Who is the best James Bond? Who is your favourite James Bond? These can be different questions. My desert island James Bond would be Roger Moore – he was bloody wonderful and he made seven movies – plenty to choose from and a couple of classics (The Spy Who Loved Me/Live and Let Die – see our EF ranking of the Moore movies). But I kind of think Tim was the best.
The trouble with Timothy Dalton is that he wasn’t Bond for long. Racking up only two films in the late 1980s, he was the incumbent Bond when the franchise went into a long-running court case, during which time production was suspended. Frustratingly, the producers had the perfect actor for Bond at the time, who would have been the best choice to lead the franchise into the 1990s.
It was not to be.
For fans of the mighty T-Dalt, it’s hard not to feel cheated that his tenure was so fleeting. Yet in the two movies that he made (The Living Daylights in 1987 and Licence to Kill in 1989), Tim really made the part his own. In becoming serious, dangerous and morally ambiguous, Tim basically did two decades earlier what Daniel Craig has replicated to great success.
Yet the plaudits Craig has rightly won for his approach have helped to shed fresh light on the often criminally under-rated fourth James Bond – a certain Shakespearean actor with a slight Manchester accent. Revisionists now realise how much of a debt Craig owes to Dalton. Long-standing admirers of Bond No. 4 can now smugly say, “We told you so.” I’ve been calling Dalton ‘the connoisseur’s Bond’ since I learnt how to spell ‘connoisseur’. For us aficionados, there are probably one hundred reasons why Timothy Dalton’s portrayal outshines that of his fellow 007s. Here’s a select few.
1. Dalton encapsulates Ian Fleming’s character
I read Fleming’s novels before I saw the movies. It can be the case that you embrace the first James Bond you ever see as your lifetime favourite. The first Bond I saw was Roger Moore in Live and Let Die, some time in the late 1980s. I loved it, I love Roger, and it remains one of my favourites. Then I saw Connery. I loved him too. I thought they were both great in different ways – but not quite what I’d had in mind from the character in the books. When I saw Dalton in The Living Daylights I thought: “That’s him! That’s James Bond!” Dalton steeped himself in Fleming’s stories for his research for the part. It shows. I noticed it as a kid with no preconceptions. Dalton moves with great poise, and lets his narrow eyes do a lot of work. He’s like a hunter, the consummate silent killer. Connery and Craig both move with an intoxicating swagger that looks fantastic on screen. But is it entirely right for the part?
2. Dalton is the most talented actor
Part of it shows in the preparation Dalton put into playing the role. He’s the only Bond to have trodden the boards at the National Theatre and was quite happy committing to a run of Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet in the West End in 1988 – between Bond movies! What a class act. There’s another school of thought that stems from lazy journalism that Dalton can’t do comedy and his Bond films are devoid of humour. Anyone who’s seen Hot Fuzz will see how good Dalton is at playing comedy. There’s plenty of humour in his Bond films too. Dalton’s humour is a fine line in dry irony (credit where it’s due – Connery is also excellent at playing drily ironic). “We’re free!” Kara says after Bond busts them out of a cell. “Kara, we’re in a Russian airbase in the middle of Afghanistan…”
3. Dalton’s Bond is the most morally ambiguous
It’s one of the choices that make his Bond so enduringly fascinating. There’s a sequence early on in The Living Daylights when Bond is ordered to kill a sniper who may be targeting Koskov, a Russian former KGB agent who is defecting to the West. He notices that the sniper is a woman. No matter. He lines up the shot. Then he notices something else and deliberately misses, hitting the rifle out of her hands instead of the target.
“Your orders were to kill that girl,” Saunders reprimands him.
“Stuff my orders,” Bond replies. “That girl didn’t know one end of the rifle from the other. I only kill professionals.”
None of the previous incarnations of Bond could possibly have delivered that line. Earlier Bonds were all establishment figures who obeyed their orders, allowing the British Government to act as arbiters of their morality. There’s nothing so unambiguous in the world of Dalton’s Bond. Note that it’s not because the sniper is female, nor because she’s beautiful – he would still have killed her without a second’s thought if she had been a real KGB assassin. It’s because she’s not part of the game.
We see an inverse of this in Licence to Kill when Bond learns that Pam Bouvier works for the CIA. He throws her across a bed, puts a gun to her head and orders her to tell him the truth. The rules of the game have changed because she’s no longer an innocent caught up in a dangerous world: she’s a professional – and therefore fair game to threaten as she’s on the same level as Bond. Subtle. Brilliant.
The grudging admiration and warmth between Bond and Pushkin (head of the KGB!) in The Living Daylights also speaks of the complexity of navigating the Cold War in the world of Dalton’s Bond. Nothing is black and white.
4. Dalton stars in the first character-driven James Bond movie
Licence to Kill sees character, rather than plot, drive the film. This was a first attempt, and the notion wouldn’t be tried again until Skyfall. Sure, it isn’t a perfect film, and there’s some horrible dialogue, but credit to the production team for crafting a story in which Bond drives the plot through conscious action – rather than the usual mission from M in which Bond’s actions are informed by his orders. It’s rare for an action film to be character-driven, and this is why Licence to Kill is a brave departure and an original approach.
5. Dalton bleeds
Bond is in a right state at the end of Licence to Kill. His nose is bloody, his hair’s a mess, his jacket’s ripped and he’s covered in dust. After he kills off the main baddie, Sanchez (Robert Davi), Bond dry heaves in disgust at it all. It’s an amazing reaction. Dalton’s is a human Bond.
6. Dalton’s Bond dresses well
It’s not just that Dalton looks good in everything (he does), it’s that he adapts his costume to meet the needs of his situation. He blends in well to his environment. He dresses like an Afghan when in Afghanistan, for example. There’s always a reason for his costume change, and he uses clothes in the service of his job.
7. Dalton’s Bond panics
Dangling over the edge of whirring blades in Licence to Kill, Pam rushes over and asks if he’s all right. “Switch the bloody machine off!” he yells. It took until 1989 for Bond to lose his cool…
There are many more reasons why I simply love Timothy Dalton as James Bond, much more than any other actor who has ever played the part. But then, I like my Bond human, edgy, and morally complex. Dalton may only have made two films, but he captured Bond perfectly. He will always be the connoisseur’s James Bond.