Even before it’s released in the U.S. this Friday, “Skyfall,” the 23rd official entry in the James Bond series, is already a monster hit, taking nearly quarter of a billion dollars worldwide in its first ten days in theaters. And with good reason — Sam Mendes‘ take on Ian Fleming‘s super-spy is terrific, and certainly ranks among the upper reaches of the franchise.
Not least because of its villain, Oscar-winner Javier Bardem (only the second Academy Award winner to play a bad guy in the series) as Silva, the mysterious, blonde-haired antagonist with more than a few secrets up his sleeve. We’re going to be looking at all kinds of aspects of the Bond movies this week as we build up to the release of “Skyfall” on Friday, and what better place to start than with the colorful villains of the series.
Some have been hugely iconic (Jaws springs to mind). Some have been subtle and complex (Mads Mikkelsen in “Casino Royale“). Some were just a bit crap (Mathieu Amalric in “Quantum Of Solace“). But we’ve picked out five villains (or pairs of villains) that we consider our all-time favorites. Check them out below, and let us know your own favorites in the comments section.
Rosa Klebb & Red Grant (Lotte Lenya & Robert Shaw) – “From Russia With Love”
The film that really saw the Bond franchise establish the template that would be used for decades to come, remains one of the best, and in its dual villains are the colorful-but-terrifying archetype that Bardem excels at in the latest film. “From Russia With Love” is positively stuffed with bad guys. Even aside from the first appearance of Blofeld (albeit unnamed, played by the voice of Eric Pohlmann), there’s Bulgarian killer Krilencu (Fred Haggerty) and SPECTRE planmaster Kronsteen (the deeply sinister-looking Vladek Sheybal). But best of all are the assassin tag-team of Red Grant and Rosa Klebb. The former is a relatively low-level henchman posed as a fellow British Intelligence colleague, but in the form of future “Jaws” star Robert Shaw, he’s one of the few bad guys to be a match for Bond. The actor’s charisma could easily have seen him play 007 if Connery hadn’t got there first (and if he was a little darker-haired), and he’s a nice mirror image to our hero. The brutality of their confrontation on the Orient Express is still celebrated as one of cinema’s best fight scenes. More eccentric, but still just as terrifying is Rosa Klebb, played by Austrian actress Lotte Lenya (who was married to composer Kurt Weill, and originated the role of Jenny in his “The Threepenny Opera“). A former Soviet counter-intelligence agent who’s since defected to SMERSH, she’s given one last chance to off Bond after Grant’s death, disguising herself as a maid and using her iconic poison-tipped shoe blade to try and take him out. It ends poorly, but Lette does an enormous amount with relatively little screen time, and there’s a reason the character’s become a fan favorite over the years.
Blofeld – Various (“From Russia With Love,” “You Only Live Twice,” “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” “Diamonds Are Forever,” “Never Say Never Again,” “For Your Eyes Only”)
Although rights complications kept him away from the franchise for years, and Mike Myers‘ parody as Dr. Evil has likely meant it would be difficult to take the character seriously again, no list like this would be complete without Ernest Stavro Blofeld, 007’s (generally) slap-headed, megalomaniacal arch-nemesis, embodied over the years by a number of character actor greats (justified by Ian Fleming‘s notion of the character as a plastic-surgery-aided master of disguise). Unlike many modern-days villains, Blofeld has little to no backstory: he appears only in abstraction, stroking his trademark white cat, in “From Russia With Love” and “Thunderball,” pulling the strings of evil organization SPECTRE from behind the scenes). It’s in “You Only Live Twice” that he finally appears, in the bald and scar-faced persona of Donald Pleasance (who stepped in for Czech actor Jan Werich, who was sacked after being deemed too benign-looking for director Lewis Gilbert). It’s Pleasance who gives probably the most definitive turn (in part thanks to the ‘Austin Powers‘ parody being based so closely on him), but we’re probably even more fond of Telly Savalas‘ take in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” a more threatening and physical take on the character, and one who performs the most dastardly feat ever in a Bond picture — killing James’ new wife (Diana Rigg). The character makes his final full and official appearance in “Diamonds Are Forever,” which suffers from being a little sillier, and Charles Gray is less notable in the part. By the start of the 1980s, the dispute over the rights to “Thunderball” (co-written by Kevin McCrory, who won legal battles that would eventually mean that the official Eon films couldn’t use the character or SPECTRE) meant that they decided to give the character a spiteful kiss-off, with John Hollis playing a “bald villain in wheelchair” who’s pushed down a chimney by Roger Moore. But he’d yet resurface in unofficial entry “Never Say Never Again,” with Max Von Sydow taking up the mantle to reasonably memorable effect.
Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe) – “Goldfinger”
One of only two bad guys to get their name in the title, and the only one to get his own song (“HE LOVES GOOOOOOLD,” as Shirley Bassey timidly put it), Auric Goldfinger is probably the only n’er-do-well who can compete with Blofeld as 007’s most iconic opponent. A businessman who uses his legit enterprises to cover up a huge gold smuggling business, the German-accented golf-lover has one of the most cunning schemes in the history of the franchise: to irradiate the gold in Fort Knox to make it unusable, making his own collection wealthier and plunging the U.S into recession. He’s got some of the best henchmen (Honor Blackman‘s ultimately treacherous pilot Pussy Galore, Korean bowler-hat wearer Oddjob) too, and is responsible for several defining scenes in the villainous canon (not least the laser-wielding “Do you expect me to talk?”/”No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die” exchange). And given the difficulties inherent in the part, German actor Gert Fröbe is an impressive presence. Orson Welles was originally sought to play the part, but wanted too much money, so the filmmakers ended up picking out Fröbe, who’d come to fame as a child killer in 1958 thriller “It Happened In Broad Daylight” (later remade by Sean Penn under the original title of Frederich Dürrenmatt‘s source novel, “The Pledge“). The actor spoke barely any English, and started out speaking the lines phonetically, but wasn’t fast enough for director Guy Hamilton‘s tastes, and he ended up having most of his lines dubbed by actor Michael Collins. And yet it’s still an enormously entertaining turn, and one that sits nicely in the hall of fame.
Scaramanga (Christopher Lee) – “The Man With The Golden Gun”
Bond movies have, at least since the Connery era, been of a somewhat inconsistent quality and it sometimes felt that for every decent entry, you’d then get two disappointing ones. As such, there’s a few terrible films in the series with entertaining villains — think Christopher Walken in “A View To A Kill,” or the enjoyably hammy Jonathan Pryce in “Tomorrow Never Dies.” But perhaps the best example of this sub-set is Christopher Lee‘s Scaramanga in “The Man With The Golden Gun.” Generally, and probably correctly, deemed to be one of the worst films in the series, it’s the start of the slip into out-and-out silliness and zeitgeist chasing that would make up the rest of the Roger Moore era. But it’s dominated, as the title might suggest, by Hammer Horror legend Lee, as the legendary never-misses assassin Scaramanga, who’s out to kill Bond. Lee, whose step-cousin was Bond creator Ian Fleming, had actually been considered to play “Dr. No” in the first Bond entry, but finally got his time in the sun with the ninth entry in the series twelve years later. And though he has to deal with a certain amount of silliness (a distinguishing third nipple, Herve Villechaize as diminutive sidekick Nick Nack), Lee is deeply menacing, suave, and appropriately twisted. If the film around him matched up to the performance, he might be considered at the top of the tree by more fans.
Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) & Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen) – “Goldeneye”
After a six year gap (the longest in Bond history; no more than three years had ever passed without a new 007 film) and the Cold War having since warmed up, the franchise needed to come roaring out of the gate when it came back with “Goldeneye,” and for the most part, that’s exactly what happened, with a new Bond for the 1990s, and one of the more entertaining films in the series. And it helped that Pierce Brosnan‘s 007 had as worthy a pair of adversaries as the character ever faced. Sean Bean, star of “Patriot Games” and “Sharpe,” was one of the names considered alongside Brosnan to take over the lead role before Timothy Dalton nabbed it in 1987, and eight years later, got his consolation prize by getting to play agent 006, Alec Trevelyan. Seemingly killed in the opening sequence, it’s revealed that Trevelyan was always playing a long game, and is out to take vengeance on Britain for the death of his Russian cossack parents with the help of the titular satellite. It’s a canny move, the best example of the “Bond’s mirror image” trope (revived again somewhat in “Skyfall“), and Bean — who’s often underrated as an actor — gives a very modern take on the villain, free of camp or slyness. He leaves most of that to Famke Janssen as henchwoman Xenia Onatopp, a sexually aggressive seductress who is just as much a match for Bond in the bedroom as Bean is physically. Janssen, in her breakout role, doesn’t so much chew the scenery as entirely devour it, and she serves as a nice counterbalance to her boss. Shame about Alan Cumming‘s irritating comic relief computer hacker, though…