Is James Bond in fact a psycho?

We explore the cold-blooded killer that Daniel Craig portrays so accurately in Skyfall.

Daniel Craig stars as James Bond in Skyfall. Courtesy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions
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You may have noticed that Daniel Craig is back, rebooting the battered Bond brand after the dismal Quantum of Solace. And not only is Skyfall one of the best 007 adventures for decades, it is also the most personal and psychologically revealing to date. Maybe too revealing.

Stare hard into the dead-eyed, chillingly expressionless face of Craig’s suave British assassin and what do you see? A man of culture and high intelligence, yes, but also a cold-blooded killer. A weapon of mass seduction to women everywhere, but a merciless attack dog to his countless unnamed victims. Armed with irresistible charm and charisma, yet zero empathy for his fellow humans, Bond has no equal in movie folklore.

Well, perhaps one equal. The name’s Lecter. Hannibal Lecter.

James Bond has been the world’s favourite screen psychopath for 50 years now. He is cinema’s original serial killer, the pathological narcissist who came in from the cold. On one level, his suave mix of vigilante justice and sophisticated savagery appeals to us as pure fantasy: a comforting throwback to the old certainties of the British Empire, the Cold War and prehistoric notions of masculinity. More disturbingly, deep down, Bond’s psychotically unhinged nature may lie at the root of his enduring popularity.

Of course, there have been several attempts throughout the movie series to make Bond more compassionate, remorseful and humane. Invariably, like the short-lived 007 careers of George Lazenby or Timothy Dalton, they fall flat. It seems we prefer our fantasy Cold Warriors to remain just that – ice cold, and utterly ruthless. More recently, guilt-wracked, state-sponsored hit men such as Jason Bourne have been touted as warmer and more politically correct alternatives to Bond. “They could never make a James Bond movie like any of the Bourne films,” Matt Damon told The Miami Herald, “because Bond is an imperialist, misogynist sociopath who goes around bedding women and swilling martinis and killing people. He’s repulsive.”

Damon is not the first to pick up on Bond’s latent racism and sexism, but can we really brand 007 a sociopathic psycho-killer? A classic checklist devised by Dr Robert Hare, an emeritus professor at the University of British Columbia, is the diagnostic test most commonly used to assess psychopaths. It includes a cunning and manipulative nature, pathological dishonesty, lack of remorse, promiscuous sexual behaviour and “criminal versatility”. Sound familiar?

Of course, Bond’s icy self-control and fierce devotion to patriotic duty suggest a more stable nature than most self-centred screen sociopaths. But cinematic clichés do not tell the whole story. A 2008 study by Peter Jonason of New Mexico University linked the “dark triad” of psychopathic traits – narcissism, thrill-seeking and deceitfulness – with successful, outgoing, sexually promiscuous men. In New Scientist magazine, Jonason even gave 007 as an example: “He’s clearly disagreeable, very extrovert and likes trying new things – including killing people.”

The Oxford University psychology researcher Kevin Dutton’s new book The Wisdom of Psychopaths lists the “seven deadly wins” of psychopathy: ruthlessness, charm, focus, mental toughness, fearlessness, mindfulness and action. These apply equally to business leaders, politicians and spies as they do to mentally unstable criminals. Recent studies suggest “socialised psychopaths” are disturbingly common: malevolent but outwardly normal friends, colleagues and bosses who often become highly successful.

On the page, Ian Fleming’s 007 was a sadistic “blunt instrument” with scant regard for human life. For evidence, look no further than the closing pages of Casino Royale, the first Bond novel, when he shrugs off the suicide of his treacherous ex-lover Vesper Lynd with coarse and callous contempt. Craig’s Bond, a dead-eyed killing machine, is perhaps the closest screen embodiment yet of Fleming’s fictitious creation, but with one crucial concession to modern values – he wears his inner psychosis very close to the surface.

Indeed, never has Bond’s psychotic nature been so explicitly laid out than in Skyfall, which gives the 007 back story a nakedly post-Freudian twist. After setting up Judi Dench’s secret service boss M as the mother hen to a brood of emotionally wounded agents that she calls her “orphans”, the film climaxes in a lethal battle for her maternal affections between Bond and a renegade former agent, Silva, played by Javier Bardem. This is pure Greek psychodrama.

Skyfall makes it clear that both men are similarly damaged children, the “socialised” psychopath son Bond and his evil twin Silva. “He came from the same place as Bond,” M tells her political bosses, “the shadows.” Just to ram the point home, Silva criticises 007 for his “pathological rejection of authority based on unresolved childhood issues”. We might call this a military-industrial-Oedipus complex. The last time a big-screen anti-hero displayed maternal issues this messy was in Hitchcock’s Psycho. But unlike Norman Bates, or Hannibal Lecter, or countless other screen psychopaths, Bond endures and thrives with our blessing. Half a century on, cinema’s most celebrated serial killer marches onward into the shadows, his deep-frozen emotions sometimes shaken but never stirred.