TLD at 30: Why *The Living Daylights* is the best Bond film of the series

Why The Living Daylights is the best Bond film of the series
The fifteenth EON Productions James Bond film, The Living Daylights, was arguably the first risk the series had taken since 1973’s Live and Let Die made Roger Moore the third Bond actor in as many films. Appearing on screens in 1987, following the preposterous and disappointing A View to A Kill (1985), The Living Daylights was released at a time when the AIDS epidemic was making promiscuity decidedly out of fashion. The critical response to The Living Daylights largely centered around two issues: Bond’s monogamy within the film, and Dalton’s serious portrayal of the legendary agent.(1)
The film takes its title and to some extent its opening scenes from a Fleming short story about Bond watching and waiting for a KGB assassin from East Berlin. The assassin turns out to be a beautiful female cello player whose orchestra he had been observing for several nights. This story informs the post-credits sequence of the film The Living Daylights. In the story, Bond deliberately misses the assassin because she is a beautiful woman, instead hitting her gun. In the film, Bond claims to miss her because she is an “amateur” assassin, although his handler directly confronts him for missing her because of her beauty.
The rest of the film centers on Bond’s slow seduction of the lovely musician, Kara, played by Maryam d’Abo. Kara is in love with a Soviet general who defects to the West on the night Bond was assigned to shoot the cellist. Watching the film now, the inclusion of a single female protagonist is not an issue either way, although it clearly was an issue at the time. The specter of AIDS weighed heavily on the minds of the critics and public, and it was claimed that in response to the AIDS crisis, Bond became “monogamous” within the film.
In fact, the monogamy charge is not even strictly true, as Bond clearly beds a bored woman (whose yacht he parachutes onto) before the credits even roll, and that woman is never heard from again. A minor point, perhaps, but is “yacht woman” any less of a character than the nameless girls in the log cabin and harem tent in The Spy Who Loved Me, women who are the only Bond seductions aside from Agent XXX in that film? What about Plenty O’Toole from Diamonds Are Forever, who appears briefly but memorably in a film dominated by Jill St. John’s American smuggler Tiffany Case. As fondly as O’Toole is recalled, she does not ultimately sleep with Bond, but is instead thrown from a hotel tower into a pool, and later killed in a case of mistaken identity. Tiffany Case is in fact his only sexual conquest in that film. The other famed females from that film, Bambi and Thumper, try to hurt Bond, not sleep with him. The result, a monogamous Bond. Wait, a monogamous Bond? In 1971? Somehow, not an issue.
In The Living Daylights, however, there are no major female characters once Kara is introduced. Certainly a second or even third “Bond girl” could have been shoehorned in, as with previous entries in the series. However, was it really preferable to watch Roger Moore improbably bed 21-years-younger henchwoman Grace Jones while still romancing 28-years-younger “good girl” Tanya Roberts? (The Dalton-d’Abo gap is about fifteen years, by the way, so there was not much improvement on that score even with a younger Bond.) Whatever the reason, be it a choice to focus on the female assassin character set in motion from the original Fleming story or a genuine response to AIDS, the film is all the better for having a single female lead.
What about Dalton’s alleged seriousness? Much was made of it at the time of the film’s release, with Roger Ebert calling Dalton’s performance “dark and saturnine,” but stating that is not a good thing in what should be the silly world of Bond.(2) (Years later Ebert would call Daniel Craig’s much darker turn “bloody damned great.”(3))
Watching the film now, Dalton’s performance is pitch-perfect. During the obligatory chase scene in a gadget-laden car, Bond’s dry running commentary to Kara about how his vehicle happens to be so well equipped with weaponry is hilarious. At the end of a preposterous slide down a snow-covered mountain on a cello case, Bond simply shouts “nothing to declare” at the Austrian border guard as they slide under the gate. In other words, Dalton doesn’t skimp on the wisecracks, but his Bond does not stop to laugh at his own jokes, wink at the camera, raise an eyebrow, nor even provide a pregnant pause for the audience to laugh along. This may have been enough to throw off the 1980s audience as well as the critics.
In fact, if anything, Dalton’s Bond is a bit too silly for modern audiences. In the opening sequence, a training exercise turns deadly and one of Bond’s fellow double-0 agents is killed. After making his own narrow escape, Bond lands on the aforementioned yacht with a lonely beautiful woman and plans to drink and sleep with her rather than making his way back to headquarters immediately. At the time this was likely a wink to the audience: “Good old 007!” it screams. “Nothing has changed!” (Somehow audiences missed this reassurance.) Watching now, his cavalier attitude toward just having witnessed the assassination of a double-0 seems incongruous. Even within the film it is a bit strange. Later, when Bond’s ally and handler Saunders is killed after a meeting in Vienna, Bond reacts angrily and with deadly seriousness, seething and popping the assassin’s balloon-slash-calling-card.
Watching now, it’s admittedly hard to understand why Bond’s attitude is different in the two scenes. Why is Bond angered by the assassination in Vienna, but not, apparently, by the assassination at the beginning of the film? Still, in the context of Bond films this attitude gear-shift is no different from Moore’s For Your Eyes Only, going from killing anonymous henchmen by pushing their bodies into a hockey goal (complete with scoring siren) to the vicious close-up murder of Locque by kicking his car so it completes its fall over a cliff.
Dispatching with the primary two arguments one hears about The Living Daylights, we arrive at the heart of the matter. Despite the fact that Bond films are considered by the general public to be “spy movies,” precious little cold war spying goes on in most of the films. One could argue that, along with From Russia With Love and to a certain extent Octopussy, The Living Daylights is one of the very few times Bond is seen working as a real Cold War spy in the films, as opposed to fighting economic or political terrorism from non-state actors.
And as Cold War tales go, it’s a doozy. Compared to the relatively straight line honeypot story of From Russia With Love, The Living Daylights’ twists and turns, starting with the pipeline-mediated defection of a high-level Russian general, Koskov. The general is then kidnapped from an MI6 country safe house. Bond’s spy work (escorting an unknowing Kara to Vienna) leads him to believe that the defection was a fake, and that the general is out of favor with, and under investigation by, the Russian military. Kara betrays Bond and they are taken to a Soviet base in Afghanistan. They escape to work with the Mujahideen, making this one of the few Cold War films to deal in 1980s USSR geopolitics as opposed to sticking with 1960’s era Moscow, Berlin, and the rest of the Eastern Bloc.
Bond uncovers Koskov’s plot to buy opium from the Mujahideen and sell it to buy arms for the Soviets to use against, amongst others, the Mujahideen themselves. He saves the day in spectacular fashion, stealing the plane carrying the opium, fighting the henchman and throwing him from the plane, then using a bomb he had planted on the plane to blow up the opium and a critical bridge, crippling the Soviets’ fight against the Mujahideen in two ways.
This is MI6 in action! This is the cream of the British Secret Service, doing its best to fight the communists and maintain a beachhead of freedom! Is there a cartoon villain in this film, a Hugo Drax or Ernst Stavro Blofeld or, dare we disparage the acclaimed third film in the series, an Auric Goldfinger? Certainly there is the American rogue general, Whitaker, ably played by Joe Don Baker as a good old boy who likes dealing arms as much as he likes playing with army men.
But, while he’s certainly a major character and an eccentric, his plan is not eccentric. He’s not repopulating the world from an undersea base, like Stromberg, or... repopulating the world from a space station, like Drax, or building a solar gun, like Scaramanga, or… building a solar gun, like Gustav Graves/Colonel Moon. No, Whitaker is an eccentric arms dealer, and that’s it. People similar to him most likely exist. His motives are from the real world, not the fictional villainy playbook. There’s no volcano lair, no laser battle in space, just an estate in Tangiers with an incredibly elaborate battle diorama.
Remove the baggage of the times, remove the resistance to Dalton’s approach after the Moore era, remove the odd critical over-reaction to the onset of the AIDS epidemic, and you are left with what may be the best film in the entire series. A true espionage film, a funny adventure film, a realpolitik film, and a dangerously sexy film. Most of all, you’re left with a Bond who is recognizably a combination of the best of the film series character and the best of Fleming’s literary creation.
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