Friday, October 15, 2010

Bond Bios: Blofeld

Ernst Stavro Blofeld is the quintessential supervillain, and the primary (or, at least, the most commonly used) antagonist in the James Bond series of films and novels. He is the head of the criminal organization known as S.P.E.C.T.R.E. (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence,Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion). His underlings and associates usually refer to him as "Number 1," and he then refers to them as "Number 2," "Number 3," or whatever their numerical position is in the organization. As a job, there seems to be many opportunities for advancement within S.P.E.C.T.R.E., because either James Bond keeps killing the higher numbers or Bloefeld does. Bloefeld has appeared in six official James Bond films, three of the novels, and his creation is credited to Ian Fleming and Kevin McClory.

Wait? Who's Kevin McClory, you're asking? We'll take a moment to talk about him first, because it's a pretty good story. This is a very condensed version of the story from a blogger who is only kind of aware of what went down:

By the late 1950s, Ian Fleming was a fairly popular writer with a bunch of James Bond novels under his belt. He was approached to adapt the character to the screen, and he wrote a film treatment (and maybe even a full script. Sources are sketchy on that point) with Kevin McClory and maybe some other writers. When that project fell through, Ian Fleming turned that story into Thunderball and published it as a novel. McClory received no credit, so he sued Fleming, winning a bunch of money and the future film rights that would become effective ten years after the release of the EON produced version of Thunderball. That's why, years later, we got the film Never Say Never Again, featuring the character of James Bond, the plot of Thunderball, and nothing else remotely resembling the other films. That was McClory's version of Thunderball, and it wasn't very good.

So that's why most sources give McClory co-creator status of Blofeld, because legally he is entitled to it, and nobody will ever really know how much of his ideas went into the character. Then again, nobody could ever really gauge how much came from Fleming either, as well as from the films' various writers, their directors, and, of course, the various actors hired to portray the character on screen. Nobody doubts that James Bond was a total Fleming creation, adapted perfectly but faithfully from page to the screen, but Blofeld was definitely a little more of a stew, stirred by many different chefs over the years.

Blofeld appears for the first time onscreen in From Russia With Love (1963), but we only see his hand petting his signature white cat. The hand and body are provided by Anthony Dawson, while the voice is provided by Eric Pohlmann. Anthony Dawson must've been friends with some of the Bond producers or something, because he actually starred in Dr. No (1962) as the villain Professor Dent. I don't know who Eric Polmann is, but the imdb says that he appeared in the Third Man... with Bernard Lee and Robert Brown. Interesting little tidbit there.

Anyway, not a whole lot to say here since he's never really on screen or introduced properly, but it was a wonderful way to introduce the character, building him up as both a menace and a mystery until they finally revealed him fully four years later. When they show him from behind in these two films, he has black hair.

Donald Pleasence
You Only Live Twice (1967)

This is the film that really catapulted Bloefeld into the public eye, becoming almost as iconic as James Bond himself. We finally see his face, and it is the face of Donald Pleasence, but completely bald and with a huge scar down on side of his face, circling his right eye. He's also always wearing a really strange gray Mao suit, that I suppose is meant to have him appear menacing, but it just makes him look he's lounging around in his pajamas. Super villains have to be comfortable, I guess.

Oh, and he's awesome. Donald Pleasence, of course, is a world renowned actor who has done some absolutely brilliant work in some absolutely cheesy films, but this is probably him at his most fun and at his most scary. He is a bit over the top, but at the time (and I wasn't there, but I did see this film when I was a kid, long before Dr. Evil came around), he was a genuine threat to James Bond.

This film didn't just create the icon of Blofeld, but the template that all super villains had to follow. Blofled gave a big speech about his plans, assured that his victory would be complete. He had an awesome hidden base in a hollowed out volcano, which he set to auto-destruct just before he made his escape. But he really needed a new tailor, and come on, guy. Put the cat down already.

Telly Savalas
On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

Who Loves ya, baby?

It's weird watching Telly Savalas as Blofeld, not only because Donald Pleasence's performance was truly iconic, but because Savalas later became just as iconic as the lovable detective Kojak. But then, as you keep watching, you forget all about Kojak and you forget all about Pleasence, until you just see Blofeld... and he's scary as hell. OHMSS is one of my favorite Bond films, and Savalas as Blofeld is my all time favorite Bond villain. He's just so damn scary.

One of the things that makes Savalas's performance so great is that he plays Blofeld as a human being. He's still a super villain to be sure, with a ridiculous plot for world domination and an awesome secret lair, but he still gives the character an authenticity and realism that makes us think that maybe his plot might actually work. And, maybe... just maybe... we kind of want him to win a little bit too. After all, this is Telly Savalas we're talking about, who is one of the most charismatic and charming actors who's ever lived.

And then, at the end (no spoilers), he does to Bond what no other villain had done before or has done since. He doesn't kill him, but he all but leaves him in defeat all the same. Just go rent the movie. It's one of the good ones.

Visually, he's still bald, but now the scar is gone and there is a great deal of attention paid to the fact that he has no earlobes. I honestly can't remember if he has the cat in this one, but he has gotten rid of the Mao Suit in favor of a Nehru jacket type thing. He still looks comfortable, but also a little more presentable when company comes over.

Charles Gray
Diamonds are Forever (1971)

This guy sucks. Well, that's not fair. He was fine, he was just boring after the last two actors, and his performance was really stiff and unengaging. He's back in the gray suit, he has silver hair, and I can't remember if he had earlobes or not. He was said to have gone through plastic surgery to change his appearance, but he also had various henchmen altered to pose as look-alikes as well.

Blofeld only appears in the opening teaser, where he is tracked down and "killed," by Bond. It's a fun scene, but doesn't really add to the mystery or menace of the character. But after the ending of the previous film, I guess they needed closure and to have Bond finally get his revenge.

Interesting tidbit: Charles Gray played an intelligence officer in You Only Live Twice, making him one of the only actors to play multiple roles in different Bond films.

For Your Eyes Only (1981)

For this one, we're back to having a guy mostly seen in shadow with a voice provided by another actor. The body belonged to John Hollis, who later went on to fame and fortune as Lobot in Empire Strikes Back. The voice was done by Robert Rietti, who also dubbed in the voice for the actor who played Largo in Thunderball. Oh, and he was also in the Third Man. Small world.

Anyway, Blofeld only appeared in the opening teaser again, which has him getting tossed down a chimney by Bond. This was apparently the death of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, since we would never see him again in an official EON produced Bond film. Not a great ending for such a great character. They really should've had an entire film dedicate to Bond finally finding him again and killing him once and for all. But what we got was a gag about Bond throwing him down a chimney.

Unofficial Appearances:

Max Von Sydow

Never Say Never Again (1983)

We have to talk about this movie again, the film that was produced simply because some guy owned the rights to produce it. And it was kind of fun, with a really cool cast, including the always wonderful Max Von Sydow as Blofeld. He appears in more than just the opening teaser this film, but his role still feels like a cameo all the same. He is back to his role as the puppet maser, pulling the strings behind the scenes. But that is as it was in the novel Thunderball, I guess, so it makes sense that it happened here. After all, in the other film based on Thunderball, all we ever got was Blofeld's arm. At least in this movie we get to see his face.

And Von Sydow is fine... more than fine, even. He was great. He's always great. But still... he wan't really Blofeld-esque. It's hard to have Blofeld in an 80s movie, since everything we've seen about the character was so perfectly sixties. But, you know, he was ok.

Dr. Evil:

We have to talk about Dr. Evil, at least briefly. Mike Meyers's Austin Powers film was more a parody on Britsh spy movies in general, but Dr. Evil was a spot-on parody of Donald Pleasense as Blofeld. He has the same Mao suit, the scar across his eye, and is always petting his cat Mr Bigglesworth.

He also refers to his second command as #2, who has an eye-patch similar to Blofeld's #2 Emile Largo. Though his look and cliched villainous ways were based on Donald Pleasense's performance as Blofeld, Evil's voice and mannerisms were actually based on long-time SNL producer and creator Lorne Michaels. Oddly enough, Michaels was also the basis for the villain Mark McKinney played in Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy.

And that's about all I have to say on that.


Justin Garrett Blum said...

For Your Eyes Only is actually my favorite of the Roger Moore Bond films, but that bit at the beginning where he drops Blofeld down a chimney is disgraceful. Seriously...what the fuck?

I'm with you on Savalas--not only the best Blofeld, but possibly the best Bond villain period. Creepiest, anyway.

Kevin said...

I know this is an older post, but I believe Blofeld appeared throughout the whole film "Diamonds Are Forever," not just the pre-credits sequence.