Permission to Kill (1975): the Timothy Dalton spy movie you need to see

23 MAY 2023

JBC rating: ****

James Bond Connections (2):

  • Featuring Timothy Dalton (James Bond, 1987 – 1989) as Foreign Office official Charles Lord.
  • Director of Photography Freddie Young (DOP, You Only Live Twice).

A decade before his casting as 007, rising Welsh leading man Timothy Dalton appeared in Permission to Kill, an ensemble spy drama with some similarities to Munich (2006), another espionage thriller featuring a future Bond (Daniel Craig). Opposite in tone to the comedic and increasingly fantastical Bond films of the 1970s, this dark and gritty spy movie contains themes reflecting a morally uncertain world dominated by increasing cynicism about Western governments following Vietnam and the leaked Pentagon Papers. The presence of Dalton, playing a British Foreign Office official with the same depth, coolness and world-weary nature he would later bring to 007, anticipates the more grounded films of the 1980s. The film also points toward the moral complexities of the Daniel Craig era.

Directed by British TV veteran Cyril Frankel (working from Robin Estridge’s well-constructed screenplay, adapted from his own novel), Permission to Kill follows an attempt by Western agents to prevent exiled politician Alexander Diakim from returning to his (unnamed) Communist bloc country from where he hopes to lead a revolution the West wishes to avoid (or at least delay). The plotline, whereby the West is trying to secure stability in the Soviet Union, reflects political developments in the mid-1970s. Following more than a decade of superpower rivalry, including the near-miss of the Cuban missile crisis and the disastrous war in Vietnam, the West decided to seek an accommodation with the Communist bloc. In 1972, President Nixon’s initially popular “détente” policies established more peaceful relations with the Soviet Union and the US supported 1975 Helsinki Accords led to the tacit acceptance by the West of the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. A political actor such as Diakim would have threatened this new-found “peace”, hence the need to delay his return.


The classic Roger Moore Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), would rosily reflect this new reality by presenting détente in a heroic light (Bond teams up with a Soviet spy to save the world). However, anticipating the eventual political backlash against détente, the mission in Permission to Kill is portrayed ignobly. Accordingly, the film’s villain is Alan Curtis, the cold, upper class English intelligence officer leading the mission. Played in quietly menacing fashion by English star Dirk Bogarde (above, left), Curtis is portrayed operating through increasingly unethical means. The film opens with Curtis recruiting (mostly through blackmail) a variety of individuals to help complete the assignment. American actor Frederick Forrest is engaging as the target’s university friend turned reporter Scott Allison. When he fails to convince Diakim against returning home, Curtis deploys Diakim’s ex-lover (and mother of his child) Katina Petersen, played with some old school Hollywood class by Ava Gardner, to make an emotional appeal. All the while, Nicola Calfan’s (sadly under-used) French assassin Melissa Lascade is ready and waiting to execute Diakim should everything else fail.

Dalton’s character, Charles Lord, is to visit Diakim and threaten to call in a loan previously provided by the British government. However, alienated by Curtis’ manipulative methods and cynical about Western intentions, Lord is soon in league with Allison in an attempt to sabotage the mission. Lacking Bond’s training, the attempt goes awry. However, several moments in the film, featuring spying and secret meetings, clearly showcase Dalton as a potential future Bond. Lord and Curtis’ testy relationship anticipates future exchanges between Dalton’s Bond and various antagonists. A la Bond, Lord flirts with several characters, delivering a number of 007-worthy double entendre along the way.

Fascinatingly, given ongoing debate over the future direction of James Bond, Dalton’s character is gay, and his sexuality is a key theme in the film. Adopting then KGB tactics (who used the closet homosexuality of several members of the British establishment to blackmail them into turning traitor) Western agent Curtis uses illicitly taken photographs of Lord with a secret lover to force him into joining the mission. However, in an ironic twist, Curtis’ act eventually influences Lord’s decision to sabotage the assignment. Though homosexuality had been decriminalised in Britain since 1967, Lord feels the photos will likely ruin his career and so he has little to lose. Further reflecting prejudices of the time, Lord also must reassure at least one male character he won’t act in a predatory way towards him.

Most of the film is set in snowbound Austria, then geographically on the front line of the Cold War and of course later visited by Dalton’s 007 in The Living Daylights (1987). Director of Photography Freddie Francis, here a world away from the Japanese vistas of You Only Live Twice, captures some stunning views, especially during a desperate mountain-set chase sequence featuring Dalton. Other impressively photographed scenes involve a Bond villain-worthy Alpine castle where Diakim spends most of the film in hiding. Francis’ lighting remains dark and gritty for the downbeat climax in which much of the cast are killed off in an ending reminiscent of Michael Winner’s spy film Scorpio (1973).


All but forgotten since its release, Permission to Kill is a solid Cold War espionage thriller, with a strong cast and a complex but compelling story. It deserves far more critical attention generally for not only does the film provide a fascinating insight into the political and cultural mindset of the mid-1970s, it also anticipates several later developments regarding East–West relations. Indeed, opposition to the real-life 1975 Helsinki treaty was proven misplaced in the following decade when the accords directly encouraged the flowering of various pro-democratic movements in the Soviet bloc, hastening the end of the Communist era. Ironically, had Curtis’ initial attempts to delay the fictional Diakim succeeded, a later return home may have resulted in the successful revolution craved by the political exiles in the film. However, for any James Bond fan, the main appeal is the opportunity to see a pre-007 Timothy Dalton in a spy movie. Displaying many of the qualities he would later bring to the EON films, his performance in Permission to Kill is essential viewing for all Dalton-era Bond fans.

Have you seen Permission to Kill? Do you think the film effectively showcases Timothy Dalton as a potential James Bond? Please leave a comment or an alternative review below.

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