Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Nemesis: The Ten Best Bond Villains

The James Bond series has a great variety in their rogue's row.  Some have been brilliant: cold, chilling, and even dangerous despite their oddball plans.  Others have veered dangerously close to camp.

Contrary to the stereotype, not all Bond Villains want to "take over the world".  Most actually are in it for financial reasons having little to nothing to do with world domination (although, granted, a few would like to rule the Earth...though what exactly they would do with it we're never quite sure of).  A few have more personal reasons for vengeance, some are merely apparatchiks with no other motivation than doing someone else's bidding, and some are just flat-out bonkers.

A good Bond Villain has to be someone I can take seriously, someone who I think could or would kill me if I dared get in the way.  A bad Bond Villain is one whose scheme is so hare-brained SPECTRE would laugh it out of its lair. 

With that, I present my list of the Ten Best Bond Villains.

10.) Dr. No (Dr. No)

Sometimes you gotta start with the originator.  Doctor Julius No, Eurasian mad scientist, had a curious manner: part courtly and sophisticated, part loon.  He didn't operate on his own accord.  It should be remembered he worked for SPECTRE: SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion.  He also had those damaged hands he kept hidden with black gloves. 

Dr. No's real power is in how he hides and intimidates others.  In fact, you don't actually SEE Dr. No until near the end of the film.  The rest of the time, you hear his voice or hear others talk about him. The build-up to Dr. No's appearance is what keeps you guessing as to whom or what he actually is.  It's this combination of menace and manners that makes Dr. No both a source of fear and a source of wonder.

09.) Max Zorin (A View to A Kill)

Oh, I know I'm going to get into trouble for this.  I imagine putting Max Zorin in my Top Ten Bond Villains may be the most controversial choice of any Bond Lists.  Try as I might I couldn't shake Zorin from my Top Ten List.  I've found that Max Zorin is held in total contempt and is thought of as one of the worst things in one of the worst Bond movies.  I'm not going to debate the merits of A View to A Kill (it is pretty bad).  However, I'm going to try to make my case for Christopher Walken's much-trashed villain.

First, it's Christopher Walken, and from what I saw he played the part given correctly: that of a psychopath billionaire.  Second, unlike most Bond villains, Zorin is one of the few who doesn't mind getting his hands dirty.  He enjoys killing, right down to his own Henchman May Day.  Third and last, Zorin doesn't shrink from taking on both MI6 and the KGB, his raging lunacy complimenting his deranged ego.  It's not Walken's fault he was in a dreadful film.  In fact, I think he is one of the better things in A View to A Kill

Finally, as a digression, it's a curious thing that A View to A Kill starts with a disclaimer stating that Zorin or Zorin Industries should not be mistaken for any real person or company.  This fellow, an up-and-coming violinist also named Max Zorin, would be smart to capitalize on this odd twist by having Walken tape an introduction or close a concert with an encore performance of A View to A Kill.  Just a thought.

08.) Blofeld II (On Her Majesty's Secret Service)

The character of Ernst Stravo Blofeld, head of SPECTRE, was played by three actors in three films.  Telly Savalas played Blofeld in the second of what's been dubbed The Blofeld Trilogy.  He ranks high because this Blofeld took a more active role than either than his predecessor or successor.  Granted, he wasn't as dangerous as the former but at least he wasn't as camp as the latter. 

Blofeld II is one of those villains who thought big (he blackmailed the world, all in some bizarre plan that involved earning a title), and while it isn't the most well-thought out plan, his ability to place Bond in dangers we wonder he can escape raises his caliber.  That, and he managed to hurt Bond in the most intimate way.

07.) Franz Sanchez (Licence to Kill)

Franz Sanchez didn't want to 'take over the world'.  He was quite content in being a drug kingpin.  It is his remarkable coolness that makes him dangerous.  Sanchez rarely if ever ranted or raved.  Instead, he took a remarkably business-like approach to every aspect of his business.  If it meant letting Bond's best friend Felix Leiter be devoured by a shark and have Leiter's new bride raped and murdered, so be it.  If it meant blowing up a questionable ally, so be it.  If it meant shooting his accountant near the end of his reign because he was daring to critize him as his empire was collapsing, so be it.

It's a credit to Robert Davi's ability as an actor that I don't hold him in much disregard for having Sanchez played by an Italian rather than a Hispanic.  Still, even within the murderous evil that is Sanchez, his total trust of Bond almost makes one sad when he learns that 007 is really a British agent seeking revenge on his own accord. 


06.) Kristatos (For Your Eyes Only)

Kristatos works because there is always a hint, mild as it may be, that he really isn't the Villain.  We all should know that Kristatos is a villain.  However, the mind games Kristatos plays as to whether he is the good guy fighting a fellow Greek or whether Kristatos is the actual villain is what elevates him.  He is so courtly, so benevolent. 

I think the indication that he IS the villain is the fact that he helpfully sponsors a very young (and annoyngingly chatty) girl with her Olympic skating aspirations.  Kristatos is also someone who is far brighter than other Bond Villains.  He basically plays a waiting game to see whether Bond accomplishes his missioin or not, basically letting 007 do all the work while Kristatos reaps the rewards.  A smart performance from Julian Glover as a Villain that I don't think gets enough credit merely because it isn't as showy as others before or since.

05.) Blofeld I (You Only Live Twice)

I have long argued that when you hire an actual actor, someone with vast experience, in a role that might be in a far-fetched film, it makes the performance work and overcome the deficiencies in the film.  Casting Donald Pleasance as Ernst Stravo Blofeld in You Only Live Twice is such a moment.

In the four preceeding Bond films, Blofeld (aka Number One) was always just a voice with a pussy in his lap.  Even for most of YOLT, Blofeld was still held back...and back, until he spins his chair and we see a strange mix: a very courtly individual with a shocking scar across his face.  In any other hands, Blofeld could have come off as camp: this guy with a cat and his Nehru jacket.  In Pleasance's hands, he is a powerful figure: violent and bright.  His simple command, "Kill Bond. Now," is a declaration of war.  I'm not a fan of You Only Live Twice, but Blofeld I is one of the few highlights of the film.  When people think of a Bond Villain (or a parody of a Bond Villain a la Doctor Evil), it's Blofeld I that comes to mind, a most impressive act for a performance that was probably a half-hour at the most.

04.) Francisco Scaramanga (The Man With the Golden Gun)

While much has been written about the negatives in The Man With the Golden Gun (and there is a lot of negatives), I have yet to hear anything negative about Francisco Scaramanga, the titled Man With the Golden Gun.  I think it has to do with the fact that it's Sir Christopher Lee playing the role.

Scaramanga is a hired gun, but in many ways he is Bond's equal, or to use a Star Wars analogy, the Dark Side of 007.  He is a man who can have many women, he is a man who is ruthless in his efficiency, and someone who is an expert killer.  Scaramanga was saddled with a host of horrible things: bad Henchmen, bad story, bad gadgets, but Lee brought his considerable talents as an actor and his presence to make Scaramanga a worthy advisary to 007.  In fact, it's his admiration for 007 that gives Bond about the only advantage he has over The Man With the Golden Gun.

03.) Janus/Alec Trevelyan (GoldenEye) *

What makes Alec Trevelyan (who took the nom de guerre Janus) is that he knew Bond personally and professionally.  He knew what 007 would do because he used to be a 00 himself.  Janus was a mix of vengeance and greed, a Villain who wanted to if not take over the world destroy it, primarily as payback for what the British had done to him and his family.  Trevelyan, the model of British professionalism, was both traitor and avenger of his people.

Here is another case where actual actor can sell the premise.  Sean Bean didn't go crazy with his performance.  He showcased the anger seething against both Bond and the British in general, but he was willing to use his intelligence and inside knowledge to get his way.  As the weapon is about to come close to destroying London, Trevelyan's statement of "God Save the Queen" is remarkably chilling and frightening.

02.) Colonel Rosa Klebb (From Russia With Love)

Here again is how strong an imprint Lotte Lenya's character of Rosa Klebb is on the popular consciousness.  In the Austin Powers spoofs of Bond-like stories, think on the Frau Farbissina character.  It's obvious our dour, strict, fiercely masculine character is the figurative daughter of our Number 3.

Klebb is a frightening character: all business, fierce, intense, not afraid to stop at nothing to complete her tasks (even if at the end, she has to do it herself).  A lot of Colonel Klebb's character is suggested, and the suggestions are sometimes creepy.  In one scene, with our Bond Girl, it is hinted that she not only is a lesbian, but that she is also into S&M.  Lenya kept everything straight (no pun intended), never showing antything other than a total ruthlessness.  It's a credit to both Lenya and Klebb that when she appears with her infamous poisoned knife shoe, it becomes a real tense and exciting, even frightening moment, not a gimmick or something that causes laughter.

And the Greatest Bond Villain of All Time is...

01.) Auric Goldfinger (Goldfinger)

Yes, the Gold Standard of Bond Villains (pun intended). 

If one thinks on the Sean Connery Bond films, all of them (even those made after he 'retired' from the role, Diamonds Are Forever and Never Say Never Again) have 007 fighting SPECTRE in some way...with one exception.  Auric Goldfinger is the first Bond Villain who didn't work for SPECTRE.  Goldfinger was cold, cruel, but he also didn't have any plans for World Domination.  He was just a powerfully greedy man who was not afraid of using sides against the other.

Most important, he almost always was two steps ahead of almost everyone else.  When the raid of Fort Knox went wrong, who else but Goldfinger would have an American military uniform at the ready lest the Red Chinese found themselves under attack?  Goldfinger set the bar for every Bond Villain to come after in terms of how he/she came close to pulling off, in terms of the scheme itself, and in the threat he placed on Bond.  No other Bond Villain has a quote that comes close to echoing Goldfinger's famous retort to Bond's query of if Goldfinger expected Bond to talk.

"No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to DIE!"


Well, I struggled mightily with this list, but the list for the Ten Worst Bond Villains was mercifully less of a struggle. So many presented themselves, it was almost too easy.

* Trevelyan was Bond's primary antagonist, but he had help from Russian General Ourumov.  It was a call as to which one was the actual Bond Villain, but since Ourumov appeared to be working for Trevelyan, I can't say Ourumov was the Bond Villain in GoldenEye.  I'd call him Trevelyan's junior partner, not close enough to be a Villain, not far enough to be a Henchman.

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