Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya)

Miss Taro, Rosa Klebb, Fiona Volpe, Helga Brandt, Irma Bunt, Bambi and Thumper, Rosie Carver, Xenia Onatopp, Elektra King, Miranda Frost… The EON James Bond franchise has certainly had its fair share of strong and dastardly female characters.

And with Pussy Galore, Octopussy and May Day, screenwriters on the 007 films have also had a lot of fun with teasing audiences over whether certain female roles were friend or foe.

Although there has been no reliable information yet on what is in the script being worked on by Danny Boyle and John Hodge for Bond entry no. 25, interesting rumours persist that the main villain in the next movie (Daniel Craig’s fifth adventure as James Bond) will actually be a villainess.

If true, Boyle and Hodge would be building upon an exciting past pattern in the iconic series.

The JBIFC takes the opportunity to look back briefly on Rosa Klebb who, in many ways, was the first major female baddie to appear in the EON franchise (Miss Taro, played by Zena Marshall in Dr. No, was more a supporting role than a central figure). In fact, by the end of From Russia With Love (1963), the key character of Rosa Klebb had helped establish the iconic 007 film formula for those baddies we love to hate, and could well offer something of a role model for any future female villainess.

Looking back on Klebb

After the huge success of Dr. No (1962), the Bond producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were keen to maintain the momentum they had established and chose Ian Fleming’s 5th best-selling novel From Russia With Love (1957) as the second big-screen James Bond adventure with Sean Connery. The fact that U.S. President John F. Kennedy had named the Fleming novel as one of his favourites may also have played a role in this astute choice.

Principal cinematography on FRWL commenced at Pinewood Studios in England on April 1st, 1963. Some excellent casting decisions had been made by director Terence Young and his team. In particular, the critically acclaimed Austrian stage actress and former dancer Lotte Lenya (whose real name was Karoline Blaumauer) had been chosen for the important role of the truly creepy Rosa Klebb, the ex-head of intelligence operations for SMERSH, who had now secretly defected to SPECTRE. The ruthless SMERSH organisation was the Soviet state’s secret espionage and assassination branch, and Klebb (as envisaged by Bond author Ian Fleming) was a ruthless task-master, who would tolerate no dissent and was quite happy to personally indulge in murder (via her poisoned-tipped shoe).

As described by Fleming, Klebb was a squat and toad-like woman with bright orange hair and lesbian tendencies, who enjoyed being present at the torture of suspects. She used her formidable authority to frighten the young clerk Tatiana Romanova into complete obedience and also to make a crude sexual pass at her. This scene was also included in the EON film, something that was quite daring back in 1963 (the film-makers had already experienced problems with British film censors over certain scenes in Dr. No).

A Diamond is Forever

Lenya did face some obstacles herself. There was some initial scepticism over Young’s choice from the Bond producers, who wanted a ‘heavier’ woman in the role to tie in more closely with Fleming’s description. When it was suggested by the costume department that they could pad Lotte Lenya’s clothes, the Austrian actress responded firmly: ‘Let’s just forget the costume. I will make myself look fatter and more ponderous’. And sure enough, after viewing rushes of Lenya’s skilled performance, Broccoli and Saltzman were soon won over, and quickly realised what an excellent actress she was. With her orange-brown hair, thick bottle-style spectacles and stark military demeanour, Lenya’s ability to convey menace and evil was superb.

One highly memorable early scene in FRWL, shot in the Pinewood mansion gardens, saw Lotte Lenya’s Klebb arrive at SPECTRE Island’s training camp by helicopter to inspect the physical fitness of top assassin Donald ‘Red’ Grant (played by the equally well-cast Robert Shaw). Klebb employs a knuckle-duster to suddenly hit Grant directly in the abdomen, in a moment that apparently made many in the premiere audience flinch, and the scene still has that same effect when viewed even today!

When she had been cast as Klebb, the magazine Esquire had commented that it was the ‘miscasting of the year’, but Lotte Lenya easily and confidently defied such grossly unfair criticism, and arguably made the character one of the most realistic baddies in the early 007 films. Lotte Lenya (1898-1981) lived for much of her later life in New York, where she passed away after a brave battle with cancer, and she has often been rated in polls as one of the top baddies in the 007 series. Speaking in a rare interview given in the early 1970s, Lenya commented with amusement that, ever since she had appeared as Klebb, the first thing people did on meeting her was to glance at her shoes!

If a female baddie is indeed going to be a major role in Bond 25, the lucky person cast in the role could perhaps learn some great tips from Lotte Lenya’s contribution to on-screen villainy.

Did You Know? 

From Russia With Love premiered in London on October 10th, 1963, to great excitement from critics. Lotte ‘Rosa Klebb’ Lenya joined many key members of the cast and crew at the after-premiere party, where guests also included James Bond author Ian Fleming, who had seen the movie and was apparently very pleased with Lotte Lenya’s interpretation of Klebb.

A rare photo of Lotte Lenya between takes on FRWL (1963)