUANTUM OF SOLACE release?
Hesitation was the death-watch beetle of a blogger’s online armor. Divine took a sip of his champagne and leaned back in his seat. He looked cruel and cold out the window to the necklace of city lights. He felt the grip of the Beretta on his desk next to the laptop and relaxed. Nobody was going to get in his way. Or else.
Fortunately, dinner was quiet. Back to THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS.
While many of the later 60′s, 70′s and 80′s Bond films had incomprehensible plots, mainly action pieces set in various far-flung locales, veteran series screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Michael Wilson were instructed to come up with a more realistic, character-driven plot. But with big explosions. For the first and only time in the series, James Bond would sleep with only one female. He would curtail the casual sex and even cigarettes of the previous movies. There’s no reason to examine the plot too deep, but at least it’s cohesive and doesn’t rely on a super-villain with a super-plan.
In fact, THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS is one of the most political of all Bond films, rooted in the late Reagan era of covert operations and Soviet competition, but with a more fair, critical point of view. The bad guys this time are not only Krabbe’s rogue Russkie general, but Brad Whitaker, an American arms dealer (overplayed a bit by Joe Don Baker) who are in cahoots to covet opium and weapons to help their conquest of Afghanistan. This leads Bond to the Middle East, smack dab amidst a group of Mujahideen led by Oxford-educated rebel, Kamran Shah, assayed by the charismatic Art Malick. One thing I really dig about TLD is the generosity shown to all the characters, demonstrated by the terrific fight between archetypal henchman Necros and a minor agent, and in the wonderful scene with Shah returning to his village after being held in captivity. For a few moments, with Barry’s sweeping score behind Shah on horseback, the film becomes about him, giving weight to his character’s role in the story. Under Ronald Reagan, he was a freedom fighter. Of course, in reality, he might also have turned into Osama Bin Laden.
The Gorbachev Generation is well represented by John-Rhys Davies as General Pushkin, head of the KGB. Another top notch scene involves Bond believing Pushkin responsible for the deaths of the other agents, and his confrontation with him is tense and brutal. It’s a nice moment when he assures his female companion with a quiet, “It’s all right.” By the end, Pushkin has become an ally of 007 as the Cold War thaws. Davies is perfect in the role and the attention paid to his character is another reason to celebrate the film.
A major difference between this and earlier Bonds is that his inevitable affair with the Russian sniper cum cello player, well played by Maryam d’Abo, is given suitable narrative and romantic weight. This is definitely not Connery’s cold-hearted love beast at work, and d’Abo’s sweet naivety combined with Dalton’s gentleman savior makes this one of the most appealing romances in the series.
Of course, this still an action adventure film, and it does not disappoint. The fight scenes are well-staged and exciting, particularly the final battle between Bond and Necros on the flapping net of an cargo plane. This remains one of the most hair-raising stunts I’ve ever seen as these two brave souls literally hang and bounce from the tail end of a flying plane. No CGI here to intrude on the physical thrill of reality.
In the end, it’s all about Timothy Dalton. Although he lacks the one-liner capacity of previous actors, I love his flashing cold smile when he tells the ineffectual agent Saunders that he can’t reveal how he’s going to transport the defecting general by using Saunder’s officious “need to know basis only” line. Probably Dalton’s finest moment in the film is when after Saunders is killed by a crashing door, Bond’s palpable rage is magnifed by the shattered glass in a beautiful composition. No matter what you think of Dalton as 007, his is without question one of the finest onscreen portrayals of the character.
Certainly TLD was a global box-office hit when it was released, and bade well for a next spy generation. However, the next 007 effort, LICENSE TO KILL, was poorly marketed in 1989 and the film’s “Miami Vice” trappings rendered it rather mundane. Bond was as ruthless as he’d ever been, but me and my friends laughed in the theater after the third or so time he got his ass kicked in the film. Dalton was good, but the script and direction were not, leaving the series in another lurch. He resigned and it would be six years (!) before Pierce Brosnan got the second-chance of a lifetime and his Bond went on to be the biggest moneymakers in the series. Yet the films became progressively worse, regressing to the parodistic style that defined the Roger Moore movies. Which led to the re-boot via Daniel Craig and CASINO ROYALE. Which brings us full circle.
THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS remains one of the best James Bond films, and next to DR. NO and ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, the most faithful to the spirit of Ian Fleming’s perennial secret agent.