Guest 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…
Then 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…
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.
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…!”
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.