Bad to the Bond: why a hero needs his super-villain
Whatever the era, dastardly types are a given.
JAMES Bond lies pinioned on a slab, legs forced apart, as a laser beam slowly grinds a groove up the metal surface towards the British Empire's most famously active phallus. Say what you like, being sawn in half by a light beam is a very modern way to go - at least, it was in 1964. Sean Connery's Bond is, as always, cool under fire. ''Do you expect me to talk?'' he demands. ''No, Mr Bond!'' laughs the cheerily monstrous Auric Goldfinger. ''I expect you to die!''
For Bond fans, this is the moment that makes Goldfinger the quintessential Bond villain: ruthless, insouciant and stark staring mad. He was supposed to be Latvian - James Bond, as everyone knows, was born a creature of the Cold War - but audiences knew that the actor Gert Frobe was actually German. As villains go, that made him a double scoop; nearly 20 years after the end of the Second World War, a hint of the Teutonic instantly flagged any fictional character as grade-A baddie.
Javier Bardem, as Raoul Silva, interrogates Daniel Craig's Bond in a scene from Skyfall.
Most importantly, like all good Bond villains, Goldfinger was a worthy opponent. In a 1960s study of the structure of Ian Fleming's novels, Italian literary critic Umberto Eco observed that every Bond story was based on a system of opposed elements - duty/sacrifice, love/death, Bond and his villain - that played out like a chess game. Bond's battle with the villain is, moreover, a contest between intellectual equals. ''Ours is the loneliest profession, Mr Bond,'' says Francisco Scaramanga, an assassin by trade, in The Man with the Golden Gun: he recognises his doppelganger when he sees him.
Ian Fleming's first Bond novel, Casino Royale, was published in 1953; the first film adaptation, Dr No, released in 1962. From the start, the stories had at least as much to do with exotic tourism, fast cars and the Playboy fantasy of endless sexual conquest as they did with espionage. But it was inevitable that the early villains would be in cahoots with the Soviets, if not Russian themselves. All take orders from SMERSH, the KGB's imaginary assassination squad - with one exception, Hugo Drax in Moonraker. Also inevitably, he was a former Nazi.
Bond has lasted, however, by adapting to circumstances while, paradoxically, appearing to remain the same. By the time Fleming wrote Thunderball in 1961, detente was in the air. ''I couldn't see any point in going on digging at the Russians, especially when the whole co-existence thing seemed to be bearing some fruit,'' he said at the time. ''So I closed down SMERSH and thought up SPECTRE instead.'' This new association of criminals, headed by cat-loving weirdo Ernst Stavros Blofeld, was into the same games - torture, murder, world-scale destruction - but had no political ties. Greed was the name of their fame. Meanwhile, M collaborates with his Soviet opposite number; in a corner of the popular imagination, Britain still has a mission to keep world order.
Richard Kiel as Jaws.
That order had disintegrated by the 1990s, when the Berlin Wall fell. Accordingly, the Pierce Brosnan Bond films suggested that mayhem could spring from anywhere: Cossack arms dealers in GoldenEye, a double-dealing female oil magnate in The World is Not Enough and, most intriguingly, media mogul Elliot Carver in Tomorrow Never Dies. As critics have observed, there is a sense of instability as the millennium approaches that put Bond's future as a single-handed hero into doubt.
But it's clear to anyone who has seen 007 emerge unscathed from a hail of bullets - and isn't that all of us? - that Bond is a miraculous survivor, both as secret agent and as a brand. Danger did descend unheralded, of course, in the September 11 attacks. As the smoke cleared, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek observed that, just as the falling towers were inescapably reminiscent of ''countless disaster films'', Osama bin Laden was ''the real-life counterpart of Ernst Stavro Blofeld''. That pinpointed the al-Qaeda leader exactly: the arch-criminal giving orders from his secret headquarters, bent on world destruction
What Zizek recognised was that Bond is so embedded in popular culture that we all know what the villains should be like. In the new film Skyfall, Javier Bardem's Raoul Silva has all the key elements: a vast hideaway, an army of vicious retainers, an obscure ethnicity, dubious sexual interests and a grotesque physical impairment. Bardem says he knew that he had to play something between reality and fiction: believably frightening, but much larger than life. ''That is the theatrical aspect you have to be aware of. People are expecting that from a Bond villain,'' he says. ''And this is the movie that celebrates 50 years, so he has to be there.''
These villains' various disfigurements, in keeping with Bond's essentially comic-strip storytelling, always denote wickedness; as much as Q's gadgets or Bond's martinis, they are part of the formula. Dr No, for example, has lost his hands and now has false black ones (a semiotic minefield in itself, given early Bond's imperialist agenda); Donald Pleasence's Blofeld in You Only Live Twice has a scar bisecting his face; Robert Carlyle's former KGB agent Renard in The World is Not Enough has a bullet lodged in his brain that stops him feeling anything; Mads Mikkelsen as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale weeps blood.
Silva, we are told, once had to swallow cyanide, which has corroded his organs and eaten out his face. We just get to see his teeth: not pretty. Bardem himself has fond memories of an earlier henchman with monstrous teeth: Jaws, played by the 217-centimetre Richard Kiel in The Spy Who Loved Me, who had a mouthful of metal that could bite through steel. Jaws was so popular he was brought back in Moonraker, which Bardem saw when he was 12. ''So I guess my destiny was written since the very beginning, because I didn't want to be James Bond. I wanted to be Jaws.''
Perhaps this is a case of the devil playing the best tunes. Oddjob, the sidekick to Goldfinger who can decapitate an assailant with his hat, has passed into the language. Xenia Onatopp, the beautiful assassin in GoldenEye, is a cornucopia of boys' fantasies: she kills men in flagrante by squeezing their chests between her thighs. It is also intriguing that any fanboy's top 10 villains always includes Rosa Klebb from From Russia with Love, despite being very plain in late middle age; those knives in her shoes clearly have their own allure.
And because the allure common to Bond's villains and their helpmeets is so extravagant, it never dwindles; as the Soviet menace passed into history, so has any necessity for James Bond to work within the real world. There have been no villains from al-Qaeda, for example; that would be unthinkably tasteless. Raoul Silva doesn't even want to run the world; a former agent gone bad, he is like a spurned child out for revenge.
''He came from the same place as Bond,'' Judi Dench's M tells her political bosses, ''the shadows.'' Which is not a bad place to look for monsters. There should be enough of them, lurking in the dark, to keep 007 busy for another 50 years.