An early fan of James Bond once summed up the excitement and drama of Ian Fleming's creation thus: “Thrilling storie[s] about the Secret Service bloke and the bad bastard.”
Smart, suave, virile, and a physical match for rogues and henchman of all kinds, 007 seemed unbeatable. He had no hang-ups to speak of, though being a dedicated snob he did seem addicted to conspicuous consumption of all things deluxe. After the first two movies, Dr. No (1962) and From Russia with Love (1963), both starring Sean Connery as Bond and both directed by Terence Young, Guy Hamilton was offered the director's gig on what would be the third in the series, Goldfinger (1964). But Hamilton had an issue with the Bond image and the vision of the series. He felt that as good as the first two films were, “there was a real danger of Bond becoming Superman,” he told a researcher once. “Consequently there would be no suspense in whatever predicaments were dreamt up for him.”
For Bond scholars, Hamilton's Goldfinger is the Bond film; it set down the 'rules' for all Bond pics that would follow, especially when it came to Bond's opponents: “We concentrated on the villains, [like Gert Fröbe's Goldfinger].” Hamilton ended up directing four Bond films and learnt quickly a maxim known to all 007 fans: “Bond is only as good as his villains.”
“I shall look forward personally to exterminating you, Mr. Bond.”
– Blofeld in You Only Live Twice
Blofeld, full name Ernst Stavro Blofeld, was No.1, the nominal head of the Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion (SPECTRE), which, naturally, made him 007's arch enemy. He liked to pet his fat fluffy Turkish Angora pussycat while exchanging bon mots with Bond and had a tailoring style that might uncharitably be confused with a luggage handler for a Five Star Hotel chain; but one suspects it was intended to recall the strident militia-type outfit favoured by post-World War II dictators, especially Red China's Mao Tse Tung.
Blofeld emerged as the menace in seven Bond films (including an unseen 'appearance' in From Russia with Love) and that's counting the 'rogue' Bond picture Never Say Never Again, directed by Irvin Kershner, a remake of Thunderball (1965) released in 1983 and the only one not produced by the series' originators, Eon Productions. Some fine actors have played Blofeld: Charles Gray, Max von Sydow and Telly Savalas. But Pleasence made a brilliant Blofeld in You Only Live Twice (Lewis Gilbert, 1967; pictured). With a Richard III stoop and an oversized egghead, his frightening scar and mellifluous voice – part-sweet tea part-arsenic – his Blofeld was chilling and funny at once.
Bond villains form a gallery of heartless grotesques. This idea is taken literally with Robert Carlyle's Renard in The World is Not Enough (Michael Apted, 1999); he has no feeling because a bullet embedded in his brain is killing his nervous system. A distinguishing mark of the Bond villain is that they must sport distorted physical features. This becomes a stark symbol of spiritual corruption: a scar, an extra nipple, webbed fingers, leaky eyes, and skin texture like a cratered moon surface abound, as do bad haircuts, poor dye jobs and fashion-challenged spectacle rims. Still, given the genre's macho roots and (its originators own disposition), it's not surprising to find the 'abnormal' in Bond movies stretches to lesbianism and homosexuality. This becomes a sign of 'perversity' in Bond productions of the '60s thru the '80s. It's true of all the Blofeld films but especially Diamonds are Forever (Guy Hamilton, 1971).
What's smart about the three latest Bond films is the way they have streamed some of Fleming's (and Eon's) favoured tropes and mashed them into ironic configurations. Bond's enemies are big on torture; they especially like to have a go at 007's genitals. Goldfinger used a laser beam on Bond. By Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012), the bad bastard settles for a grope. Consider: the new age Bond of Skyfall suffers an invasion of personal space. Witness the confusion on Daniel Craig's face when villain Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) strokes 007's upper thighs. It's not just castration anxiety or the revulsion at an uninvited touch; there is more than a hint of sexual panic. It exposes Bond as possibly homophobic… and in a way that makes him vulnerable. Meanwhile, Silva's true sexual nature remains mysterious. But his intent is clear: he's playing with Bond. And he enjoys watching him squirm.
Even when they appear 'normal' the bad bastards of Bond movies are monsters. See: Greene (Mathieu Amalric) in Quantum of Solace (Marc Foster, 2008) or Sanchez (Robert Davi), the drug lord in License to Kill (John Glen, 1989; pictured), a sadist who whips his girlfriend with the hide of a stingray. Occasionally the series went in for genre satire. What else could be the explanation for the scene in Octopussy (John Glen, 1983) where Louis Jordan's Kamal Khan dines on a stuffed sheep's head?
According to Bond fan and writer James Chapman, the nature of Bond villainy can be broken down into two broad categories: 'the grand conspiracy of extortion of the SPECTRE films or the desire to create a new social order', like, say, Stromberg (Curd aka Curt Jürgens) in The Spy Who Loved Me (Lewis Gilbert, 1977), Drax (Michael Lonsdale) in Moonraker (Lewis Gilbert, 1979), Zorin (Christopher Walken) in A View to a Kill (John Glen, 1985), and media mogul Carver (Jonathan Pryce) in Tomorrow Never Dies (Roger Spottiswoode, 1997).
“Someone will take care of you.”
– May Day in A View to a Kill
If 007 is out to get the master criminal, the master's servant is out to get Bond. For a lot of fans, it's the henchmen (and women) that are the most fun in the series. They are spectacular, deeply strange and freakish, and their lethal abilities have an irresistible charm: Jaws' (Richard Kiel) teeth, Oddjob's (Harold Sakata) decapitating bowler hat, May Day's super strength (Grace Jones) or Lotte Lenya's nasty Rosa and her knife-in-boot.
The movies' sexual politics were never quite as objectionable as Fleming's, which is to say the femme fatale was much in evidence. It still is. When it was women in the service of evil, Bond sets out to bed them to set them, um, 'straight'. Note that Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) is a lesbian in Goldfinger!
In Live and Let Die (Guy Hamilton, 1972; pictured) – a sort of rejoinder to Blaxploitation films of the era – Roger Moore's 007 seduces white virgin Solitaire (Jane Seymour), 'stealing' her away from the African-American villain Mr. Big (Yaphet Kotto) and thereby eliminating the threat of miscegenation.
Since the '80s, Bond and his relationship with women has been let's say… 'complicated'? And beginning with GoldenEye (Martin Campbell, 1995), Bond has served under the direction of a female M (Judi Dench) who knew 007 (and the series) needed a makeover: “I think you're a sexist, misogynist dinosaur and a relic of the Cold War.” A reconstruction into a 'new-man' Bond was not far off.
“There's nothing you can talk to me about that I don't already know.”
Goldfinger in Goldfinger
Ever since the first Bond novel was published in 1953, critics have made much of the fact that Ian Fleming and 007 seem to have a lot in common. Both are former intel agents for one; both establishment characters for another. But from where do the villains arise?
Andrew Lycett in his biography Ian Fleming (1995) imagined that Bond's creator was fulfilling his own fantasies of megalomania in the 007 books: “Know what I'd like if I could have anything I wanted?” Fleming told a friend once. “I'd like to be the absolute ruler of the country where everyone was crazy about me… I'd like that. And so would they.”
Still, that's perhaps too couch-Freudian convenient. Born in 1908, Fleming was the right generation to appreciate the long tradition of the Brit espionage thrillers of, say, John Buchan, E. Phillips Oppenheim and William Le Queux, where Empire was everything and all proper enemies were foreigners. Fleming knew, too, the power and allure of the 'monstrous' villain of Tarzan creator Edgar Wallace and Sax Rohmer, who created Fu Manchu (the generic template for Dr. No and many a Bond screen villain.) The 007 series in book and film combine these elements.
In the '60s, much was made of Eon's transformation of 007 into a 'classless' smoothie. Then, the Cold War politics of the novels were simplified to yarns of good and evil (but they still carried a chill for NATO's enemies in the same way that Craig's 007 is very much a part of a post 9/11 world). The books were swelled with patriotism where SMERSH (the Soviet anti-intelligence death squad spy-force) was a major presence. The movies', for its first few decades, were playful, irreverent, naughty and violent.
These days, it's fashionable to suggest that Bond is dated; in fact, the Bond films have always moved with the times in that their plot details mine and exploit the geo-politcal zeitgeist. The basic premise, a super spy vs. a super villain is highly adaptable. During the early '80s, the narrative stakes were tilted toward embracing the real-world threat of an arms build up by the super powers of the USSR and USA – and its unintended consequences. See: For Your Eyes Only (John Glen, 1981) Octopussy, A View to a Kill, and The Living Daylights (John Glen, 1987). But then License to Kill (John Glen, 1989) jettisoned the Cold War for the Drug War (as had Live and Let Die) and put Bond on a revenge trip. By GoldenEye (Martin Campbell, 1995), the USSR was no more but the Cold War had thawed to a toxic stream of traitors within, like Sean Bean's Trevelyan and super gangsters with military ordnance. It was a messy new world for 007 to negotiate.
This is the notion that underwrites Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall. The enemy has no borders. Technology is a force and a trap. Political expediency is true authority and it trumps loyalty to country and profession. Silva, like Bourne, is an intelligence asset gone 'wrong'. An MI6 agent, he was sold out and tortured, his face and guts mutilated. Silva has been made monstrous by a government that suffers from a delusion of omniscience. Bond is his match… as long as 007 can be trusted to know his place.