Thursday, January 29, 2015

From Russia With Love (1963) | Villains

It's tough to tell where the main villains end and where the henchmen begin in From Russia With Love. In the novel, it's all a SMERSH caper with Rosa Klebb as the chief organizer, but changing it to a SPECTRE op for the film means that she has to take a back seat to Ernst Stavro Blofeld. He's clearly the main villain, but does that make Klebb a henchman or just a secondary boss?

I love the slow build on Blofeld as a character through the early movies. He's not mentioned in Dr. No, just his organization. Then we meet him in From Russia With Love, but we never see his face. He's just stroking that white cat and sounding deliciously evil as he terrifies his underlings and talks about Siamese fighting fish. (I tried and failed to learn the origins of the white cat as Blofeld's pet. No idea who came up with that, but it's a lovely touch to portray the ruthless crime lord as a man who dotes on a fluffy kitty.) The actor in the chair by the way is Anthony Dawson (Professor Dent from Dr. No), but his voice was dubbed by Austrian actor Eric Pohlmann, perhaps best known for small parts in a couple of the Pink Panther movies.

So is Klebb a henchman or villain? For listing purposes below, I'm going to call her a villain even though she's clearly not calling the shots. She's simply implementing someone else's plan, but she's the primary face of SPECTRE's leadership throughout the mission, so I can't make myself just stick her down with the henchmen.

One of the things I like doing with the bad guys is figuring out where they go wrong. Doctor No and his henchmen were just generally dumb and ineffective (though points go to Bond for actually having to use some wits and skill a couple of times). Klebb's fatal flaw is not properly vetting her people. Kronsteen says that his plan went wrong when Klebb chose Grant as Bond's assassin, and he has a point. She could have investigated Grant better and possibly uncovered his fatal flaw, even though on paper he was totally the right guy.

And Klebb goes wrong again when she takes on the job of assassinating Bond herself, and then just assumes that Tania's still loyal to the Soviets. In her interview with Klebb, Tania revealed herself to be thoughtful and sensitive, not reflexively patriotic. Like Grant, Tania's service record probably looked great on paper, but the signs were all there that she could turn into a wild card and Klebb ignored them.

I'm going to call Kronsteen a villain too. Even though he doesn't have as much to do as Klebb, it's his plan that sets the plot in motion. Contrary to Klebb's claims about him, Kronsteen's fatal weakness isn't his plan. It totally should have worked, but Grant screwed it up. He's right to throw that back on those who selected Grant for the job.

Where Kronsteen goes wrong is his arrogance. When asked to defend his plan, he could with ease, but doesn't think it's necessary. Instead, he simply remarks, "Who is Bond compared with Kronsteen?" That's a bunk answer and it lets Klebb off the hook. The competition wasn't between Bond and Kronsteen, it was between Bond and Grant. Kronsteen stupidly lets Klebb change the parameters of the argument and pays for it with his life.

Grant is a henchman through and through and it's going to be tough - if not impossible - to knock him out of the Top 10. He's a strong, resilient, sly monster who wisely skulks his way through the plot until it's time to strike. He almost pulls the whole thing off.

But he's a thug. He's a great assassin, but a lousy spy and it's simple greed that lets Bond get the jump on him. Not to take anything away from Bond in that wonderfully brutal train fight. Grant makes Bond work hard for the victory and it could convincingly have gone either way. But if Grant hadn't wanted those gold coins, there wouldn't have even been a fight for him to lose. That's where SPECTRE's whole scheme falls apart.

Another clear henchman is Morzeny, the head of the SPECTRE Island training facility. He feels too high-ranking for henchman status, but as the movie plays out he really is just a hit man. He's the one who kills Kronsteen with a poisoned shoe-knife and he ends up dying when he leads a flotilla of motorboats after Bond. For years, I didn't realize that it was Morzeny on the megaphone in the lead speedboat and tried to work out my head-canon so that Morzeny eventually changed his name, removed his scar, and became the head of the KGB. But no, he's dead.

If Morzeny contributed to the failure of SPECTRE's plan, it's in recommending Grant to Klebb, but I agree with Kronsteen that she should have looked into Grant more than just seeing if he could take a punch in the abs. That was ultimately her responsibility.

But as an instrument of Blofeld's discipline, Morzeny does remind me to circle back and talk about Blofeld's fatal flaw in From Russia With Love. He kills the wrong dude. Even though Kronsteen was dumb to give up the argument because he thought it was beneath him, Blofeld should have seen what was going on. Blofeld himself must have signed off on the plan and realized its value, so he must also have realized that Grant was where it went wrong. Regardless of why Grant failed, selecting him was Klebb's job and if Blofeld just really needed to kill off a major leader in his organization, Klebb would have been the right choice. Instead, Blofeld discards a major - if annoying - asset.

Again, not to take anything away from Bond. SPECTRE's plan is a good one and except for one moment of weakness, Grant is excellent at pulling it off. It takes everything Bond has to get out alive and with the Lektor, which is one of the biggest reasons From Russia With Love is such a great film.

Top Ten Villains

1. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (From Russia With Love)
2. Doctor No (Dr. No)
3. Rosa Klebb (From Russia With Love)
4. Kronsteen (From Russia With Love)
5. TBD
6. TBD
7. TBD
8. TBD
9. TBD
10. TBD

Top Ten Henchmen

1. Grant (From Russia With Love)
2. Miss Taro (Dr. No)
3. Professor Dent (Dr. No)
4. Morzeny (From Russia With Love)
5. TBD
6. TBD
7. TBD
8. TBD
9. TBD
10. TBD

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