In the books, his favorite car is a 1933 4 1/2-liter Bentley. In the movies, though, his car is the specially equipped Aston Martin DB he was issued in "Goldfinger." (He's driven others, like the Lotus Espirit that converted into a submarine in "The Spy Who Loved Me," but none stick in the imagination like the Aston Martin does.) Regardless of the company, at night his gun, a .32-caliber Walther PPK 7.65, is always under his pillow. In the novels, he is sometimes fond of pajamas; in the movies, he sleeps in the nude.

His clothes are custom-made Saville Row cuts -- dapper but conservative. He abhors tea, which he calls mud and blames for the downfall of the Empire, and, in its place, prefers coffee. Black. His taste in wines runs to clarets and champagne, of which a 1953 Dom Perignon is his favorite, provided, of course, that it's served at the proper temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit. He drinks bourbon, doubles usually, on the rocks, and enjoys a good brandy, preferably a Hennessy Three Star (though in the movies he would never settle for anything below the order of an XO). His favorite drink, though, as everyone the whole world over seems to know, is a vodka martini. Medium dry. Shaken, not stirred.

His name is Bond. James Bond. And it comes at you like a karate chop. It was borrowed by Bond's creator, Ian Fleming, from the famed British ornithologist, author of "Birds of the West Indies," one of the volumes he most liked to keep on his breakfast table. When Fleming first fashioned his spy hero, he saw him as an attractive but ordinary man, and he wanted for him "the simpliest, dullest, plainest-sounding name I could find."

Today, Fleming's lethal secret agent, born of Swiss and Scottish parents, both of whom died on a mountain-climbing accident in the Aiguilles Rouges above Chamonix when he was 11, has become one of pop culture's most resilient icons, and, after some 34 years, 12 novels, two collections of stories and 15 movies, anything but ordinary. This year, in fact, another milestone is reached in the Bond chronology as the movie hero celebrates his 25th birthday with the unveiling this Friday of a new 007, Timothy Dalton, in the latest in the series, "The Living Daylights."

Darkly, cruelly handsome, his gun held rakishly against his cheek, James Bond is the most enduring sexual hero of the postwar era. He's our top gun, the playboy of the western world, Mr. Infinite Potency.

There's no way Fleming could have predicted the longevity and significance of his spy hero when he sat down after breakfast at Goldeneye, his home in Jamaica, one Tuesday morning in 1952 and scribbled the first lines of "Casino Royale." From the start, he had little expectation of the book's success. His stated claim for writing it was to ease the panic of an impending marriage, and to a friend he said the work was "roughly the equivalent of digging a very large hole in the garden for the sake of the exercise."

It took him only seven weeks to polish it off, and his evaluation of his efforts on it and his other work is self-deflating to the point of near-obliteration. "My books tremble on the brink of corn," he once said. "I have a rule of never looking back. Otherwise I'd wonder, 'How could I write such piffle.' " Instead of swaddling himself in the regal damask of literature, as many pulp writers have done, his goal was modesty itself: to get "intelligent, uninhibited adolescents of all ages, in trains, aeroplanes, and beds, to turn over the page."

Not everyone took him at his own estimation. The British novelist Kingsley Amis, in his book-length mash note, placed him foursquare in the company of Jules Verne, Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle. On the other hand, Malcolm Muggeridge tagged him an "Etonian Mickey Spillane," which was a nice way of saying he thought that as a writer, Fleming's knuckles dragged the ground. Check out this blast on Bond: "In so far as we can focus onto so shadowy and unreal a character, he is utterly despicable. . .Fleming's squalid aspirations and dream fantasies happened to coincide with a whole generation's. . .One wishes we had better dreams."

Dreams indeed, for that's the stuff Bond is made of. For all his rumblings, though, Muggeridge has a point. That Agent 007 is an adolescent construct, the sludge of infantile longings and repressed fantasies, is undeniable. But, as Amis puts it, why should we let a little something like that spoil our fun?

When "Dr. No" premiered in 1962 and we caught our first cinematic glimpse of Sean Connery as 007, lighting up a custom-made Moreland at a baccarat table at Cercle's in London, the Bond era on screen began. Before his screen debut, Bond had been an immensely popular figure, his popularity boosted by the fact that he counted then-CIA director Allen Dulles and John F. Kennedy among his fans.

But the movies jacked him up into a higher orbit. More than any other figure, real or imagined, in American popular life -- more than Cary Grant or Bogart or Gable or Brando -- Bond represents the modern sexual ideal. Man at his best. The consummate Hefner male.

That he's British in no way diminishes his status as an American fantasy archetype. He transcends country. Self-possessed and confident, Bond is unalienated from his own sexuality. He's a man. Pure and simple. Sizing up a potential conquest, he's straightforward and unapologetic about his attraction -- and his attractiveness. Yet, for most women, there's nothing degrading about his attention. It's not strictly an esthetic appreciation that he indulges (he's not a museum-goer in wondrous awe before an Ingres or a Vela'zquez); there's desire mixed in with it, but the desire and the appreciation combine in such a way that saves it from being prurient or leering. On a daydream level, at least, his frankness is a turn-on.

To put it bluntly, Bond is a man who knows what he wants, and this quality alone -- the absence of ambiguity in his nature, the assurance about who and what he is -- is what makes him, in the confused modern age, a kind of superhero.

But how exactly does the modern audience feel about James Bond and how have those feelings changed? Amis presents it this way: "We don't want to have Bond to dinner or go golfing with Bond or talk to Bond. We want to be Bond." And for most of Bond's tenure as a cultural icon, this has been the assumption: that men want to be him, and women want to have him.

But as notions of masculinity, of sex, and the relations between men and women have changed, Bond has changed too. In some respects, his transmutations as an mythic figure over the years -- from Connery to Moore and now Dalton -- are as reliable a barometer of those changes as any in the culture. Political changes, too, linger in the background. (That a James Bond figure would take part in an actual war, as Dalton does when he goes to Afghanistan in "The Living Daylights," is unprecedented.) But although geopolitics provide texture and atmosphere in the Bond films, primarily they function (surreally) as part of the content; sex is an aspect of style. And in the world of Bond, style is everything.

Indisputably, Bond is more of a fantasy ideal for men than women. But even for men, there are limitations to the appeal of a figure like Bond. The code he lives by is the code of the professional, and there's a single-mindedness, an almost monastic rigor to his personality -- it's this part of Oliver North that kept prompting the Bond comparisons -- that makes us feel that his might be a tough standard to live up to.

The style that Connery created for Bond in the six 007 pictures he made was debonair but gritty -- it was a realistic style for an essentially imagined, highly improbable universe, and what he accomplished was to turn the fantastic into flesh and blood.

Connery's films in the series span a period from "Dr. No" in 1962 to "Diamonds Are Forever" in 1971. (In between "You Only Live Twice" in 1967 and "Diamonds Are Forever," George Lazenby -- who laid no stylistic claim to the character and, therefore, doesn't really count -- starred in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service.") Of those films only the first three -- "Dr. No," "From Russia With Love" and "Goldfinger" -- could be considered vintage.

Connery's virtue is that he carried over the rough edges of Fleming's Bond into the movies. Connery had the perfect mixture of musky sexuality and self-mockery to put across a character who, even at the time he was first brought to the screen, was a bit of anachronism. Connery gave the character gravity. But he gave him wit as well. (It was supposedly Connery's wife who initially urged her husband to turn down the part unless the script was rewritten to include more humor.) And sometimes the combination of brass-knuckled toughness and comedy would create unnerving gallowsy dissonances.

Connery's Bond could be brutally cynical, snapping off one-liners over the not even cool bodies of his victims. (Sample: "Do you mind if my friend sits here? She's just dead.") But he could be moved too. In "Goldfinger," the death of Jill Masterson, whom he discovers covered with gold paint, really rocks him, and the emotion of that moment carries throughout the rest of the film. There's not really another moment quite like it in the series, not even the death of Bond's wife (Diana Rigg) in the Lazenby film.

When Moore took over the character in 1973 in "Live and Let Die" -- he relinquished his claim to the character after "A View to a Kill" in 1986 -- those rough edges in Bond's personality were smoothed over and, on the pop-mythic level, at least, something essential was lost.

There was a loss in terms of entertainment, too. But perhaps that's the way it had to be. When Moore took over the role, the culture probably wouldn't have supported, or tolerated, a more realistic, full-service Bond. The Bond films, even those with Connery, had always danced along a campy, comic-book edge. With Moore, that line was crossed. He spent his days in Her Majesty's Secret Service sending up the figure that Connery had created, turning Bond into an action gigolo/clown. As Moore played it, the notion of Bond's potency was a smirky joke, as preposterous as Superman's ability to fly.

But Bond's sexual prowess -- his ability to wink and slay legions, to convert the wayward with a single bedding -- was always cause for behind-the-hand snickering. It was a laugh in "Casino Royale" (which featured Woody Allen as little Jimmy Bond begging not to be shot because he "has a low threshold of death"), and again in the Cyril Connolly spoof, "Bond Strikes Camp." So it's not really that Bond became a joke in the '70s; he had always been a joke. But with the Moore films, he became a vastly different kind of joke.

The difference is all in the contrast between Connery and Moore. And the comparison, essentially, is between the talents of a tragedian and a farceur. As Connery played him, Bond could be an impossible pedant in matters of taste -- and usually was -- without seeming foppish or affected. He allowed the situation to carry the comedy, and always worked to find the plausible thread in the material. On the other hand, Moore's Bond saw matters of style as a game, a way of putting people on. Moore took a commedia dell'arte approach to Bond, and it worked only once -- when he had a script to support him -- in "The Spy Who Loved Me."

The picture, which also in the partnership between Moore and the Soviet agent, played by Barbara Bach, marks the first sign of detente between the superpowers, is smartly directed and plays as a full-fledged satire. And as such, it's one of the best films of the series. But, in a sense, too, it was something of a dead end. As the comic Bond flourished, increasingly surrounding himself with gadgets and toys, the more grounded, realistic Bond revealed himself to be more and more out of step. By the time Connery reappeared in "Never Say Never Again," he was a kind of a Robinson Crusoe figure, stranded out of his time.

The most fascinating thing about the switch from Connery to Moore is that, though it was merely a practical matter -- Connery had lost interest in the character -- it seemed almost a cultural neccessity. As Agent 007, Connery defined a certain style of masculinity for the '60s. But perhaps it was a conception that couldn't outlive the decade.

As a pop culture myth, the Bond of the 60's, it seemed, had to die, or else undergo a transformation -- in this case, a sort of willful emasculation.

Surprisingly enough, the new Bond, Timothy Dalton, appears to be a return to the more substantial, back-to-the-basics approach Connery took. But context is everything, and there are substantial differences in the worlds they inhabit.

With "The Living Daylights," the days of promiscuity for 007 are over. The new Bond is the safe-sex Bond. (The British have tagged him "No No Seven.") Discreet. Responsible. And a little dull. And the circumstances seem to weigh on the new man as well.

"The Living Daylights," which is set in Gibraltar, Czechoslovakia, Tangier and Afghanistan, is fundamentally Bond's long courtship of a young cellist (Maryam d'Abo) with whom he fell in love at first sight. With the exception of the precredit sequence, in which Bond unexpectedly drops in on a frustrated young tourist and the scant possibility of contact is dangled, Bond keeps his mind on business.

One has a hard time imagining Connery's Bond fitting in with the new program. Unlike previous films, there are very few of those admiring, marvelously constructed, Bond girls, even in smaller parts on the sidelines -- no Plenty O'Tooles, Tiffany Case, Pussy Galores or Honey Ryders. Only the new Miss Moneypenny (the aptly named Caroline Bliss) brings reminders of the days when every receptionist and desk clerk presented an opportunity.

The heroine herself has a strikingly different look. A cross between Nastassja Kinski and Lauren Hutton, she's built less according to the Hefner blueprint than usual. She's less of sexpot and more of a serious artist -- she plays the cello -- and, unlike past Bond women, she takes her own sweet time falling for our hero.

What all this signifies is hard to pin down, but the background forces seem pretty clear. Dalton's Bond is undeniably an attempt to give the character relevance and keep him in step with the times. But, in a sense, it's one step forward and two steps back.

"The Living Daylights" is like "From Russia With Love," but without sex. And a Bond film without sex seems something of an absurdity. If in taking over the role, Moore took flight from reality and lost something essential in the character, to lose Bond's sexuality is certainly a loss of equal weight.

Bond defined himself by his pleasures, by sex, and in the films, his interaction with women provided an outlet for his personality, a chance to put his wit and style on display.

Without sex, Bond becomes just another secret agent -- another bland action hero. Also, deemphasizing Bond's sexual athletics strips him of one of his most important roles. Seen from a Bond's-eye view, the currency of nations is sex. And Bond is the ultimate weapon.

If Secord and Hakim represent the privatization of foreign policy, Bond stands for its sexualization. And between East and West, James Bond is a living symbol of the "style gap." As a result, his sexual prowess is not merely a matter of show. At the end of "The Spy Who Loved Me," Bond -- Moore -- is discovered in midembrace with Barbara Bach by his superiors, who demand to know what he thinks he's doing. "Keeping the British end up, sir," he answers wryly, turning back to his work. And nobody does it better.

In "From Russia With Love," the plot turns on the fact that a pretty young Red has fallen in love with a file photo of 007 and is ready to defect, sell state secrests even, just for the chance to meet him. Underlying all this is the half-facetious assumption that if James Bond could sleep with every woman in the Soviet Union the war would be won. In other words, keep your ICBMs, your Hawks and your TOWs, bring down the nuclear curtain, somewhere tonight James Bond is making the world safe for democracy.

If we look at the Bond pictures in Cold War terms, as allegorical East-West confrontations, we see that the western style -- which, try as they might, the Russians cannot manufacture in their laboratories -- is the difference.

The Bond films are all about the sexual style of the West, with Bond as its purest expression. What the films suggest is that matters of style -- in clothes, in cars, in food and in women -- are a guide to character. That's why all that Bond stuff -- the cars, the watches, the clothes, the girls -- was so important.

Underlying the innumerable scenes in which either Blofeld or Goldfinger or Stromberg tries to show off to Bond the extensiveness of his wine cellar or gloatingly presents him with a properly prepared martini is the notion that the enemy is hopelessly square. Don't worry, the movies tell us, these schlubs can't take over the world, no matter how many missiles they have. Look at those slacks. How can the baddies prevail if they don't know how outre' their little Mao suit jackets are?

Admittedly, the notion of style in the Bond films is itself laughable. The Bond '60s aren't the truly stylish '60s of Jean Shrimpton or or Warhol or the Beatles; they're the Nancy Sinatra '60s. The beanbag chair, white go-go boots '60s. The faux-hip '60s. And since then we've continued to see the faux-hip designs applied to each subsequent decade. But what the style of the Bond films stands for, however gauche, is wit and sensual pleasures -- to sum it up crassly, the rewards of capitalism. Bond's enemies at SPECTRE were sexless ascetics: To have 007 join them -- even in the name of responsibility -- seems like a betrayal. Responsibility is for mortals. And who wants a mortal Bond.