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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Ranking The Bond Villains

I hope you've all digested your turkey, because it's time to open a new can of worms.

What, exactly, makes a good Bond villain? It's hard define...and you look at the ranks of those who've played them, it's really tough to pin down why some work and some don't.

We run the gamut from greedy little gits with drug running scams to clandestine organizations conducting nuclear blackmail to delusional billionaires out to commit global genocide.

We have good actors, bad actor, and indifferent...but sometimes the best actors are waylaid by scripts and directors who don't utilize their talents well. And vice versa...sometimes you get actors you wouldn't expect pulling off classic Bond villains.

You have master manipulators who control their spider-webs of evil from afar, and hands on guys who don't mind going mano y mano with a British Secret Service agent.

People from each side of this divide end up making good Bond villains, and lesser villains as well. It's tough to discern the alchemy that makes some villains just sizzle and some sputter. One key, I think, is that there has to be some direct interaction and conflict with Bond--physical, philosophical, gambling--something that builds up the relationship between the characters, so we care when it comes down to the final confrontation. That's one key factor I believe you'll see reflected in my rankings.

Of course, all my choices are merely my personal preference, feel free to disagree, yadda yadda. One further note: Quantum of Solace is till too new for me to feel comfortable about slotting Dominic Greene in here yet. Suffice it to say that, at this juncture, I don't foresee him making the top half. So here we go:

22) Karl Stromberg (Curt Jurgens), The Spy Who Loved Me. Really, he's just such a non-entity...Jurgens gives a somnolent performance, with the lowest energy level of any villain. His motives are never elaborated in the least. And he and 007 are rarely onscreen together, and when they are, there's absolutely no clash, no chemistry. Above all else, a Bond villain must never be boring!!

21) General Koskov & Brad Whitaker (Jeroen Krabbe & Joe Don Baker), The Living Daylights. Classic villain confusion--the villain Bond should have the most against, Koskov, is overplayed as a clown most of the time, and receives his comeuppance off stage, from someone besides 007. And Bond ends having the final confrontation with the weaker of the villains, someone he's never even met, which deprives us of any emotional investment in the outcome. Baker gets essentially zero screen time, and it kills the role.

20) Ernst Stavro Blofeld I (Donald Pleasence), You Only Live Twice. The revelation of Blofeld after all this time should have been an emotional climax at this point in the series. But YOLT keeps him hidden for over half the screen time; he has only one scene with Bond; they really have no confrontation at all. And despite the Dr. Evil make-up, Pleasence just doesn't come off as the awe/fear-inspiring leader we saw in FRWL and TB. And in this case, Blofeld is really just a hired hand for the Chinese!! Plus, is it just me, or does Pleasence look distractingly uncomfortable holding the cat?

19) Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), Moonraker. Lonsdale's performance is also somnolent, but he does manage to inject more dry wit into his performance than Jurgens, and the script gives him better lines, more time with Bond, and a vaguely better sense of how to portray a monomaniacal genocidal billionaire.

18) Kananga/Mr. Big, (Yaphet Kotto), Live And Let Die. It's not Yaphet's fault the script is that bad, or that his Mr. Big make-up is the most embarrassingly bad in the history of motion pictures. And the death scene is not brought up in polite company. At least you got the consolation of starring in Homicide for several years...

17) Ernst Stavro Blofeld III (Charles Gray), Diamonds Are Forever. Nothing against Gray's performance--I see no reason why the head of an evil organization can't be "effete," especially since he believes he's descended from aristocracy. But the confusion of so many body doubles certainly lessens his impact, and his plot is uninspiring. And the lack of a real final confrontation with 007, and his offscreen death (?) makes for an unsatisfying conclusion to The Blofeld Trilogy of movies.

16) Kamal Khan & General Orlov (Louis Jordan & Steven Berkoff), Octopussy. Another case of villain confusion, as the true mastermind, Orlov, dies far away from Bond and well ahead of the climax. Khan should be merely a henchman, as he has no real interest in Orlov's goals. But Jordan's deliciously slimy performance makes for a good competition with Bond. This would rank higher with a better script, or if it was just Khan.

15) Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee), The Man With The Golden Gun. The movie portrays Scaramanga as basically an idiot savant, a doofus whose only really skill is as an assassin. He has no interest in hunting Bond, he doesn't understand his massive death device 1/20th as well as Bond, he doesn't really have an evil scheme, and despite his prowess he gets shot in the back because he's fooled by the ridiculous "Bond replacing the mannequin" gambit. Lee's performance is fine; I just question whether the "obsessed fanboy" is the right approach for a Bond villain.

14) Colonel Moon/Gustav Graves (Will Yun Lee/Toby Stephens), Die Another Day. Ah, if only it had been a better movie, as I think Stephens nails the haughty arrogance just right, and the sword fight is incredible. But the Moon=Graves conceit just never convinces; his plot is just too darn derivative (oh, excuse me, an "homage") of other Bond films; and the Iron Man suit at the end destroys whatever credibility he might have had.

13) Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi), Thinderball. He's a classic--that eye patch is one of the constant features of parody Bond villains--but he really is a loser, isn't he? Unfortunately, he faces Bond at the height of the Connery Swagger, and Bond doesn't even break a sweat against him: 007 whoops him at baccarat, steals his woman, bests him at skeet shooting (without even looking!), escapes his death traps with ease...and he leaves the bombs laying around where Bond can track them down. If only he were half as competent as his "henchman" Fiona Volpe.

12) Aristotle Kristatos (Julian Glover), For Your Eyes Only. The problem with your down-to-earth, "realistic" Bond films, is that that same realism sometimes can work to the detriment of being a memorable villain. Kristatos is a nasty piece of work, and Glover gives him the deft touch of high society menace. But the script doesn't actually have him do very much (in fairness, that's a consequence of having to hide the fact that he's the villain for the first part of the film), and he's really much more of a nemesis for Melina and Columbo than Bond. Good, but not really memorable. I wanted to rate Kristatos higher, but there's no "there" there.

11) Ernst Stavro Bolfeld II (Telly Savalas), On Her Majesty's Secret Service. I think Telly comes closest to Fleming's conception of Blofeld, as a man who could be a physical menace as well as a criminal mastermind. Certainly the most personally threatening of the Blofelds, and probably the best performance.

10) Maximilian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer), Never Say Never Again. The better of the Largos...Brandauer's performance is so eccentric, it makes him more believable as an insane madman...and his vaguely slimy Euro-sophisticate veneer plays much better than Celi's gruff evil big guy performance. It's pretty clear that this was the vibe Mathieu Amalric was going for in QoS, but nowhere near as successfully. Downside: Brandauer never seems to connect woth Connery's performance...it's almost as if they were in different movies.

9) Max Zorin (Christopher Walken), A View To A Kill. Crappy movie, but don't let that distract you from Walken's breeding-experiment-turned-insane-billionaire...an eccentric performance in a movie that desperately needed one, the only times the movie comes to life are when he's on the screen. Yeah, his plan is a Goldfinger ripoff, but in the Moore era, you can't be too picky about your villains...

8) Dr. Julius No (Joseph Wiseman), Dr. No. Set the template for all future Bond villains. The smooth, urbane, aristocratic and accented opponent to Bond's steadfast Britishness became the stuff of parody, but only because Wiseman sells it so completely, in full seriousness without camp. Unfortunately kept hidden for too much of the movie, and his demise feels rushed and anti-climactic.

7) Elektra King (Sophie Marceau), The World is Not Enough. Yeah, her plan doesn't make a lick of sense, but that's because she's mad 12 ways to Sunday. Her role suffers a bit from the "pretend she's not the villain for the 1st half of the movie" syndrome, but Marceau more than makes up for it with the fire of her performance, the embodiment of the spoiled-rich-girl turned spoiled-evil-madwoman. The first female Bond villain, Elektra attacks 007 in ways other villains couldn't...and almost succeeds.

6) LeChiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), Casino Royale 2006. The role suffers a mite because of the structure of the book. But Mikkelsen nails the role, perfectly embodying the arrogant mathematical genius who can't believe he can lose yet constantly does--sort of a 21st century Kronsteen. The torture scene with Bond is outstanding...pure menace.

5) Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), Tomorrow Never Dies. I know a lot of people don't like him as a villain, and I'm not sure I understand why. Was the egotistical media mogul obsessed with expanding his empire even if he has to make the news himself too realistic, too blase for some? I find him the perfect 1990's Bond villain. A hilariously droll performance.

4) Rosa Klebb & Kronsteen & Red Grant (Lotte Lenya & Vladek Sheybal & Robert Shaw), From Russia With Love. Who's the villain here, and who's the henchmen? It's not clear cut, as formulas were not set in stone yet in 1963. Grant's clearly a henchmen by today's standards, yet his presence dominates the movie. It's Kronsteen's plan...yet Bond never meets him, and never even hears his name (and given the circumstances, Bond probably never even learns of his involvement!). Klebb, while odd and evil, is hardly a real threat, as Bond beats her with a chair! And in a sense, they're all just henchmen for Blofeld...Let's just think of them as a Triumvirate of Evil, and a stunningly effective one.

3) Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi), Licence To Kill. I'm probably idiosyncratic for having him this high, but so be it. One of the best-developed, most fleshed out Bond villains. Davi's portrayal of Sanchez' unshakable confidence in himself and his people sets him up nicely for Bond's Iago-like manipulations, giving the character an almost Shakespearean arc. You almost feel sorry for the guy, which is a tribute to the writing and performance.

2) Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe), Goldfinger. Let me emphasize, there's no shame in finishing second on this list. For 3 decades plus, Auric Goldfinger set the standard for what a Bond villain should be. Colorful, confident, disdainful, proud, a compulsive cheat, a braggart, a brilliant schemer, a casual mass murderer. And a special shout out to the little recognized Michael Collins, who dubbed Frobe's lines, making the "No, Mr. Bond--I expect you to die!!" so memorable.

So why not #1? The slightest demerit for being dubbed, and the slightest demerit when we realize that despite his own stake in matters, Goldfinger is really just a henchman for the Chinese. It's not much, but in a battle this close, it knocks Auric just the tiniest amount behind...

1) Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean), Goldeneye. It's so brilliant that you can't believe it took them 30 years to come up with it--an evil Double-O. Bond's equal but opposite, the man who can anticipate his every move AND match him in physical combat. The mirror-universe Bond, who shows us the directions James could have taken had his moral compass been as damaged. Bean sells him, both when we think he's the doomed sacrificial lamb and when we realize he's the vile mastermind. Throw in the vast amount of personal animus this creates with Bond, and, well, 006 is the best of the worst.

Don't forget to submit your entries in my "Quantify Quantum" contest...entries due by Wednesday 12/3...


  1. I think it's funny how you note Octopussy and The Living Daylights as having villain confusion and put Elektra King as the villain of TWINE. This film is the most obvious example of villain confusion, partially because they don't want you to know she's a villain. Remember, they announce Renard as the villain at the beginning of the film, Renard survives till the end, and they almost dismiss Elektra as a henchman because of "Stockholm Syndrome". She should be recognized as the villain, and Renard as the lovesick hench, but there's an awful lot of mix-up in there, and it's much more obvious than the OP and TLD.

  2. I hate Carver and Graves because they're so annoying and not enjoyable or entertaining. I mean, they're villains, but I much prefer a Sanchez or a Goldfinger, someone whose smirks and laughs are to be smirked and laughed with.

  3. I disagree with a lot in this list but that is what makes the world so diverse. :D Especially Elektrta so high, IMO she is the dictionary definition of "villain confusion." Stromberg might not be the very best villain but he doesn't deserve bottom tranking. His final confrontation with Bond alone is one of the heighlights of the Bond era. A good example of how you don't need a brutal fight for a final Bond/villain battle.

  4. What's tricky with this sort of list is that you're looking for a combination of things that can vary a lot - character, dialogue, plot, and acting performance. The first three (aspects of writing) can be at variance with each other, while quality of performance can offset or magnify those aspects.

    A lot of these characters have major problems in terms of saying or doing stupid things because of the script, but nevertheless have vivid characters and performances. That's why I think Elektra King is well-placed. A lot of her actions don't make much sense, but Sophie Marceau is so good at portraying the crazy that it offsets a lot of the problems for me.

    I'd probably bump Scaramanga up a little for similar reasons. Overall, though, I'm in broad agreement with this list.

  5. Andrew and Icebreaker--I consider TWINE and FYEO to be more examples of "hidden villains" as opposed to "villain confusion," which encompasses a separate set of problems. Specifically, TLD and Octopussy have Bond not getting a showdown with villain he should have, and a poor allocation of time between the two villains.

    FYEO and TWINE, by contrast, do have Bond get to take out the proper villain. The difficulty with the "hidden villain" is that ofttimes, by being a secret for the first half of the film, there's a risk that our arch fiend will end undeveloped, as happened with Kristatos in FYEO. I thought Elektra King, both through writing and performance, avoided that fate. Your mileage may vary.

    Icebreaker--not a brutal fight with Stromberg?? Bond shot him in the balls!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. i'll read the list again... but... is dominic greene missing?

  7. Snell - It might be brutal, but its not a fight (or at least not how I preceive a fight). Stromberg attempts to trick Bond with his traps... TWICE, but Bond outsmarts him and calmly shoots him. Stromberg just sits there unable to do anything about it. Moore was robbed of a good final confrontation in his first two films (Kanaga got a cartoon death and the less said about the unspectacular Scaramanga death in TMWTGG the better...) and the way he shoots Stromberg is one of his finest Bond moments.

    The only problem I have with Stromberg is that he is not given enough dialogue or screentime to justify his purposes. The 1977 novelization gives us a hint of his past a bit... but I have NO problems with Curt Jurgen's performance at all. IMO, his subtle approach to the role is often misunderstood (even by Christopher Wood himself) as "lazy" and "lethargic." That I've always disagreed with...

    Pay attention to Jurgen's facial expressions next time you watch the film. It is a brilliant underrated performance that somehow never reaches parody level in an otherwise silly role. Observe how he looks at the scientists after feeding his assistant to the sharks. Watch the look on his face when he attempts to trick Bond by asking him to name the poisonous fish, and how it changes sightly when Bond answers correctly.

    Stromberg's calm persona is downright intensional IMO and very creepy. Once again, I wish Wood had given him more scenes. Jurgens' performance appeals to me far more than Jonathan Pryce's "look at me!" performance in TND. Now THERE is an otherwise good actor who only wanted to chew the scenary didn't take the role of a Bond villain seriously.

  8. But Carver was a "look at me!" character, so IMO the performance was entirely appropriate.

  9. Memories can be funny things. Actually, Connery was far more robbed in final confrontations than Moore. In DN he wrestles the good Doctor. Good enough, if not particularly exciting. But in FRWL, it's Tatiana who finishes off Krebb. In GF, Goldfinger outwrestles Bond, and fires the shot that ends up sucking him out the window, essentially killing himself. In TB Domino gets the kill of Largo. In YOLT Blofeld skitters away untouched by Bond--he doesn't get in a punch, a shot, a ninja star, nothing. In DAF Bond does bash Blofeld's bathosub around with the crane, but there's no indication whatsoever on screen that Blofeld is hurt or killed before Bond bails. In NSNA, once again Domino gets the death shot against Largo. On the whole, Moore got more and better final confrontations than Connery.

    As to Stromberg, we'll have to agree to disagree, because I don't see what you're seeing there. And if it is, the director should have pointed out that a degree of subtlety appropriate to a Bergman film might not be the best approach for an insane genocidal billionaire in a Bond movie. I'm just sayin'...

  10. Well, I felt Connery's execution of Grant made up for him not killing Klebb. He also had an excellent fight with Largo before Domino offed him. It's just that Moore's first two villain kills were so lame, it just made the SWLM one stick out.

    I re-read your Spy review and didn't understand why you called Stromberg's death "unmemorable." I find it one of the very best deaths in the series, and at least memorable to say the least.

    What exactly is the textbook approach for a genocidal billionare in a Bond movie? I hardly would call his performance something from Bergman (that being said I was always for Max Von Sydow playing a Bond villain in a real Bond movie), he just didn't surrunder himself to the usual Bond villain theatrics.

    It is easy to blame a bondgirl's shortcomings on a "bad actress." However with a Bond villain I don't think that's the case. None of these people, even the ones I consider the worst villains, are bad actors. They range from good to excellent. Some of them just didn't give their best. I felt Jurgens did at least, he tried to do a calm creepy performance with subtle qualities to it. He just needed more screentime.

  11. Wow -- does Bond accomplish anything in Goldfinger?

    I like your top five or so, but I'd put Savalas's Blofeld in the top ten, absolutely. He's the only really menacing Blofeld, and he's got that classic line, "All right, we'll head him off at the precipice!"

    (BTW, I hope you don't mind the self-pimping, but I put my Quantum of Solace reaction up on my own blog, here.)

  12. I disagree with your list(especially with Electra being so high and Stormberg/Drax so low), but Alec as number 1 completely makes up for it. Good job.

  13. Fantastic list. I'm working on ranking the villains, one at a time (from the beginning). I'm stuck on Auric Goldfinger. Sean Bean as the number 1 villain? I like your perspective. Cheers.

  14. You could make a case that Goldfinger was using the Red Chinese for his own purposes as much as they were using him, so he could be considered their equal partner, rather than a henchman. Bond's adversaries in DN, FRWL, and TB could all be considered Blofeld's henchmen, but, to me, they come across as the main villains, since Blofeld is a vague figure in the background. For the same reason, Blofeld, rather than his Chinese clients, is the main villain in YOLT, although his confrontation with Bond is a letdown.

  15. I love me Sean Bean, and Alec Trevelyan is well-conceived as Bond's equal-but-opposite. But the actual character is kind of a boorish cliché. And I think you underrate the Kleb/Grant duo. Grant is smart and resourceful; more than a mere henchman. The most menacing Bond opponent of them all. And Rosa Kleb, though not quite as perverse as in the book, is still intriguingly weird and cruel.

  16. I love me Sean Bean, and Alec Trevelyan is well-conceived as Bond's equal-but-opposite. But the actual character is kind of a boorish cliché. And I think you underrate the Kleb/Grant duo. Grant is smart and resourceful; more than a mere henchman. The most menacing Bond opponent of them all. And Rosa Kleb, though not quite as perverse as in the book, is still intriguingly weird and cruel.