‘Spectre,’ Bond, and Blofeld: A Brief History of 007’s Greatest Adversary
The titles of James Bond movies often mean very little. If they’re not vague and pulpy (like ‘For Your Eyes Only’), they’re incredibly obvious, often just namedropping the lead villain (‘Goldfinger’ or ‘Dr. No,’ anyone?). The weird beauty of the freshly revealed title of the next film, ‘Spectre,’ is that it bucks these trends while embracing them. To the Bond layman, it’s just another odd word, a mystery waiting to be solved like ‘Skyfall’ before it. But to the more seasoned 007 expert, it promises something that many fans have been waiting decades to see: the return of supervillain Ernst Stavro Blofeld and his criminal organization SPECTRE.
Originally created by author Ian Fleming for the novel ‘Thunderball,’ the group and its deadly mastermind quickly became an ongoing concern for the literary Bond, appearing in a handful of books. Never one for continuity, Fleming would change the nature of the group and Blofeld’s appearance at the drop of a hat, a tradition that the films would inexplicably follow as well. Still, there’s one undeniable truth about Blofeld and SPECTRE: They are, without question, the most famous adversaries in Bond’s 50-year cinematic legacy. Their return to the big screen in Daniel Craig’s fourth outing is a huge deal in a number of ways.
SPECTRE is an awesomely over-the-top acronym for SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion, which may very well be the most literal name for a villainous organization in the history of fiction. They’re mentioned in the very first Bond film, ‘Dr. No,’ when the title villain name-drops them to a captive Bond, saying that they’re behind his scheme to sabotage an American rocket launch. Naturally, Bond prevails in the end, but SPECTRE is just getting started.
(SPOILERS for the oldest films in James Bond series follow.)
The organization casts a large shadow over the Sean Connery years, acting as the main villain in all but one of his missions (‘Goldfinger’ is the odd man out). In ‘From Russia With Love,’ we meet the group’s inner circle and get a glimpse of their operations, which includes a hedge maze where Robert Shaw’s brutal henchman Red Grant trains by murdering people in James Bond masks (seriously). Blofeld himself remains unseen, a disembodied voice behind a desk who doesn’t even have a name. Referred to only as “Number One,” he leaves the bulk of the villainous activity in the film to Rosa Klebb (“Number Three”) a high-ranking member of the Russian Secret Service, and Tov Kronsteen (“Number Five”), a renowned chess champion. This introduces an element that would later be borrowed for the secret organization at the center of ‘Quantum of Solace’: this isn’t just any criminal organization, it’s a criminal organization run by people in positions of power all over the world.
‘From Russia With Love’ also features a scene that explains the machinations of SPECTRE better than any pompous, long-winded Bad Guy Speech. Blofeld keeps three Siamese fighting fish in a tank in his office to visualize this to his minions; while two fish fight to the death and wear themselves out, the third hangs back, waiting to strike. When the other two are exhausted, he will step in and finish them both off. There’s a reason that the bulk of SPECTRE’s plots involve pitting the United States and England against the Soviet Union. Why take on your enemies when you can stand in the shadows and force them to kill each other?
Blofeld and his team of evil geniuses (and their army of henchmen) would return in ‘Thunderball,’ but once again, Mr. Number One was simply a voice and a pair of hands stroking a fluffy white cat, operating from the safety of a hidden base. The actual plot of the film finds Bond taking on Emilio Largo (a.k.a. “Number Two”) as he steals a batch of nuclear weapons. Still, the growing threat of SPECTRE and the tropes that would define the group (and the villains of countless other spy movies) keep coming into focus. Blofeld treats his organization like a corporation, conducting business in a boardroom and refusing to tolerate screwups or insubordination. Blofeld himself is second only to James Bond when it comes to killing members of SPECTRE, and he has a flair for the dramatic. Why just shoot one of your employees when you can drop him into a piranha tank?
SPECTRE reaches its absurd apex with ‘You Only Live Twice,’ where Bond finally meets Blofeld face-to-face. After spending the bulk of the film hidden, Bond eventually tracks his old nemesis to his secret volcano lair (this is one of the sillier movies in the series) and discovers a menacing middle-aged man with a bald head and a scar over his right eye. Played by the great Donald Pleasence (who would double up on his movie immortality by playing Dr. Loomis in ‘Halloween’ a decade later), this take on Blofeld is iconic, inspiring countless movie villains and an equally famous parody in the form of Dr. Evil from the ‘Austin Powers’ movies.
With its ninjas, volcano bases, piranha pits, and bizarre use of plastic surgery to temporarily turn Sean Connery into a Japanese man, ‘You Only Live Twice’ is pretty much a live-action cartoon. However, Pleasence strikes the perfect balance between hammy and truly frightening. When he escapes to fight another day, it’s not hard to anticipate his return.
So it’s a bit of a bummer that Pleasence does not return for ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ ... although Blofeld does. Now played by Telly Savalas, this new Blofeld is more of a physical threat to Bond, a bald-headed, bulky evil genius who wears the hell out of a turtleneck. It’s a more realistic take on the character that gels better with the film’s more low-key, “back to the basics” approach. Although George Lazenby (filling in for Connery) is the Bond that time forgot, his lone entry as 007 may be the best film in the entire series and his conflict with Blofeld the most intriguing.
In fact, for the first time ever, Blofeld’s plot is genuinely frightening and not an overblown plan to burn the world down in the flames of a nuclear war. His scheme involves brainwashing women (who think they‘re undergoing experimental allergy treatment) into releasing deadly biological agents around the world at his command. There’s some inherent silliness, but if you want a taste of a modern, Daniel Craig-ified take on Blofeld and SPECTRE, look no further than this.
Most importantly, this is the film that ends with Bond retiring, getting married, and driving off into the sunset ... only for Blofeld to drive by, murder Bond’s new wife with a machine gun and get away scot-free. It’s a pitch-dark ending that feels like it was torn straight out of the Craig era. It’s what solidifies Blofeld as the great Bond villain and not just the cartoon character he fought in his early films.
Blofeld made his final official appearance in ‘Diamonds Are Forever,’ which is the worst film in a series with its fair share of truly awful movies. Not even the return of a now-bloated and balding Sean Connery can elevate the film above loud, ugly, hateful nonsense. The film even botches Blofeld, recasting him with Charles Gray, who looks nothing like Pleasence or Savalas (he’s not even bald) and does nothing fun with the character. Although the film opens with Bond seemingly on a mission to avenge his murdered wife, the film drops that plot point as quickly as possible and devolves into standard schlock. When the film ends, the fate of Blofeld and SPECTRE are still up in the air, but they never return.
Well, not technically. ‘For Your Eyes Only’ does open with Roger Moore’s Bond visiting the grave of his wife before being ambushed by a bald villain in a wheelchair. The fact that this mysterious baddie has a cat on his lap and is wearing a neck brace similar to one worn by Savalas’ Blofeld at the end of ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ suggests that this is supposed to be the grand return of Bond’s arch-nemesis. But it’s a short-lived resurrection, as Bond quickly disposes of him by picking him up with a helicopter and dropping him down a smokestack. It’s an undignified end for such an iconic villain.
So why did Blofeld drop off the face of the earth and why did it take so long for the Bond producers to resurrect him? The short answer is that the filmmakers no longer owned him. Here’s the briefer-than-brief version: Writers Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham wrote a screenplay for a potential James Bond movie (several years before the production of ‘Dr. No’) with the blessing of Ian Fleming. That film never happened. Then elements from that screenplay were lifted and put straight into Fleming’s novel of ‘Thunderball.’ The ensuing legal dispute meant that the rights to ‘Thunderball,’ and all of the unique characters therein, were not owned by the Bond series producers. This ultimately led to the unofficial ‘Thunderball’ remake ‘Never Say Never Again’ in 1983, which saw a very tired-looking Sean Connery return to the character and the great Max von Sydow take on Blofeld (but do very little with him, honestly).
This legal entanglement, which began in 1964, was only fully resolved in the past few years. For the first time in decades, the “official” James Bond series could use Ernst Stavro Blofeld and SPECTRE once again.
And that brings us to 2014 and the announcement that the new James Bond movie will be called ‘Spectre,’ a title loaded with so much history that you have to forgive any Bond fan for getting literally giddy at the thought of it. Here‘s the vague official synopsis for the film:
A cryptic message from Bond’s past sends him on a trail to uncover a sinister organisation. While M battles political forces to keep the secret service alive, Bond peels back the layers of deceit to reveal the terrible truth behind SPECTRE.
As expected, the film will see the return of Ralph Fiennes as M, Naomie Harris as Moneypenny, and Ben Whishaw as Q. However, it’s the new names that deserve close examination. We don’t know if Monica Bellucci’s Lucia Sciarra and Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann will be love interests or femme fatales (or both). We do know that Dave Bautista’s Mr. Hinx is an old school Bond henchman, a type that has been conspicuously missing from the Craig films.
And that brings us to Andrew Scott, playing “Denbigh,” and Christoph Waltz, playing “Oberhauser.”
Why the quotation marks? Because one of those two is probably, secretly, playing the new incarnation of Blofeld. After all, this movie is called ‘Spectre.’ Do you really think they’re not going to have a new Blofeld?
Although early rumors suggested that Waltz, who previously played the best villain of the ’00s in ‘Inglourious Basterds,’ would be taking the part, we wouldn’t be surprised if that was misdirection. Scott is best known for his memorably bonkers turn as Moriarty on the BBC series ‘Sherlock’ and he has everything it takes to be a great Bond villain. Waltz, with his ability to play charming, evil, and ruthless villains without breaking a sweat, seems like the obvious choice for the part, but don’t count out Scott, whose combination of mania and ferocity on ‘Sherlock’ feels like it was torn out of an old-school Bond movie. In short: Both would be inspired choices for the part.
But what will a modern SPECTRE look like? In some ways, the original vision of a terrorist organization run like a massive corporation rings just as true today as it did 50 years ago. However, it’s easy to imagine all kinds of modern updates. Would SPECTRE circa 2014 even need to hide in the shadows? Or would it be operating in plain sight, maybe alongside the governments it wants to bring down? It has already been suggested by some fans that SPECTRE could easily be a corrupt mercenary company like Blackwater. The opportunities are endless.
In any case, the Bond series has officially come full circle. Although the Daniel Craig films have revitalized the character and the series, ‘Spectre’ is reaching back to the roots of the films and the novels. What was old is new again. There has never been a more exciting time to be a fan of 007. The prodigal bad guy has returned.