Last night I watched The Living Daylights. To the (lucky?) uninitiated, this is the 16th film in the James Bond saga, made in 1987, and the first where the role of author Ian Fleming’s iconic British spy was played by Timothy Dalton.
I had never seen Dalton as Bond (he played the role just twice), with my only enduring memory of him being as the murderous supermarket manager in the comedy-drama Hot Fuzz. He had a few good lines in that macabre movie, such as admitting to the investigating cop (Simon Pegg) that he was indeed “the slasher; I slash prices”, so I thought he’d fit perfectly into the evolved persona of Bond as the king of snappy one-liners to complement the crass womanising and the gadgetry.
I was rather surprised then to find a more subdued Bond than I had been accustomed to with only one slick turn of phrase and only two, I think, conquests during the movie. But what was particularly unexpected was the return to a more traditional Bond, rather like that of Sean Connery’s second appearance in From Russia With Love.
Not only were the snappy one-liners given the heave-ho, but the arch villains were no longer megalomaniacs from the international crime syndicate Spectre. Instead, we saw a return to the altogether more reassuring enemy in Smersh, the malevolent Soviet spy agency. In Bond-world, the Cold War was on in earnest again, right down to the legions of happy ‘natives’ more than willing to put their lives on the line for Anglo-American geopolitical interests.
In this regard, it was welcoming to see the return of the CIA’s point man Felix Leiter who seemed to have had a miraculous mutation from the loss of two limbs in Live and Let Die (the book, that is) when thrown to the sharks by voodoo bigwig Mr Big. But, alas, this reversion to the reassurance of the past did not include the revivifying of Rosa Klebb, surely the most evilly imaginative of Smersh operatives.
My interest in Timothy Dalton was, I am sure, a response to the dulling effect of 12 years of Roger Moore as the light-footed spy titillating viewers with his incessant chatter, raised eyebrows, English grammar school drawl and technicolour harems.
Nevertheless, I had always been a sort-of Bond fan, having been introduced to Fleming’s hero when Dr No, one of his earliest books, was serialised in the Sydney Daily Telegraph newspaper in 1958 or 1959, and I remember the enthralled discussions between my then best friend Ralph and me as we recounted that morning’s exploits of Bond, Honey Rider, the Cayman islander Quarrel and Dr No, himself.
(Many years later, I wondered whether Quarrel had been trading in off-shore tax-dodging accounts on Grand Cayman, so valued was he by the profligate Bond.)
Bond, of course, was a figure of great glamour to boys in shorts and long socks and I always find it amusing whenever the debate resumes about whether the movies are authentically Bond or not. Because one thing I can say is that (if memory serves me correctly) none of them ever got his appearance right, as Ian Fleming crowned his face with curly brown hair hanging in a kiss-curl of sorts. But that is by the by.
What does intrigue me is the enduring appeal of Bond, evidenced by the fact that Daniel Craig is on-set, as this post is written, making the next offering in a film saga that began with Dr No fully 58 years ago. I remember vividly watching that film in the Sydney University Union Theatre at one of its fantastic lunch-time screenings; and I was hooked.
Hooked by the glamour of the man of mystery; hooked by the doors that opened for him and never for me; hooked by his style and the cut of his cloth; hooked by the brilliant blue of the Caribbean. Even hooked by the cheeky motif of three blind mice blowing away Strangways, the British station chief in Kingston.
I was not alone in this, because I read that Bond, particularly the early Bond, was an addiction of John F Kennedy, the glamorous United States president of that time. (Rather like an American Bond, we chose to believe.) That early Bond, in my opinion, reached its peak in the third movie, Goldfinger, which displayed attractive landscapes, flashy cars, stunning girls and smart mouths. And no mouth was smarter than Sean Connery’s who, after tossing a radiator into a bath to join a failed assassin, uttered the single word: “Shocking!”
But, by Goldfinger, the saga was also showing the early signs of sliding into idiotic gadgetry and sclerotic sexism. Preparing the way for Roger Moore, I suppose. Yet the saga survived Roger Moore and I survived half a dozen viewings of A View to a Kill on a 15-hour flight from Sydney to Beijing. And Bond seemed to endure in the imaginations of millions.
Why? Plenty of scholarly books have been written about the Bond phenomenon, so anything I say will only be relevant to how I felt during the 60-plus years he has been in my orbit. (Sorry, that should be reversed.)
At first, Bond came along during the years of Cold War post-Stalin detente and so I think we in Western countries began to dare hope that we did have a future not overshadowed by the mushroom cloud. And I think we, the young particularly, began to look again at the world outside our sheltered upbringings in a new, refreshed light.
Then Bond came along, dripping glamour and panache, so I think we were intoxicated by the dazzling possibilities he seemed to portray. I even (briefly) thought I’d like to be a spy myself, 008 possibly, sitting next to him at the circular table as we were briefed by M.
By Thunderball and Moonraker, however, I’d had enough and so the Roger Moore years passed in a blur. Yet Pierce Brosnan seemed to revitalise the formula — girls, one-liners, gadgetry — but with a dark fatalism that rid Bond of the spoof image. And then Daniel Craig completely rebooted the old spy — getting rid of old tropes like “shaken, not stirred” — while putting the movie settings into nearly believable contexts.
Therefore, having Craig reboot my attachment to Bond through the brilliant Casino Royale, I’ll be in the queue, coronavirus willing, to see his last offering now in production. I admit I still need that extravagant dab of colour to lift a monochrome existence.