Bring On the James Bond Bad Guys

The bad guys of James Bond filmsGuest blogger Blair Kramer writes:

“Unfortunately you are just a stupid policeman…whose luck has run out!”

“No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”

“Yes, give him his cigarettes!  It won’t be the nicotine that kills you Mr. Bond!”

“Search him from his toenails to the last follicle on his head and then bring him to me!”

They keep trying. And they keep failing. The James Bond bad guys. 

No matter how often 007 changes his appearance, voice and height over the years, the bad guys constantly try to kill him. Fortunately, they never succeed. And I suspect they never will. But then of course, where would 007 be without them? After all, a Bond movie is only as good as its villain. And some Bond villains have been truly awesome.  Others…well…

I have no desire to pick the “best” or “worst” Bond villain. That’s much too subjective. Essentially, this first of several articles is a “review.” I simply wish to examine how the primary villains succeed as characters within the context of each James Bond film. OK, assuming we’re clear on that, let’s get started…

Bring On the James Bond Bad GuysThen again, let’s not get started just yet. Not with the films, anyway. Let’s start with the 1954 American TV adaptation of Casino Royale and Peter Lorre as the slimy SMERSH agent, Le Chiffre. I have a copy of this TV program on DVD and I must say it’s more than a little silly (Barry Nelson stars as a nebulous American agent called “card sense” Jimmy Bond!), but Peter Lorre makes it worth a look. Given the limitations imposed by a live broadcast that made second takes impossible, Lorre conveys genuine threat and menace. It’s too bad he was never given the opportunity to play a bad guy in a 1960s Bond film. I suspect he would have been great.

Talking about great, that’s precisely what Joseph Wiseman was as Dr. No. His robotic movement and emotionless demeanor perfectly conveyed a psychotic menace. But it was more than his overwhelming air of confidence and superiority. The viewer gets the feeling that the good Doctor thinks he could literally challenge God himself! And prevail! Unfortunately, Dr. No’s hands tend to diminish him as a threat. That’s right, his hands. Apparently, they’re entirely composed of articulated metal! The problem comes down to their curious appearance. To say the least, they’re something less than realistic. In fact, they’re the kind of silly things one would expect to see in a 1960s TV episode of Get Smart! Oh well…

And, oh yes…I guess I should mention Dr. No’s sniveling henchman, Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson). I think he could well be the only man ever done in by basic mathematics! And now, onward and upward…

Red Grant (Robert Shaw) takes on 007 (Sean Connery) in From Russia With Love (1963)

Suspenseful: That’s the word for From Russia With Love. Beyond the fact that everyone in the film is profoundly duplicitous (including Bond),  the two main villains in the film, Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) and Donald “Red” Grant (Robert Shaw), are ruthless, violent and extremely frightening. More than anything, they’re frightening. So much so, one gets the feeling that, for once, James Bond may be in genuine danger. Forced to fight each of them separately, 007 learns how very determined they are to kill anyone who gets in their way.

To be sure, Bond’s struggle with Grant aboard the famous trans-national train called the Orient Express is one of the most vicious fights ever filmed. It’s an unforgettable scene in an unforgettable film.

If an avuncular gangster such as Goldfinger (Gert Frobe) didn’t know how to use a laser beam, he wouldn’t have been the least bit menacing. As it happens, Goldfinger shuts off the beam just before it dissects our hero James! Unfortunately, Goldfinger’s large, muscle bound, Korean henchman known as Oddjob (Harold Sakata) is not much more menacing than Goldfinger himself. That’s all due to Odjobb’s metal-rimmed bowler hat and apparent ability to crush a golf ball in one hand! In other words, as a character, Oddjob is no more believable, and therefore, no more menacing, than a comic book super-villain. Seemingly invincible, the final reel eventually brings the super-strong Korean face-to-face with his ultimate weakness. Lo and behold, he’s human after all. I wonder if, like the rest of us, his mother warned him against sticking his finger into a wall socket…

Action packed though it may be, Thunderball offers little in the way of suspense or menace. A black eye patch and quiet confidence automatically identifies Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi) as an obvious bad guy. The only thing missing is the black hat. Unfortunately, Largo is vaguely reminiscent of the cape sweeping, mustache twirling villain from The Perils of Pauline! As a result, his requisite Continental accent does little to elevate his scare quotient.

His attractive henchwoman Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi), actually comes closest to doing away with 007. But after all is said and done, you knew James would dispense with her when the time came.

The most menacing character in the film turns out to be a minor, cadaverous, silent, grimacing thug called Vargas (Philip Locke). But again, just as he did with Fiona, Bond eventually put Vargas in his place.

The fact that You Only Live Twice is a full-blown spectacle makes it one of my all time favorite James Bond films. But menace? Nada. Threat? Nada. Suspense? Nada.

Fear? Nada.

Thanks to an usher’s jacket similar to that worn by Dr. No, we know that totally bald and bizarrely scarred Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) is the main villain. But so what? Perpetually bored, he remains glued to his easy chair as he strokes a furry white cat that struggles to escape his grip. Hardly a masculine bad guy.

 
 
 

And his relatively diminutive size simply makes him even less threatening. I often wonder why James Bond didn’t automatically laugh out loud when he first saw the little bugger! This pipsqueak is the legendary head of SPECTRE?  Really? He certainly isn’t the large, imposing villain described by Ian Fleming. As it happens, the part of Blofeld has never been properly cast throughout the entire James Bond film series.

The second tier bad guys in YOLT are nothing more than obvious variations of Largo and Fiona in Thunderball. Mr. Osato (Teru Shimada) serves as Blofeld’s wealthy connection to the outside world. No real threat there. Once again, the henchwoman comes closest to doing away with 007.

Helga Brandt (Karin Dor) successfully traps Bond in a plunging aircraft (as Bond’s friend says, “You, I’m afraid, will get into anything with any girl!”), from which Bond barely escapes.

Why Helga didn’t just try to shoot him isn’t explained. This time though, Bond doesn’t get the chance to do away with the two henchmen. An impatient Blofeld performs that task himself (which begs the question: How did Blofeld ever convince anyone to work for him?!).

And once again, as in Thunderball, the most menacing figure turns out to be a minor thug called Hans (Ronald Rich). Taking after Oddjob in that he’s seemingly invincible, he and Bond engage in a well staged and extremely violent struggle that, to say the least, ends quite dramatically.

Forced to take an impromptu swim, Hans learns to his eternal regret that Blofeld was absolutely right when he said “…my piranha fish get very hungry…!”

NEXT: Blofeld goes to Brooklyn for a facelift!

Blair Kramer is a commercial artist who has written for various publications in the Chicago area, including A Guide to Art in Chicago, Salmagundi, and others. He has written film criticism for American Metal magazine as well as biographical articles for the American Jewish Historical Society, including a profile of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

  • Tiny Tim

    For me, From Russia With Love is the best Bond film because it is the most realistic. There is nothing unbelievable about its plot, characters, or action. As an added bonus, its two principal villains, Klebb and Grant are, as the reviewer says, frighteningly efficient and enthusiastic killers. Adolfo Celli’s Largo in the first Thunderball is also believable but somewhat remote. Much better are the villains from the vastly underrated Timothy Dalton film, License to Kill. Robert Davi is excellent as a South American coke lord, but the underused Benecio Del Toro as his leering henchman gave viewers one of their first opportunities to see the talent and intensity of this future star.

  • Ludy Marvin Wilkie

    Do you know that “Oddjob” Harold Sakata was once a professional wrestler who appeared as Tosh Togo?
    He appeared in the ring in Charlotte, N.C. Born Toshiyuki Sakata in Hawaiiin 1920, of Japanese ancestry, he won a silver medal in the 1948 summer olympics. He died of cancer in 1982.
    And let us not forget the character Jaws, played by Richard Keel, in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and MOONRAKER. He may be one of the few villian’s henchmen to make a return appearance. It is noted he is one of the few who eventually helped James Bond and survived the encounter with him.

    • Bruce Reber

      BTW, Richard Kiel “starred” in two B-movies (both satirized on MST 3K) – “Eegah” (1962) and “Human Duplicators” (1964). Check them out – Kiel’s absolutely hilarious!

  • Dana Rich

    I think that From Russia with Love is one of the most successful Bond films simply because it comes closest to following the original Ian Fleming novel. Bond was always a more realistic character in the books. The books always tried to show a real man in real danger. Great reading. The Bond movies are fun but Bond in the novels has always been a much more interesting, and believable individual.

  • Blair Kramer.

    I agree that the James Bond of the novels is more down to Earth than the James Bond of the movies. But to my mind, the film producers never had to be 100% faithful to the books. All they ever had to do was give us an entertaining film. For the most part, they’ve always done that. But I’ve read the books (the FLEMING books, that is…) and it seems to me that the villains who came out of Ian Fleming’s mind were actually no more realistic than their celluloid counterparts. of course, some of the more fantastic bad guys, characters such as “Jaws,” weren’t created by Fleming at all. They were concocted out of thin air by the screenwriters.

  • Lee Baron

    Thank you Ludy for the info on H. Sakata… I look forward to this very talented reviewer’s next article, for there are many other notable and very proficient Bond adversaries in reserve for our malignant delight, such as (and this list is not all inclusive): Telly Savalas, Charles Gray, Yaphet Kotto, Christopher Lee, Richard Kiel, Steven Berkoff, Christopher Walken, Grace Jones, Robert Davi, Famke Janssen, Sean Bean, Robert Carlyle and Jesper Christensen. What makes it so that we prefer one villain over another? Can it be that we get a proverbial kick out of watching old JB’s little British behind getting kicked – no racial pun intended, for I love everything anglo? Or do we make a biased selection according to either the youthful memories it brings up (more on this later), the character’s persona and devilish traits of cruelty and cold detachment he/she projects (such as Le Chiffre), or of beauty and cunning menace (Sophie Marceau, Famke Janssen)? But for me the best Bond villains are the ones that bring suave sophistication to the role, such as Yaphet Kotto’s Mr. Big, Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga, Robert Davi’s Sanchez and Jonathan Pryce’s Carver, while bringing a real threat to Bond. To clarify my first point, the one about personal memories, where were you in 1969 (OHMSS), 1971 (DAF) or 1973 (LALD)? I always remember where I was when I went to a movie theatre to see a Bond film, and so I can be biased in liking a villain more than another, according to the times in my life. For instance, I remember being in awe of Jaws, yet finding Michel Lonsdale’s character and acting performance – a French actor I already knew and appreciated, being French-Canadian myself – really unexciting and not credible, as were those of Curd Jürgens and Adolfo Celli, two otherwise excellent actors. And to the reviewer’s equally biased view on Donald Pleasance’s character, I remember being in boarding school when they showed YOLT in the college’s movie theatre, so I have fond memories of this film, even though Pleasance’s performance was probably less than memorable. He still brought a great (and ugly) face to one of Bond’s most enduring villains. Same thing with Telly Savalas’ Blofeld; you either love him or hate him based on your liking of his not too pretty mutt, but he brings great depth and believability to the role, in yet another classic sixties’ crazy movie with silly ideas, such as hypnotizing sexy vixens to infect the earth’s population… Really! Still, I remember enjoying the movie very much, I mean; how many times does Bond marry, loses his wife, and then the villain responsible for all the mayhem escapes unharmed? Plus, on an equal footing with Live and Let Die’s boat chase and Goldeneye’s tank pursuit in Moscow (OK, I’ll give you the bike chase with Michelle Yeoh in TND as a bonus), you get to see the best Bond chase ever! I can’t wait for the next review… God save the queen and long live James Bond – looks like we will get our wish –> they just released another Bond novel “Carte Blanche”! Bond’s days of pursuing and getting chased after villains are not over yet!

  • Tommy T

    I have to agree with Dana. “Quantum of Solace” was a disappointing movie in a way because Q of S is one of my favorite Fleming stories. The good thing is, like the Ludlum Jason Bourne movies, the books and movies are so totally different you can appreciate the book for what it is and a good movie for what it is even if the only thing they have in common is a title. And there are a lot of movies that should have been made into books. Every time I think about Tom Clancy’s “Without Remorse” I think of what a perfect vehicle it would have been for Willem Dafoe. Maybe one reader here could do a “Books that should have been Movies” thing.

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  • Blair Kramer.

    Personally, I think the film version of “Quantum Of Solace” is unfairly maligned. I don’t wish to elaborate too much just yet (that’s for a future article), I just think that, as Bond films go, it has a lot of emotional depth. The motivations of Bond’s love interest are clear, but one is never quite sure what is driving Bond himself. Is he motivated by duty or revenge? Nothing is settled until the last few minutes. And even then, we know that Bond’s actions do not match his emotions. On top of this, it’s a very exciting, fast moving film. All-in-all, in my humble opinion, “Quantum Of Solace” holds up quite well.

  • hockeyfan

    I agree that From Russia with Love is probably the closest to the novel. I read the books as the movies were being released. As I recall Thunderball was released as a book at the time the movie was being shot. It was also interesting that there were maps of Fort Knox included in the original paperback of Goldfinger. All movies have there merits but I like the earliest best before the excess mugging for the camera took right over. All the villians have their place in history and almost all are more than adequate to carry their end of the deal.

  • janet m.

    While entertained by all the Bond films and all the villans; they are fun and sometimes very silly–
    I was a teenager when I first saw Oddjob throw his derby with the razor brim. That menance hasn’t left me.

  • Alexander M. Foundoukis

    From RUSSIA WITH LOVE and ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE are the best of the Bond films with CASINO ROYALE AND GOLDENEYE following. I know many do not like George Lazenby, but he was a good Bond and did not use a bunch of “just happen to have the right” gadgets, just brains and skill.

  • NAT COHEN

    I BELIEVE FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE IS THE BEST OF THE LOT. MY RUNNER-UP IS GOLDFINGER

  • Raif D’Amico

    I agree with Alexander Founderoukis…but I like Goldfinger added to the group instead of Goldeneye and George Lazenby did do a good job as Bond.

  • Tim

    Yeah, all the villians were a little hokey and the first James Bond film, Dr. No, was particularly hokey. Although, my favorite villian moment is from Dr. No and the villian isn’t even shown in the scene! Slight spoiler here…When Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) realizes Bond is “on to him” he takes a boat to Crab Key to warn Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman). Instead of being ushered in to see Dr. No, Professor Dent is seated in a single chair in an oddly sparse and almost empty room. Finally an eerily calm, yet obviously annoyed, voice echos thru the bare walls of the room…that of Dr. No. To this day I still enjoy the creepy feeling that comes from that scene.

  • Chester

    Robert Shaw in From Russis with Love, was probably the nastiest for me. really gave the impression of a killer.

  • richard finn

    While we enjoyed the villians, in the 60′s Bond movies, we really went to see the gadgetry that M was coming up with and the girls Bond would meet. Oh yes, then there was the story.

  • Chester

    I’m with Nat Cohen on the fvourites. From Russia with Love was probably the most relistic and elegant Bond film and Goldfinger, probably the most stylish. The Aston Martin DB5 certainly became a lasting icon that even appeared with Daniel Craig in the role of Bond.

  • Patrick

    One of my all-time favorite Bond villains has to be Barbara Carrera as the beautiful but deadly Fatima Blush in Never Say Never Again. Who cares if it’s not an “authentic” James Bond movie? She was a joy to watch as she slapped men around, threw snakes at people, shot and killed with a psychotic laugh on her lips. They don’t make villainesses like her any more!

  • Bruce Reber

    Dr. No’s looks like he’s wearing a Nehru Jacket, while the ones worn by the Blofelds (Pleasance, Savalas and Gray) look like Chairman Mao-Tse Tung Jackets.