FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*
LIVING DAYLIGHTS, like the Roger Moore opus OCTOPUSSY, takes as its lauching-point one of Ian Fleming’s James Bond short stories. Whereas the film OCTOPUSSY resembles almost nothing about the original short story, DAYLIGHTS—the first outing for Timothy Dalton as the Bond-producers' fourth James Bond—does use more aspects of the “Living Daylights” short story.
The Fleming tale is a short meditation on the seamy side of spycraft, with particular emphasis on the less than glamorous side of being an agent being “licensed to kill.” Bond is told that a Soviet defector plans to cross from East Berlin to the city’s western counterpart. The KGB knows that where he plans to cross, but not from exactly when, so they appoint one of their best snipers, known only as “Trigger,” to stake out the area and kill the defector before he can cross over. Bond is assigned to stake out the area as well, and to use a high-powered rifle to execute Trigger before the sniper can kill the defector. Bond hates the assignment and distracts himself by fantasizing about a young woman he sees on the street, carrying a cello-case. Later he finds out that the young woman is Trigger, carrying her rifle in the case. When the defector makes his break, Bond partly disobeys his orders out of a chivalrous urge: instead of killing Trigger, he scares “the living daylights” out of her by shooting her rifle instead of her. He escapes retaliation by other KGB agents but doesn’t mind when his handler tells him he may lose his double-O status due to disobedience.
The above scenario is roughly adapted for the first fifteen minutes of DAYLIGHTS, though one never sees this Bond evince disgust for his assassination assignment. He’s assigned to protect a defector named Koskov when he crosses to the West, but there’s no mention of a particular KGB assassin known in advance. While Bond watches the crossing, he spots a young woman who, like Trigger, conceals a rifle in her cello-case. As in the short story, Bond shoots the rifle from her hands instead of killing her. But when another agent berates him for sentimentality, Bond claims that the woman was an amateur, and “I only kill professionals.”
No sooner does Koskov arrive in the West than agents of the KGB steal him back, apparently on the order of a Soviet bigwig, General Pushkin. Bond intuits that there’s another game going on, and tracks down the female cellist, Kara. By pretending to be a friend of Koskov’s, Bond learns that Kara is Koskov’s girlfriend, and that Koskov instructed her to fire blanks at him as he crossed in order to hoax British Intelligence.
While Bond carries on his investigation, the audience is made privy to Koskov’s dealings. He’s allied himself to an American arms dealer, Brad Whitaker, for some unknown gambit. Pushkin, who has been investigating Koskov for embezzlement, had nothing to do with Koskov’s phony kidnapping, and even breaks off the Soviet Union’s relations with Whitaker. Bond finds his way to Pushkin and convinces the general to fake his own death in order to draw Koskov out. However, Kara becomes suspicious of Bond and informs on him to Koskov, though she returns to his side when Koskov shows his true colors.
By focusing on Koskov as a renegade, DAYLIGHTS distances itself from the Red-baiting of the early Bond books and films, and depicts Pushkin as a honorable opponent. True, the action does move to Afghanistan, where Bond and Kara become allied to the Mujahiddeen, but this isn’t used to make any strong comment upon Soviet occupation of the country. The introduction of Whitaker as a secondary villain is clearly meant to signal the sins of the West, even if he too is a renegade who does not represent official policy. One problem with this approach, however, is that both Koskov and Whitaker are pedestrian villains. Even the petty drug-dealer Kristatos of FOR YOUR EYES ONLY has more character.
The short story is of course entirely naturalistic in phenomenality, and so is the bulk of DAYLIGHTS. Koskov and Whitaker are comparatively mundane opponents compared to such best-remembered Bond-fiends as Goldfinger and Blofeld, and their main plot—to use Russian funds to buy drugs in Afghanistan—is profoundly forgettable. The only items that elevate DAYLIGHTS to a marvelous phenomenality are a couple of Bond’s special weapons—stun-gas devices and a laser in his car that allows him to slice a Soviet auto in half. But these items appear so briefly that one suspects the producers wanted to have a few spectacular items in the film to invoke the “glory days” of the 1960s series.
As a minor note, this is one of the few Bond movies with no “bad girl,” although Kara takes on a very slight aspect of one such in a scene where she dopes Bond. Despite being an amateur, Kara gets into the thick of battle rather quickly, and distinguishes herself well as a “good Bond girl,” even if her character is likewise not very inspired.