Like The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) before it and Casino Royale (2006) after it, Licence to Kill (1989) introduced us to one of the best and one of my favourite Bond girls, Carey Lowell. She saves Bond’s back the first time they properly meet, wears her hair cut short and a Berretta up her not one, but two heart-stopping evening dresses and downs a vodka martini in one go, so wouldn’t you agree?
The first Bond film based not on an Ian Fleming novel or story title, but on a frequently used phrase within the novels, Licence to Kill is one of the best movies of the franchise, less fun and far-fetched, darker, grittier, using more reverberations and echos of Fleming’s novels, allowing James Bond to function as a human being with fragile emotions. It is a disruption in the narrative tradition of the series, in the vein of In Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) and Casino Royale.
“I wanted to make the movies much more realistic and believable”, said Timothy Dalton, who took over the James Bond reins only for two films, The Living Daylights (1987) having been the first one. “Over 25 years these films and this character had gone off down lots of different avenues. There was a whole period where they became rather fantastical and gimmicky. The humour had become too exaggerated, too tongue-in-cheek. When you go back to the books, you’re dealing with a real man, not a superman; a man beset with moral confusions, apathies and uncertainties, one who is often very frightened, nervous and tense.” He takes it personal when his friends get hurt and he goes after the bad guys because he wants to avenge his friends. That’s why we want him to succeed, not because this is supposed to happen in a Bond film. And that’s what makes Licence to Kill a credible and substantial Bond movie.
Screenwriter Michael G. Wilson says they modeled Dalton’s Bond on the hero of Kurosawa’s film Yojimbo, “where the samurai comes to town and, without overtly attacking the villain, does the seed of distrust, then watches as the villain brings himself down.”
Everybody’s goal at the time was to change Bond’s image, to make it more realistic. They indeed brought more humanity to 007, but Timothy Dalton also made a tougher, darker, more serious, and, in my opinion, a damn good Bond. As Fleming insisted, James Bond was “a skilled professional: ruthless and sardonic in his work; gentle, witty, and stylish off duty.” They toughened up the image of Bond from the style point of view as well, getting away from the gentlemanly spy. They changed Bond’s tuxedo look by opening the collar, and even taking the jacket off so Dalton was in his shirtsleeves. His other looks have often been considered far from good for the cinematic Bond. But, in concept only, many were actually pretty accurate for the literary Bond, from whom Dalton drew inspiration, recalling Fleming and his literary creation. It is interesting how both Timothy Dalton and Robert Davi referenced the book Casino Royale as inspiration for the film and for their characters, 17 years before it was finally turned into a Bond film, a new type of Bond film, with a story anchored in reality, and with a Bond who would once again be darker, sharper and edgier, but also more human than the earlier Bonds, except for Timothy Dalton.
Dalton’s partner on screen, Carey Lowell, said of the new Bond: “You usually see Bond as a cool-headed secret agent. Sean Connery always came out unscathed and sort of dashing, and Roger Moore was untouchable in his white suits. Here Bond is not as clean and pretty. He looked like hell. It was not anything a Bond audience had seen before.”
Another element that moved the Bond tradition further, reinterpreting key features in the films, was the Pam Bouvier part, which effectively dehistoricised the Bond girl character. We see a shift from the Bond girl type of Ursula Andress in Dr No (1962) and other rather purely decorative women 007 is usually associated with. It had also happened with Barbara Bach in The Spy Who Loved Me and Eva Green would follow in Casino Royale. Carey Lowell’s Pam Bouvier is capable, confident, and competitive with Bond, an edgier, feisty, self-sufficient and credible modern-day Bond girl.
“I portrayed Pam as gritty and tough. When she meets Bond at the bar, she’s wearing a black leather vest and pants, and carrying a sawn-off shotgun. She’s flinging men over her shoulder and smashing bottles on their heads. Quite different from other Bond girls,” said Lowell of her character, a former army pilot and CIA agent. After the leather vest and jeans look from the bar, Pam appears in trousers again, beige and wide-legged this time and paired with a white shirt. When Bond pays her off for flying him to Isthmus, he throws in some extra cash telling her to buy herself “some decent clothes”.
She reemerges with a short hair-cut, a navy and white power-suit-like dress and later on in a black rhinestone-clad gown. Robert Davi, who plays the villain Franz Sanchez, recounts how the idea for the side-slit, backless dress Carey wears at the casino came from the dress that Talisa Soto, Sanchez’s lover and the other subject of Bond’s attention, wore to her audition (director John Glen brought Davi in to consult him in casting the role of Lupe). “In one scene she wore a long evening dress, then ripped off the bottom and it became a short little dress.” Pam looks gorgeous in her dress, but its practicality (it is cleverly designed as beaded rip away gown) also shows that she’s a resourceful ally for Bond.
It is however another halter-neck black dress that I find more beautiful (see the top image in this article), providing another perfect match for Bond’s tuxedo. And my second favourite Pam Bouvier costume in the film is the under-the-knee-long greige dress with a deep v-neck, which Pam is wearing in a few action scenes. Both sophisticated and practical in its modern simplicity. But don’t you love it how time and again she goes back to the trouser look? She does it again with another ensemble of wide-legged pants and white shirt. She’s still a tomboy, and even when she trades in her combat uniform for a sparkly gown, she keeps the attitude and makes sure that everyone is aware of it by having her hair cut short.
Pam surprises Bond with her new look after he tells her to buy herself “some decent clothes”.
sources: The book The James Bond Archives / Revisioning 007: James Bond and Casino Royale by Christoph Lindbergh / Carey Lowell interview, Cinefantastique magazine, 1989 / interviews with John Glen, Michael Wilson, Timothy Dalton and Carey Lowell on the special features in the film collection Celebrating Five Decades of Bond
photos: movie stills | United Artists