The Importance of Being Ernst: Stop Getting Blofeld Wrong! A James Bond Villain’s History
Despite his iconic status as James Bond’s most celebrated foe, Ernst Blofeld has a chequered history in the 007 franchise. It seems as though no one really quite knew what to do with him. The fluctuating, inconstant persona gifted to him by so many various actors was not helped by a legal skirmish in the wings that flared up seemingly
Despite his iconic status as James Bond’s most celebrated foe, Ernst Blofeld has a chequered history in the 007 franchise. It seems as though no one really quite knew what to do with him. The fluctuating, inconstant persona gifted to him by so many various actors was not helped by a legal skirmish in the wings that flared up seemingly every six months. It all concluded with one of the silliest moments in Bond history that robbed this infamous villain of whatever shred of dignity he had left. Why was it so hard to get Blofeld right?
Before We Start, Have You Seen Spectre Yet…?
All done? Right, it is Blofeld after all. Following months of fervent denials from Christoph Waltz that his Bond villain, Franz Oberhauser was really the notorious S.P.E.C.T.R.E. CEO, returning once more to the franchise, it turns out that he was lying. ‘No, no, no,’ claimed everyone at EON productions… but actually yes he was. James Bond’s unofficial step-brother, as the story now goes, faked his death in an avalanche, changed his name (borrowed from his mother’s side), bought a Persian cat and now prefers to be known as Ernst Stavro Blofeld. In Star Trek parlance, we were all ‘John Harrisonned’.
After so much speculation and double-bluffing, the big reveal turned out to be something of a let down, didn’t you think? Bond’s ultimate nemesis, ‘the author aff all char pain,’ a man who has been scrutinising 007 for nine years, manoeuvring him around a chessboard of his own design, doesn’t even bother to take James Bond’s watch off before he tortures him? That, one would presume, would be item one on any semi-informed Bond villain’s to-do list.
Then again, Blofeld’s mind seemed to be elsewhere. For reasons unknown, Waltz plays this scene – perhaps the most important information-dumping scene in Daniel Craig’s tenure – with manifest disinterest. For most of the scene, he is tapping away at his laptop, as though the torture and lobotomy of his greatest foe is of lesser importance to him than finishing the game of Candy Crush he started ten minutes ago.
Some ingenuity is required at this point, but the writers seem too keen to get to the third act. Not only does Blofeld’s brain-drilling machine not work (no reason given), but Bond’s exploding watch has the panacea effect of not just freeing him from his entrapment but blowing up Blofeld’s entire facility in the process.
Casting Waltz was a masterstroke, but the execution was, as M later puts it, ‘careless’. Despite the presence of one of the world’s finest actors in the role; a peerless interpreter of sadistic villainy, the sheer magnitude of Blofeld – the Joker to Bond’s Batman – never came across. The marvellous boardroom scene in Rome, peppered with long, uncomfortable silences and outbursts of sudden violence, with Blofeld hidden in the shadows, whispering to his confidants, was as effective a character introduction as anything in Bond movie history. Subsequently, he becomes just another baddie making silly mistakes that enable James Bond to get the better of him. The half-mast pyjama trousers didn’t help.
This Organization Does Not Tolerate Failure…
Despite his legendary status in Bond lore, the producers have struggled in their depictions of Ernst Stavro Blofeld from the very beginning. Initially hidden from the audience, represented (in From Russia With Love and Thunderball) only by his voice and his habitual cat-stroking, the first person cast to play the megalomaniac onscreen in You Only Live Twice was Jan Werich, who proved a little too cuddly and was replaced by Donald Pleasence wearing a facial scar, a Nehru jacket and a silly voice.
The finest of all Blofelds was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s Telly Savalas, whose hairless (and earlobe-less) villain was erudite, sophisticated and chilling, but could also match Bond physically, unlike weedy Donald Pleasence who looked like he could have been bested in a fight by his own cat.
The perceived failure of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the only way to explain Charles Gray’s counter-performance in Diamonds Are Forever. Here, Blofeld is presented as a slightly camp and over the hill stand-up comedian – ‘We’re showing a bit more cheek than usual aren’t we? Such nice cheeks too. If only they were brains!’. His civilised banter with 007 – ‘If I were to break the news to anyone it would be to you first, Mr Bond, you know that.’ – suggests that both men have forgotten that fairly recently he murdered Bond’s wife while she was still wearing her wedding dress. Gray’s Blofeld doesn’t look like he could murder anybody and it stretches credulity to imagine him placing the whole world in jeopardy.
He is humiliatingly denied the honour of a great screen death, ending up being swung about on a crane by James Bond, in a silly-looking submersible. Clumsy editing meant that you couldn’t even tell if Blofeld had been killed or not. Far more care and writerly attention was spent making sure that henchmen Mr Wint and Mr Kydd were seen off in style: dispatched via a bottle of fatally flammable cognac and a delicious yet explosive bombe surprise.
That was the last we heard of Mr (or possibly Count) E.S. Blofeld. Rather than a team of Mafia-backed gunmen on skis, or an army of abseiling ninjas or even Bond himself, it was Kevin McClory’s lawyer who proved to be Blofeld’s most dastardly adversary. McClory had proved to be a thorn in Ian Fleming’s side since the pair collaborated on the first Bond screenplay (in 1958), which was suspiciously similar to Fleming’s later 1961 Thunderball novel. Whole (fascinating) books have been written about McClory’s life-long legal battles with Fleming and the Bond team at EON Productions. In short, McClory was awarded the rights to various elements and characters of Thunderball (and a producer’s credit on the film).
Unfortunately, McClory in one of his umpteen missives to the courts, alleged that among those ‘Elements’ and ‘Characters’ were the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. organisation and Blofeld himself. McClory’s claims were pretty much baseless (Fleming had retained the literary rights to Thunderball in its entirety) but nonetheless, like a wasp inside a diver’s helmet, McClory made it his mission to jab his stingers repeatedly into EON’s eyeball. So rather than deal with this madman any longer, Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli and his successors put Blofeld and his little band of mischief-makers out to pasture. (The whole mess was cleared up in 2013 when McClory’s estate settled for good with MGM, seven years after McClory’s death, paving the way for Spectre’s acronym-less return.)
Have You No Respect For The Dead?
This courtroom dodging ploy lies at the heart of Blofeld’s least auspicious moment of all – his unofficial participation in the pre-titles scene from For Your Eyes Only; a scene that becomes more infuriatingly ghastly with every repeat viewing.
It starts so well. After the toyshop silliness of Moonraker Cubby Broccoli and writer Michael G. Wilson knew that they had to return Bond to earth in every respect. Thus, the first glimpse of our hero (Roger Moore) comes during a private moment of reflection in a cemetery, where he lays flowers at his wife’s grave. It might just be one of the most effective opening sixty seconds of any Bond film and gently ties the past 19 years together. Moore is the same age as Sean Connery, and at this stage it is plausible to suggest that at 53 years old, the man before us has been at the centre of all the action since M and Major Boothroyd made him strap on his first Walther PPK.
Tracy Bond’s tombstone intensifies this rouse. It wasn’t Moore, but George Lazenby who cradled her lifeless body in that bullet-ridden car, but the solemn look on Moore’s face superimposes the former Saint into On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and beyond (much like the scene in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service when Lazenby empties his desk of five movies’ worth of props). ‘Some sort of emergency’ suggests the local vicar, as he announces that the office is sending over a helicopter. ‘It usually is’, responds Bond with weary understatement. So speaks the haunted voice of experience. So far, so wonderful, barring some jarring guitar licks from composer, Bill Conti. Then Blofeld shows up.
Let us cut through the legalese and director John Glen’s assertion that he was letting audiences ‘use their imaginations and draw their own conclusions’ (referenced in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). This was Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the architect of Bond’s wife’s murder, returned to finish off the job. The jacket, the cat, the neck-brace (a result of his run-in with an overhanging branch in 1969, thus wiping Charles Gray’s performance out of the Bond narrative), all present and correct. The unidentified actor (John Hollis, aka Lobot from The Empire Strikes Back) is dubbed by Robert Rietty in a pleasing nod to the past (Rietty had dubbed Adolfo Celi’s entire performance as Largo in Thunderball, among hundreds of other vocal performances).
The prospect of a much-delayed battle to the death between two deadly adversaries, with a widowed warrior finally given the chance to avenge his dead lover after a decade-long period of mourning is almost too exciting to bear. This could have, and should have been a clash of mythic proportions. So why five minutes later is a chirpy James Bond patting Blofeld’s head and quipping, ‘Keep your hair on’?. What the hell is Blofeld, the head of the most lethal criminal organisation in the world doing offering James Bond a stainless steel delicatessen in return for sparing his life? Bond’s transformation into an agent of vengeance (in a film which is principally about revenge), starts with the most personal act of retribution imaginable reduced to a Road Runner cartoon. It was all John Glen could do not to add a comic slide-whistle effect to Blofeld’s final plummet down a chimney stack.
Glen’s unstoppable instinct to go for the gag – most acutely evident in the Tarzan skit from Octopussy or the Beach Boys-scored ski-surfing in A View To A Kill – has to share some amount of blame but more than anything, this was a message from Cubby Broccoli to Kevin McClory: ‘There goes your leverage’. Alas, the stench of McClory had seeped itself into the very fabric of the Blofeld character and the mere mention of his name reminded the Broccolis of their litigious nemesis and all the pain he had caused. You can hardly blame them for wanting to dispose of him like a bag of used nappies.
You Only Live Thrice?
Enter Christoph Waltz, or rather exit Christoph Waltz – you have seen it, right? – bundled into a police van en route to a British prison whilst applying Sudocrem to his new Pleasence-referencing facial scar. Will he now be forgotten about like Charles Gray was, left hanging next to an exploding oil rig?
When James Bond returns (as he will), let us hope that for once, the writers will pay back Ernst Blofeld, that most beleaguered of villains by returning to him the aura of sheer terror that made it possible for him to control whole armies without so much as raising his voice. An indoor lagoon full of piranha fish would be a good place to start, or at the very least some full-length trousers.
A bit harsh? Have I trampled over your favourite baddie? Do you think Gray’s Blofeld was the apex of Bond villainy? Let me know what you think in the comments.
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