Celebrating Timothy Dalton’s James Bond

Feature Mark Harrison 29 Oct 2012 - 07:23

Timothy Dalton may have only two Bond movies to his name, but he was, Mark argues, the quintessential secret agent…

Timothy Dalton is the best actor to play James Bond. Although this article will also pitch the opinion that his portrayal of Bond is also the best, it remains true that Dalton is the best actor out of the very exclusive club of thespians who've portrayed 007 on the big screen. Prior to taking the role in 1987, he'd been a Shakespearean actor and had honed his craft on the stage.

Eon Productions had been badgering him to take the role for a while too – he turned it down three times, including an initial scheduling conflict that would have prevented him from starring in The Living Daylights. From the beginning, he had an idea of Bond that was very different from where the series had been headed over the course of the 1980s, hoping to bring the character down to Earth.

“I think Roger was fine as Bond, but the films had become too much techno-pop and had lost track of their sense of story,” Dalton said in a 1989 interview.  “I mean, every film seemed to have a villain who had to rule or destroy the world. If you want to believe in the fantasy on screen, then you have to believe in the characters and use them as a stepping-stone to lead you into this fantasy world. That's a demand I made, and Albert Broccoli agreed with me.” 

Over the course of the two films he appeared in, 1987's The Living Daylights and 1989's Licence To Kill, Dalton brought a harder edge to Bond, more self-conscious of some of the character's foibles and vices, without every other character taking him to task over it, as they do in GoldenEye. The first thing you notice about his stern, wolfish portrayal is that he thrives upon revenge in a way that had seldom been seen.

Before the straight-up revenge plot that runs through his second outing, The Living Daylights sees Bond targeted as the lynchpin of a scheme to assassinate Russian General Pushkin, a British ally. Two agents are assassinated on Bond's watch, and Pushkin is framed as the architect of a revived Soviet Intelligence programme called Smiert Spionom ('Death To Spies.')

The second of these is the grandest showcase of Dalton's ability to convey pure, frightening fury. After grappling with a stuffy MI6 agent called Saunders in the earlier parts of the film, Bond starts to build a mutual respect with him as they work together. Moments after a grateful exchange, Saunders is murdered by an automatic door, in one of the more ignominious death scenes of the series. 

Dalton's glowering initial reaction is much less composed than other Bonds might have been, leading to him pulling a gun on a small child with a balloon. That doesn't make him sound cool and collected, but in both films, we see how this version of Bond uses his anger to exact cold, meticulous vengeance on his enemies. 

This is pretty much the whole plot of Licence To Kill, which producer and co-writer Michael G Wilson compared to Kurosawa's Yojimbo. There is something uniquely awesome about the idea of Dalton's Bond as a lone samurai, particularly when his personal vendetta results in his suspension by M, as he resorts to infiltrating the baddies who attacked CIA agent Felix Leiter and his bride, and imperceptibly turning them all against one another. 

They still find time for the action scenes and brutal showdowns that characterise Bond films, of course, but given this Bond's tendency to make things personal, the stakes are often much higher. Away from plots to “rule or destroy the world”, the explosive ending of Licence To Kill centres around destroying tankers full of drugs and petrol, all to get back at Sanchez for hurting Bond's mates. When it's all over, it's one of the few times we ever see Bond cry, and Dalton breaks the mask of secrecy he's been wearing for the whole film and shows utter relief.

That, specifically, is what makes Dalton's version of Bond the most effective: he's inarguably the most secret agent of the bunch, with the emphasis on secret. Rather than inflicting massive property damage or faffing about with hover-gondolas, he does some actual spying. The Living Daylights is hardly Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but it's the closest to an actual espionage thriller that the Bond series had mustered since From Russia With Love.

He uncovers the conspiracy against British Intelligence and General Pushkin, not by conducting explosive hit-and-miss investigations around the world, but by courting the real villain's girlfriend, Kara Milovy. This leads to another difference in Dalton's portrayal: the 1980s made aspects of the series formula slightly awkward, with concerns over sexually transmitted diseases, and repositioned gender roles in the wake of Britain electing its first female Prime Minister. 

After four films of trying to carry on regardless, and occasionally coming over all Carry On as a result, this version of Bond simultaneously resolves both. In addition to his aforementioned introspection, Dalton cuts a more monogamous figure than any previous version of the character. His relationship with Kara is not so seductive, but rather surprisingly chaste – he's more of a cad than a scoundrel, if there's much of a difference there. 

Bond being Bond, that doesn't mean Kara's still around for Licence To Kill, but his relationship with Pam Bouvier again marks his Bond as more romantic than sexually driven, ultimately spurning the advances of his enemy's girlfriend in order to jump off a roof and into a swimming pool with Pam. Even if it wasn't quite up to 21st century standards (Die Another Day totally doesn't count as 21st century standard – it's an aberration that escaped from the mid-1980s), 007's attitude to romance and women was shifting.

There are shortcomings to this more serious Bond, most notably that he's not great at delivering quips. Certainly, the car chase with the Slovakian police in The Living Daylights occasionally scans more like a stunt on Top Gear than a James Bond action sequence because of Dalton's delivery. He's usually too angry while he's dispatching foes to get in any puns, but his finishing one-liners are still up to snuff, most memorably with “He got the boot”, at the end of his first outing. 

One of the more impressive aspects of Dalton's performance is that he actually did most of his own stunts, proving himself equally game for the things that the audience expects from the character, while still making Bond his own. To celebrate the films on their own merits, as well as what Dalton brought to the table, director John Glen executed some of his most impressive stunts in these two films, most notably in the scene where Bond and Necros fight while dangling from the back of a cargo plane in The Living Daylights, and the articulated lorry tilt from Licence To Kill.

The transition from Moore to Dalton was the biggest reboot the series had seen until Casino Royale literally took Bond back to the beginning. I would say that Daniel Craig is close to being as good an actor as Dalton, and while his portrayal is distinctive and new in its own way, I think the newest films show how ahead of their time this double bill turned out to be.

With Skyfall now playing in cinemas nationwide, it should be noted that most Bonds come into their own on their third outing – Connery had Goldfinger, Moore had The Spy Who Loved Me and Brosnan was arguably at his best in The World Is Not Enough. It's a shame, therefore, that Dalton never got to reprise the role again. Legal issues, which must seem trifling in hindsight, dogged the series throughout the early 1990s. 

A third instalment with Dalton was in development, and initially planned for 1991. From online reconstructions of this project, it's been said that the film would have taken place in Hong Kong, but clearly wasn't so far along in production that they'd yet realised how ridiculous it would have been to reveal a robot female henchman in the third act. Given how Dalton only announced that he would not return in 1994, there must have been some point where he was considered for GoldenEye, which is a tantalising prospect in its own right.

In closing, we refer to Dalton once again, reiterating his position on a realistic Bond in another interview. “It's very important to make the man believable so you can stretch the fantasy. Whether people like this kind of Bond is another question.”

Perhaps his kind of James Bond isn't everybody's favourite, but if you've been labouring under the delusion that he wasn't any good, then there's definitely enough in The Living Daylights and Licence To Kill to justify revisiting Timothy Dalton's take on this most iconic of characters. 

Skyfall is out now. You can read our review here.

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A very, very good Bond. Glad he's having a bit of a renaissance in opinion. You're right about his acting chops -for me, Dalton gives the best of all the Tracy flashbacks, just look at his face when Mrs Leiter offers him her garter at the wedding.

He was married once, but it was a long time ago.

Dalton was an exceptional Bond, I've always really enjoyed his take on the character.
Following the travesty that was Roger Moore's series of films that got worse with each outing, he was a breath of fresh air. Really good to see Dalton getting some here, its long overdue.

"Yesss...I got the message."

I genuinely feel The Living Daylights is one of the top Bonds ever. License to Kill doesn't quite live up to that, but Dalton remains the definite highlight of both films with his gritty, intense and often bitter Bond. The execution scene with Pushkin is ruthlessly convincing.

I agree with DamonD. I really enjoyed The Living Daylights but was disappointed with Licence To Kill. Dalton was very good in the role.

My favourite Bond. The scene in Licence to Kill where he could easily escape but decides to harpoon the henchman who killed Sharkey tells you everything you need to know about that character. Also, the scene where he finds Felix mutilated and his new bride dead and he crawls, flustered, across the floor to grab the phone is just great acting.

Dalton was a fantastic Bond and a real breath of fresh air after the later Roger Moore films. Such a shame he didn't make more than 2. The pre-credits "army manoeuvers" from Living Daylights is up there with the best opening sequences in any Bond film.

And let's not forget, geeks, Dalton was also Rassilon in Doctor Who!

Strangely enough, I was watching Licence to Kill yesterday afternoon, Dalton really was underrated, if he could have had more films, he may have gone down as the definitive bond.

Totally agree, it is really frustrating not having seen him more than twice in the role... I have never been able to enjoy Pierce Brosnan after him. He is James Bond, even if he is so underrated by most of the people... Such a shame!!

The Living Daylights suffers from the lack of a decent villain, Licence to Kill suffers due to a supporting cast of TV movie actors. Dalton redeems things in both films and elevates them into the top 10 Bonds. Still my fave incumbent of the role.

Have just watched them (as I am working my way trough the whole series) and I prefer Licence to Kill to The living daylights which is bit of a grey film with a boring Girl and unmenacing Baddies. Plus the whole serious vibe they try to project is gone the second they go down the slopes in a Cello case. LTK has a Miami Vice vibe, but the acting and action is great. Q is wonderfull and I really like Davi as Baddy with del Toro as henchman. The revenge plot is way more exciting than the detective story from TLD. Dalton in general is a very driven Bond. He is focussed and fit especially in comparision to the last Moore movies. And his acting is superb , but sometimes it is just not Bondlike. Too worried , too angry, too emotional. His posture is also a bit less classy as Moore and Connery.
I like Dalton and what he did in those movies, making it a bit more human and personal but that is also what makes him a little less "Bondy" than the rest.

Quick opinion time: For all of those who've read Flemings books, I would peg Dalton as the closest the films have come to the original literary version. Although Connery hues pretty close, the general demeanour of Dalton is the best in my opinion.

Dalton's movies and Connery first couple of outings are the only ones I can rewatch, so that must say something about the quality of his portrayal.

I'd say Lazenby is the very closest to the books, with Dalton and Craig coming pretty close. Connery is still the best screen bond though.

also Dalton is the closest to how bond looks in the books - check James Bonds wiki page and look at the guy he's based on and the drawings and Daltons pretty close

Moore's films a bit 'Carry On'? Why do people always exaggerate the 'light' moments in those films? The Carry Ons was continual slapstick/innuendo/exaggerated performances from all the cast. I don't see that in For Your Eyes Only. Octopussy may have had the gorilla moment but Carry On was much more overt than that, and for the most part was just as thrilling and no more pulpy than Raiders of the Lost Ark. Dalton was good - although it would be more credible to hear from someone who has actually seen his stage work, as opposed to just being told he was a Shakespearean actor and being impressed at that.

Dalton was exactly what was needed after the farce that dogged Moore's later films. Very much enjoyed his portrayal, which paved the way for Brosnan's & Craig's performances.

Dalton got a real bum rap. Sincerely wish he lasted longer in the role.

What's more amazing is that, in License to Kill, the noises the bullets make when ricocheting off the tanker play the bond theme tune. Geektastic.

I liked Dalton as Bond, but for me I was always waiting for Pierce Brosnan to be Bond. And when it happened, I was most satisfied. But Dalton had a good run.

I loved Timothy Dalton, closest to the source material and a refreshing re-boot from Roger Moore trying to sprint up the Eiffel Tower. It's interesting reading that the 3rd film is when the actor "owns" the part as this is very true for Daniel Craig in Skyfall. What I've also seen is how desperate the films get further down the line so here's hoping we don't see Daniel Craig doing random ski stunts or making quiche any time soon!

I always like Dalton and am glad to see his approach is being recognised, especially as this is largely what the Craig movies have done. I do however notice that people have started talking about Brosnan as though he was like the worst of Moore, silly, jokey and not any good. I'd say of his films only DAD fails the credulity test, the other 3 are great, and he was always good in them, and in places played ruthless and cold as well as any Bond.

For me the best Bond, closest to the Literal look and character that Fleming created. The Living Daylights is one of the best Bond films, License to Kill is not, a real shame he couldn't have done more.

Agreed Fleming hated Connery though didn't want him as Bond

Oh my goodness!!! This is MY kind of article! I've been a card-carrying member of the exclusive 'Dalton as Best Bond' club for years!! I love that you also said he's the BEST actor who's played Bond so far, but sadly also the most underrated. Every time I see Casino Royale, and the clips for Skyfall (haven't seen the film yet as it hasn't opened in the US), I always wish that Dalton had been in Craig's shoes. I know I'll always mourn for him not fulfilling his contract to do 3 Bond films, I think 'Property of a Lady' would've been his third?? Even that title is intriguing, with Dalton in it, it could've been his best Bond flick! Alas...

Anyway, THANK YOU for this article!!

Dalton was a decent Bond. Unfortunately, The Living Daylights is one of the worst Bond films and while License to Kill was a major improvement, it felt like Bond trying to be Die Hard. Too...American in feel.

uuum, Ruth, I wonder what happened in those 38 minutes that made you change your mind from 'Dalton as Best Bond' to "Dalton was a decent Bond"

YES! Thank you. I have been saying this for years, so glad to find I am not the only one who thinks this!

Timothy Dalton is my favourite Bond. Living Daylights and License To Kill are extremely diverse. Daylights was not too far away from Sir Rog but LTK is clearly the forerunner for Casino Royale. My one best example of Mr.Dalton, When Della Leiter throws her wedding band to Bond. Tim's portrayal is encapsulated their, Straight from the pages of Flemming himself.

I agree with this article. Dalton was very good in the role in retrospect.
Like many, I did not like his portrayal when I first saw the movies in the 80's (Living Daylights was ok, but License to Kill was too different for me then) but when I watch these movies now, they are both great - including License to Kill which was ahead of its time in showing the human side of the character.
When I look back on it now, I realize that much of the reason I did not fully embrace Dalton in the 80's was because firstly I liked Moore in role, and secondly because I, like many I'm sure, was hoping for Brosnan to get the role. Many of us felt Brosnan had what it took to pull of the role. What a mistaken belief that turned out to be. Although he definitely had the looks, Brosnan just did not have the acting chops for the role. This is best encapsulated in two scenes in the abysmal World is not Enough. His overacted 'shock' reaction when Renard tells him the 'feel alive' bit and the scene when he recounts that fact to Electra. Purely pathetici and effiminate, daytime soap opera acting and not worthy of Bond. You can blame the scripts all you want (and they were horrible) but Brosnan just did not have what it took for the Bond role (and he has himself admitted he did not get the portrayal right). He has been very good in other roles however - such as the Tailor of Panama and Ghost Writer.
Now, in terms of Dalton vs. Craig - the reason I think Craig's portrayal has been more embraced, apart from the changed times, is because he has been able, from the very first scene in Casino Royuale where he blows away the 'bent' MI6 agent, to show 'cool' on screen. That is the one thing Dalton, despite his very good portrayal otherwise, just was not able to do so well - particularly in comparison to the super cool Moore.

Dalton most certainly did NOT have "a good run", as you put it; he should have debuted as Bond one film and two years earlier than he did in a grittier, harder-edged, and more Fleming-esque 'A View to a Kill', if that had happened, he would have made the role his own by 'Licence to Kill'... Tim Dalton was two decades ahead of the wider audience, they weren't ready for his Bond in the 1980's, they are now thanks to articles like this and the wonder of DVD's and endless telly repeats, and Tim Dalton is now getting the recognition he so richly deserves for arguably a definitive portrayal of England's finest!

All the actors portraying Bond have had their moments and brought their own persona to the role. For me tho, Dalton is the closest to a real-life Bond. Craig is second, tho I suspect we have Bourne to thank for that. Dalton's defining film is Licence to Kill. TLD suffered from not wanting to do a complete makeover on Bond from AVTAK. It really is a shame that Dalton didn't get a couple more films to shine as Bond.

Hooray for this article.
TLD and LTK in my opinion were both great films (with a few flaws) and Dalton was outstanding as Bond. No other Bond actor had shown that amount of venom, anger and emotion at seeing their friends and colleagues murdered.
What really annoyed me on the release of Goldeneye is that all the press ganged up on Dalton and slagged him off. Now of course, that same press are calling Brosnan 'campy' compared to Craig.
Fickle filthbags they are.

Excellent Bond, two very strong films. It's a pity he doesn't get more recognition but then considering the direction the series had taken under Moore he had a hard task ahead of him in order to bring credibility back to the series.

Craig managed it, Dalton, despite a sterling effort, is best remembered as an underrated James who couldn't revolutionise a dying series.

Nicely written article. I have always enjoyed the two Dalton outings.

Wow... this article lost all credibility in the first sentence, "Timothy Dalton is the best actor to play James Bond."

He was great in the later seasons of Chuck were hes ther crime boss Alexei Volkoff

o_O... I can see this is a touchy subject for you, lol. I do agree with your saying that Dalton should've been Bond in "A View To A Kill" though. That would've definitely made a better movie. I only like AVTAK because of the theme song.

Thank you for this excellent article

. It's high time Dalton's 007 got the respect and love it deserves. His admirers may not be aware of how he – actually quite heroically – threw himself on his sword for the sake of the James Bond series. Clearly, he wanted to continue on with the role, and producer Cubby Broccoli was ready to go to the mat with MGM to retain Dalton (taking the "my actor or no movie" approach Barbara Broccoli took in 2005 with the hiring of Daniel Craig). The future of the series was at an impasse: the studio (unfairly) blamed Dalton for the weaker-than-expected box office for LTK; Broccoli understood the film got swamped in the summer of "Batman" and was otherwise committed to his leading man (and, of course, his own ego!). Dalton instinctively understood that he would go down in film history as "the guy who killed the James Bond movies", and resigned the role – letting Broccoli off the hook of his own intransigence and letting MGM have its scapegoat. Pierce Brosnan knew what happened, commenting that he "felt very bad for Tim Dalton."

To quote Dalton himself , from a 1989 et online interview about the Living Daylights . : ".............., "I've read all the Fleming books and seen all the movies, and gleaned and responded to all the details and bits and pieces that I can, and something is crystallizing."

Crystallizing is the keyword. Being new in the Bond World, he is the perfect "guide". His take is well rooted. IMO, Fleming would be thrilled to know him.

The Eon Franchinse is the best, no doubt. However if not for the Dalton bond films (and the earlier ones), next to 'Tinker, Tailor, Soildier, Spy', the Bond films, would have paled in the authenticity department.

Timothy Dalton really was underrated & was the best Bond imo. When Saunders gets killed in TLD, Dalton's intense reaction and his following coversation with Maryam d'Abo showcased the best acting by any actor in the Bond franchise. Both TLD & LTK were great Bond movies.

I don't know if anyone else felt this way but I think that the more gritty and realistic Bond is, that's when he's at his best. I think after Moore's turn as Bond, Dalton's films were the first that felt truly epic in scope. The Living Daylights and License to Kill were the first times I felt like Bond had a personal purpose he was out to fulfill. Personally, my favorite Bond films are Dalton's, GoldenEye, and Craig's, cause in these films in particular I feel like we're actually viewing the same character.

While Fleming didn't like Connery at all initially, he did change his mind after "From Russia With Love" and gave the literary Bond a Scottish heritage. However, Dalton's interpretation is still closer to Fleming's version, and he's my favorite, with Connery at #2. While the success of the series owes a great deal to Connery, it also owes the same to Dalton, who gave the franchise a shot in the arm after Moore's final efforts reduced it to camp. He also paved the way for Daniel Craig to play the role. After Dalton's dark portrayal, Brosnan was the "Safe" choice to follow him, as he gave off the Roger Moore vibe (Sounds like, from interviews, Brosnan had little say in his interpretation of the character) I can see why they did that. After trying the serious approach, they decided to return to the formula that was so successful before. It didn't last this time though.

Dalton was an incredible Bond and probably the one closest to what Fleming would have wanted particularly if you have read the books and definately my favourite followed by Craig and Connery it is without a doubt a shame about all the legal probs at the time because without them Dalton would almost certainly have done a third and possibly a fourth film......great article.

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