Thursday, November 05, 2015

007 Week: Top Five Villains

As famous as Agent 007 remains after five-plus decades at the movies, many of his nemeses remain equally well-known.  

Typically, Bond films don’t work very well if the villains don’t measure up; if they don’t present the audience some electric jolt suggesting that Bond -- and the world itself -- might truly be in danger.  

We have long since come to expect that Bond will drive fast cars, romance beautiful women, and defeat monstrous enemies, but we also must believe at least a little during the course of the movie that the outcome is in doubt.  The best villains help us suspend that disbelief.

There’s no magic formula for a Bond villain, either.  Some are young, physically-agile Bond “opposites” (as in From Russia with Love or Goldeneye) while others are brilliant schemers (like Goldfinger of Blofeld.) Over the years, we’ve also met genetically-engineered freaks like Zorin (Christopher Walken), drug-dealers like Sanchez (Robert Davi), and even rabid devotees to a political cause, like Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya).

This list focuses on the mastermind or general villains, not the soldiers-types.

5. Ernst Stavro Blofeld in You Only Live Twice (1967)

I’m a long-time admirer of the late Donald Pleasence and his many great performances.  He was -- rather famously -- in a bad movie or two (Pumaman, Warriors of the Lost World) during his time.  But Pleasence also made a hell of a villain in films such as Fantastic Voyage and You Only Live Twice.  

Here, the actor appears as Bond’s ultimate enemy, Blofeld, head of SPECTRE.  Scarred and bald, this Blofeld combines physical ugliness – someone once compared his skull and scars to a “cracked egg” – with an absolute sense of contempt for anyone other than himself.  

The Bond films had a number of very capable actors play Blofeld over the years (Telly Savalas, Max Von Sydow and Charle Gray, namely), but I have always felt that Pleasence was tops at  playing a master manipulator, a man of tremendous intellect and cunning, but  one divorced from the human race in terms of compassion and decency.  There's a madness in Blofeld's eyes in this film that makes you think he may just succeed in his plans to start World War III.  I wish Pleasence had reprised the role in On Her Majesty's Secret Service and Diamonds are Forever.  As the films stand now, there's no sense that we're looking at the same man battling Bond in three different adventures.

4. Maximillian Largo, Never Say Never Again (1983)

Is it heresy to include Never Say Never Again on an “official” James Bond top five list? 

Perhaps so, but Klaus Maria Brandauer nonetheless created one of the most memorable characters ever to menace 007 on the silver screen.  His version of Largo is playful, witty…and an absolute ego-maniac.

Temperamental and jealous as well as brilliant and rich, this Largo is a rather atypical villain in his three-dimensional nature -- Bond (Sean Connery) gets a good read on the character’s competitive nature and makes a play for his girl, Domino (Basinger) and his money (in a video game of global “Domination”), all while trying to track down two missing atomic bombs.  Meanwhile, Brandauer imbues Largo with tremendous individuality, from the moment when he delicately blows a kiss on his wounded hands (after losing to Bond at the video game which delivers electric jolts), to the moment he swaps spit with a recalcitrant Domino. 

You can’t exactly state that Brandauer plays the role lightly, but certainly the actor has given considerable thought to Largo’s world view, from his weird sense of humor to his casual (class/wealth based?) dismissal of Bond as a kind of lowly plebian.  Never Say Never Again isn’t heralded widely as a great Bond film, which I believe is something of a mistake.  The casting of Brandauer (as Largo) and Carrera (as Fatima Blush) gives the film a major boost of strange, anarchic, dangerous energy. 

3. Dr. Julius No in Dr. No (1962)

Joseph Wise portrays Dr. No in the Bond film of the same name, the very first Bond film in the canon, in fact.  As the first of the “bad guys,” Wiseman makes a tremendous impact.  

Physically powerful and endowed with destructive, crushing metal hands (because of an accident), he also boasts a cruel, cool intellect.  As No, Wiseman set the tone for many of the future Bond villains by memorably terming our hero a “stupid police man.”   

Brilliant, brutal and condescending, Dr. No is the first in line to challenge 007, and that prominent positioning alone makes him special.  But  there is more to the character than that too.  There’s the sense in Wiseman’s Dr. No of supreme authority and power, backed up by technological know-how, and that Bond may be outmatched in terms of both brain and brawn.

2. Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) in Licence to Kill (1989)

Timothy Dalton’s James Bond went up against Davi’s diabolical, physically-intimidating drug lord, Sanchez in Licence to Kill (1989).  

Although I remember vividly at the time of the film's release that some critics were disappointed to see Bond battling a drug baron in South America, I believe  that the character worked brilliantly not only because of Davi’s fearsome, intense (method) portrayal, but because the character boasts a psychological frailty.  

For Sanchez, everything comes down to loyalty.  I love Licence to Kill because when you get right down it, the film is all about Bond manipulating and exploiting Sanchez’s feelings about those under his command, playing on his insecurity about loyalty.  Even Sanchez's death -- brought on by the question “don’t you want to know why?” -- is a reflection of this relentless campaign of psychological manipulation.  Sanchez is a brutal guy, for certain, but he remains a great Bond villain because of the character’s flawed, human nature.  If Sanchez had not been so concerned with loyalty, he would not have fallen.  There’s something almost Shakespearean or tragic about the character.

1. Auric Goldfinger in Goldfinger (1964)

Well, this is a huge surprise, right? 

I think everyone knew this selection was coming.  But Goldfinger is surely the ultimate James Bond villain, one oft-imitated but never quite duplicated. 

A genius, a mad-man, an ego-maniac, and more, Auric Goldfinger, like Sanchez, can be discussed in terms of one key quality: an obsessive love of gold. 

Goldfinger is single-minded in his pursuit of gold, and he lets nothing stop him.  In part, Goldfinger is so memorable because he doesn’t engage much with Bond directly, not when there's Operation Grand Slam to plan, anyway.  Hence his famous retort: “No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die,” or another good quip: “Choose your next witticism carefully, Mr. Bond. It may be your last."  

Goldfinger is so single-minded that he can’t quite see that Bond is clever enough to be his undoing and not just a nuisance.  I also love the fact that film defines Goldfinger as, essentially, a cheat.  He obeys no rules in his quest to control the world's supply of gold, and that kind of obsession/lawlessness makes for a very powerful opponent indeed.

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