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Raymond Durgnat on The Living Daylights


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#1 Revelator

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Posted 07 March 2017 - 07:51 PM

Raymond Durgnat might seem obscure next to Roger Ebert, but for many he was the “critic’s critic,” highly valued for his erudition and ability to contextualize any film in front of him. This review of The Living Daylights appeared in the Aug. 1, 1987 issue of the Monthly Film Bulletin and stands as one of the most perceptive socio-political examinations of Dalton’s debut:
 

In the quarter-century since Dr. No (1962), the Bond films have increasingly opted for a mood of nail-biting exuberance, closer to the old serial spirit—somewhere between The Perils of Pauline and The Mask of Fu Manchu—than to Len Deighton or John Le Carré. Q's death-dealing gadgetry is often as hilarious as it is awesome; the stunts generate a festive air, like a three-ring circus; Bond's seduction of, and by, the various Bond girls has less to do with the serious business of espionage than with the daydreams of cheery virility; and the extravagant villains, with their grandiose schemes for world disruption, have a built-in improbability which, while it never prevents suspense from breaking in, subverts any real suspension of disbelief. Descriptions like ‘camp’, ‘tongue-in-cheek’, or ‘winking at the audience’ risk understating these films’ appurtenance to a curiously overlooked genre: the self-aware spectacle, whose happy self-reflexivity, far from ‘subverting the illusion’, actually celebrates the show qua show.

 

The original Bond novels (from 1952) are interesting enough, at least by the standards of what one might call ‘easy reading’ or ‘upmarket pulp fun’. They mix a toughly patriotic gentleman-spy with new perceptions of politico-bureaucratic cynicism; old snobberies with modern affluence-and-anomie; Sapper with Nigel Balchin. Probably Bond's secret agenting does metaphor a new sense of social life as continuous deception all round. Compared to the novels, the movies are brasher, broader and more down-market. The Roger Moore Bond, in particular, far from seeming secretive, had all the swagger of a car salesman relishing an unexpectedly huge expense account.

 

While Fleming's novels contained a stiff mix of chauvinism and realpolitik—in a phrase, the spirit of Eden at Suez—the movies merely perpetuate the cocky hedonism inaugurated with the Swinging Sixties (The Avengers amidst the Playboy ‘philosophy’). The more relaxed screen tone usually extends as far as a worldly tolerance of Russia's adversarial role. The enemy No. One is rarely World Communism, but mischief-making by egomaniacal, often conspicuously capitalistic, masterminds. In Billion Dollar Brain, a ‘cousin’ to the Bond films, via their co-producer Harry Saltzman, the same basic formula tilts in favour of Russian imperialism against U.S. interventionism; and the final flourish on behalf of detente in For Your Eyes Only was audibly protested by a London preview audience, impressed by the invasion of Afghanistan.

 

Although The Living Daylights involves heavier references to Second World oppression (not inappropriate in a Czechoslovakian setting), it eschews any further concessions to Cold War revival, Rambo-style, instead attributing trouble to collusion between deviationist ultras on both sides. (A significant omission: Libyans, in the style of Back to the Future.) Here, Afghanistan, ambivalence and amorality call the tune. If the plot is rarely coherent, let alone plausible, its penultimate twists are quite fascinating. They happily mix, into a moral chiaroscuro worthy of Machiavelli himself, [a] a mercenary-capitalist dressed as a U.S. general (virtually an incarnation of the ‘contra’ spirit), [b] a Russian equivalent of Irangate, and [c] freedom fighters who keep going by dealing dope. Almost as a compensatory concession to our finer feelings, Bond’s affair with the gentle, doe-eyed, cello-playing victim of love is more sensitive than heretofore, even faintly romantic. The new, Timothy Dalton version of Bond is relatively sleek, tough and thoughtful; his occasional flash of a fey, pixie-ish expression oddly evokes another multimorphous British hero, Dr. Who.

 

Until the ‘Afghanisgate’ revelations, the film rather suffers from its imperfect compromise between the usual spectacular elements, which can be exhilarating however implausible, and its more intimate, smaller-scale tendencies, à la Frederick Forsyth, where an air of horrid ingenuity is indispensable. But if the film probably won't be among the biggest-grossing Bonds, it contains some highly enjoyable set-pieces, notably, the hilarious notion of whisking a fugitive along a pipeline as if he were a pneumatique, and the penultimate rodeo mixing cavalry and aircraft, bulldozers and saboteurs, all performing wildly eccentric manoeuvres. The film is essentially an ‘action circus’, Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckle updated by secret-agent costume (cloak-and-gadget), and sex-with-everything. No doubt its good humour is beginning to seem slightly dated by contrast with the rather grimmer (and, in physical violence, more savagely detailed) tone of the otherwise comparable Indiana Jones sagas.


Edited by Revelator, 07 March 2017 - 07:52 PM.


#2 Dustin

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Posted 07 March 2017 - 09:10 PM

Interesting read; thank you for sharing this, Revelator!

I seem to remember reviews of the time mostly pointed out Dalton's Shakepeare accolades and the change he brought to the role. If memory serves the IHT review even picked specifically the scene in which Dalton does not kill his KGB target.

Odd to think all this is now 30 years in the past...

#3 Turn

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Posted 07 March 2017 - 11:38 PM

This is a blast from the past for me as when I was a film student in college, Durgnat was a visiting professor. This was just prior to LTK coming out. I did fine in his class, but he was rather dry and not the most involving speaker, making it hard to get into his lectures, but I recall the films he showed were interesting and varied. I recall mentioning that to the department chair and he said he'd talk to him about it.

 

I had no idea of the man's body of work at the time. It wasn't until later that year I saw his byline in a year-end book of reviews and was shocked.



#4 Revelator

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Posted 08 March 2017 - 12:36 AM

Thank you for the excellent anecdote Turn. I never met Durgnat but one of my college film professors co-authored a book with him and said Durgnat was the only genius he'd ever worked with. But as your account shows, great writing does not necessarily ensure great teaching skills.



#5 Agent 76

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Posted 16 March 2017 - 04:48 PM

Great read. thanks for sharing



#6 MISALA1994

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Posted 20 March 2017 - 02:24 PM

Happy 30th birthday TLD.

#7 glidrose

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Posted 20 March 2017 - 06:57 PM

Durgnat believed that Michael Powell (an outstanding talent: "The Red Shoes" "Peeping Tom" "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp", etc.) was the only director who could have done justice to Fleming's Bond books. He also seemed to think that there was a Bond book/film titled "You Only Die Twice".

Durgnat also said that Dr No, "maintains a healthy anarchic vigor, a proper admiration for guts, grit and attack as virtues in themselves, against the heavy moralizing drizzle that has mildewed English committed criticism from the foundations up."

Here's the problem with Durgnat, Richard Combs and the (pseudo-intellectual) like:

Listen to a modern critic in the British Film Institute’s Monthly Film Bulletin, once a terse and reliable guide to film trends, on Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: ‘What Scorsese has done, however is to rescue an American cliché from the bland, flat but much more portentous naturalism of such as Harry and Tonto and restore it to an emotional and intellectual complexity through his particular brand of baroque realism.’ Or on Rafelson’s Stay Hungry: ‘What distinguishes him from other film-makers of the “head” generation is both the poetic sureness of his fragmentary, allusive style, and the elliptical observation which prevents his social themes from being spiked too easily on the cultural antithesis of that bygone era.’ Spare us.

That quote is from Leslie Halliwell. Mind you The Observer's Philip French said of Halliwell that "he knows the credits of everything and the value of nothing." Mark Gatiss of Sherlock fame told The Guardian that the "disheveled tramp with the terrible BO [body odor] who always sits next to you at the pictures is Halliwell's vengeful spirit, seeking to spoil cinemagoers' enjoyment in death just as he did in life."

As for Durgnat, I leave you with this bon mot:

"The fact is, ultimately Durgnat strikes me as writing in the dark, with an at-times hit-or-miss macho desperation – though that may be the secret of his appeal to his fans! [...] Too much of what Durgnat writes is off-beam, occasionally nonsense."

#8 sharpshooter

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Posted 21 March 2017 - 05:54 AM

Happy 30th birthday TLD.

Amen. I think it's one of the most successful blends of the two Bond styles - fantasy and seriousness. 



#9 SecretAgentFan

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Posted 21 March 2017 - 06:48 AM

 

Happy 30th birthday TLD.

Amen. I think it's one of the most successful blends of the two Bond styles - fantasy and seriousness. 

 

 

Yes!  Well put!






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