Let’s be honest. There’s only one answer to the question, “Who was the best James Bond?” It’s Sean Connery. By every measure. Daniel Craig, who has played 007 in the three most recent Bond films, is a distant though quite respectable second, and can lay claim to the most emotionally complex portrayal of the British secret agent. But you can just toss out the rest. The late Princess Margaret, as portrayed by the comedian Tracey Ullman, once shrewdly concluded that Timothy Dalton is forgettable, Roger Moore looks like someone who should be selling socks at Harrod’s, and Pierce Brosnan ought to go back to doing “Remington Shaver ads.” (The actor did star in the 1980s series Remington Steele, and did not, to my knowledge, ever hawk men’s grooming products, but the point still stands.)
None of this is to diminish the acting chops of these men. (Except for Moore.) And in all fairness, George Lazenby only did one film, so who knows where he might have taken the character if given the chance? But I’m guessing we wouldn’t have seen a better Bond, nor a more interesting one. The trouble is, Bond is an endlessly satisfying but terribly static character. With the exception of the most recent three films—particularly the latest, Skyfall, which tells the Bond origin story, and 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, when Bond’s wife is violently murdered—we have learned precious little of his inner life or his past, and we have rarely seen his vulnerable side.
Bond is a foil, meant to illuminate the truly memorable characters of the films: the villains. And there can be no claim to best Bond villain, because there are too many good ones. Goldfinger. Dr. No. Blofeld, who recurs in more films than any other bad guy. Bambi and Thumper. Mayday. Emilio Largo. Max Zorin. Each one delightfully depraved and uniquely ruthless.
The villains, more than Bond, tell us about the times we’re living in. They reflect our fears and anxieties, often before we’ve fully understood them ourselves. A new exhibition opening Friday at the International Spy Museum, “Exquisitely Evil: 50 Years of Bond Villains,” is a tribute to the great torturers, terrorists, and criminal titans of the Bond epic. And walking through its halls, one is reminded how well the Bond antagonists have reflected, and even predicted, the great tensions of our time: the Cold War. The rise of drug lords and corrupt oligarchs. The power of terrorism. The suitcase-size nuclear bomb and the renegade, nationless evildoer determined to use it were recurring tropes in Bondworld years before the 9/11 attacks.
At the new exhibition, you will find no heroes, only the glorification of the merciless and the menacing. Jaws’s silver chompers. Le Chiffre’s torture rope. Even the animals are evil: a killer tarantula, the suffocating cephalopod from Octopussy, and, naturally, sharks—a whole room of them.
“Bond doesn’t really have any meaning without villains,” says Mark Stout, the historian and curator for the Spy Museum. “And the villains change with the world around us.”
Maybe it’s because our own real-life spies are currently playing in a cheap, lowbrow drama that I found myself craving the higher meaning in the Bond oeuvre. David Petraeus’s sordid affair reads like a treatment for some new espionage-themed reality show, Homeland meets The Real Housewives. James Bond does not send dirty e-mails. Paula Broadwell is no Pussy Galore.
Mostly, though, the exhibit was a reminder that our need to perceive evil is persistent. And that’s a good thing. Spy fiction has always been an outlet for discussing the nature of threats and fears we’re not sure how to confront in reality. It’s a barometer of our collective anxiety. Into every new villain we pour our latest dread. Take Silva, Bond’s nemesis in Skyfall—he’s a brilliant and shadowy computer hacker whose reign of terror requires only a laptop. Hmm. Wonder where they got that idea.