Friday, April 17, 2015

You Only Live Many Times: James Bond's Archenemy--Ernst Stavro Blofeld

Anthony Dawson, Donald Pleasence,
Telly Savalas, and Charles Gray as Blofeld
It sometimes seems as if every great hero has an archenemy. Sherlock Holmes has Professor Moriarty. Flash Gordon has Ming the Merciless. Batman has The Joker. And James Bond has Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Both in Ian Fleming's original novels and the feature films that followed them, Blofeld was the only major villain James Bond fought more than once. He was also the head of the criminal organisation SPECTRE (the SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion), whom Bond fought on more than one occasion. What is more, while Bond's battles with other opponents are often little more than business as usual, Bond's struggles against Blofeld are uniquely personal. Indeed, Blofeld has hurt Bond in a way that few of 007's other opponents ever have.

The creation of Blofeld is generally credited to Ian Fleming, although in all fairness Ernest Cuneo,  Kevin McClory, and Jack Whittingham should probably be credited having a hand in his creation as well. Blofeld, as well as SPECTRE, first appeared in an unfilmed screenplay upon which all four men worked and which would provide the basis for Ian Fleming's James Bond novel Thunderball. The publication of Thunderball would ultimately result in a legal action on the part of Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham against Ian Fleming over the rights to Thunderball. In the end a settlement was reached whereby all further editions of Thunderball would have to be credited as  "based on a screen treatment by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham and the Author".  In the end, the rights to Blofeld and SPECTRE would be owned in part by Jack Whittingham and Kevin McClory. It was on November 15 2013 that MGM and Danjaq, LLC (the holding company responsible for the copyrights and trademarks of the James Bond franchise) announced that they had acquired the rights and interests to Blofeld and SPECTRE from the Kevin McClory's estate.

Regardless of who created him or who owned the rights to him, Blofeld made his first appearance in the novel Thunderball, published in 1961. The novel provides some background for Blofeld that never made it into the various James Bond movies. According to Thunderball Blofeld was born a father of Polish descent and a mother of Greek descent in Gdingen, Imperial Germany (now Gdynia, Poland) on May 28 1908 (which also happened to be Ian Flemng's birthday). He attended the University of Warsaw where he received degrees in Political History and Economics. He later attended the Warsaw University of Technology, where he earned degrees in Engineering and Radionics.

Anticipating Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland, Blofeld fled to Sweden in 1939 and from there went on to Turkey. He set up his own intelligence network there and sold information to both the Allies and the Axis until Rommel's defeat, after which he dealt only with the Allies. Eventually Blofeld used his various resources and connection to found SPECTRE. Blofeld drew SPECTRE'S membership from such organisations as the Gestapo, Yugoslav dictator Josip Tito's secret police, the Mafia, SMERSH, and the Unione Corse. SPECTRE was essentially both a commercial enterprise and a terrorist organisation, albeit one who prefers to pit one side against the other.  The impetus for creating SPECTRE as the antagonists for the unproduced screenplay that would provide the basis for the novel Thunderball was simple. If the Cold War ended in the two years it would take to produce the film, it would look dated if it used the Soviets as villains. In the end, then, it was preferable for the screenplay to use a politically neutral enemy.

Although Blofeld first appeared in the novel Thunderball, he would not take an active role in the novel. While it was Blofeld who developed the plot in which SPECTRE captured two atomic bombs to use as tools in nuclear extortion, the actual plot was carried out by Emilio Largo (the "Number 2" of SPECTRE to Blofeld's "Number 1"). That is not to say that Blofeld did not make an impression in the novel. As pointed out above, the novel provided background for both Blofeld and SPECTRE. It also included the first physical description of Blofeld, although, much like the movies that would follow, his appearance was subject to change. In Thunderball Blofeld is described as having black hair cut in a crew cut; dark eyes with heavy lashes; a thin, cruel, mouth; and long hands and feet. He was physically impressive, weighing around 280 pounds (or as Ian Fleming puts it, "20 stone").  Blofeld's second appearance would be On Her Majesty's Secret Service, in which he is the novel's central villain. His appearance had also changed greatly. Although still tall, Blofeld is no longer massive. He only weighs "12 stone" (170 pounds) and now has long, silver hair. He is also missing his earlobes and is wearing contacts that turn his eyes to a dark green colour. In Blofeld's final appearance in the novels in You Only Live Twice, his appearance has changed once more. Bond describes Blofeld as "powerfully built" and he sports both a gold capped tooth and a drooping moustache.

Just as Blofeld's appearance would change throughout the novels, so too would his appearance change through the James Bond movies. In the official James Bond movies produced by Eon Productions, Ernst Stavro Blofeld would be played by several different actors, some of who varied a good deal in appearance. In fact, in the first two movies to feature Blofeld, the head of SPECTRE was technically played by two actors. In From Russia with Love (1963) Anthony Dawson provided Blofeld's appearance, while Eric Pohlmann provided the voice. In the film we do not get to see much of Blofeld, as only the back of his head and his hands are shown, although it is enough to tell he had a full head of dark hair. Blofeld did not take an active role in the plot of the film, although he is clearly its architect.

Blofeld's second appearance in Eon Productions' James Bond films would be in Thunderball (1966). The movie Thunderball was actually fairly faithful to the novel. As a result, we do not get to see a lot of Blofeld on the screen. While he planned the plot in the film, it is the second in command of SPECTRE, Emilio Largo, who actually executes the plan. For that reason we do not get to see very much of Blofeld in the film at all. In Thunderball we only see the lower part of Blofeld's body as he pets his Turkish Angora cat. His face is obscured by a screen. Once more Anthony Dawson provided the body of Blofeld, while Eric Pohlmann provided his voice.

Regardless in both the novel and the film Thunderball Ernst Stravo Blofeld hatched one of SPECTRE's grander schemes. SPECTRE steals two atomic bombs and demands £100 million in diamonds from NATO. If they do not  receive the £100 million in diamonds, then they will use the bombs to destroy two major cities.

Blofeld would return in the next Bond movie, You Only Live Twice (1967). Unlike Thunderball, the plot of the original novel would be abandoned in favour of a new plot that incorporated characters and places from the novel. For You Only Live Twice Eon Productions originally cast Czech actor Jan Werich as Blofeld. After several days of shooting,  producer Albert R. Broccoli and director Lewis Gilbert decided that Jan Werich was not right for the part and it was recast with Donald Pleasence in the role. For much of the film Blofeld is off screen, but when he does appear it is clear that his appearance has dramatically changed. Blofeld is now bald and sports a duelling scar that occupies the left side of his face. Although still physically impressive, Blofeld also seems shorter. While in his first appearances Blofeld wore business suits, in You Only Live Twice, he wears something similar to a Mao suit. While Blofeld's appearance changed, one thing remained the same. He still has his white Turkish Angora cat.

While Blofeld primarily worked behind the scenes in From Russia with Love and Thunderball, in You Only Live Twice he is the primary villain. In fact, You Only Live Twice marks the first time that James Bond and Blofeld meet face to face. If anything, Blofeld's plot in You Only Live Twice is even more grandiose than the one in Thunderball. Quite simply, SPECTRE has hijacked spacecraft in an effort to provoke a war between the two superpowers (the United States and the U.S.S.R.).

Not only Blofeld's appearance changed in You Only Live Twice from it had been in his two previous appearances, but his personality seems to have changed as well. In both From Russia with Love and Thunderball, Blofeld is the consummate businessman: cold, calculating, and with no real sense of humour. In contrast, Donald Pleasence's Blofeld is much closer to such Bond villains as Dr. No and Auric Goldfinger. Indeed, not only is his secret base inside a hollowed out volcano, but he also has a pool of piranha. Donald Pleasence's Blofeld also has a bit more charm and a sense of humour than he had in previous movies. When Bond tells him, "...this is my second life," Blofeld responds, "You only live twice, Mr. Bond."  Donald Pleasence's Blofeld is also much more emotional than he had been before. Indeed, he seems nearly petulant in an exchange with SPECTRE agents Mr. Osato and Helga Brandt when he learns Brandt had failed to kill Bond.

Blofeld's appearance would change once more in the next Bond film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969). Played by Telly Savalas, Blofeld seems slightly taller and certainly more physically imposing. He is still bald, but his duelling scar is gone. Most notably, Blofeld is missing his earlobes. This is part of Blofeld's attempt to lay claim of the title of  "Comte de Bleuchamp", the line of which is known for their lack of earlobes. Blofeld has also changed the way he dresses slightly, now favouring something resembling a Nehru jacket. It should come as no surprise that he still has his Turkish Angora cat.

While Blofeld still has his Turkish Angora cat , his personality has changed once again. Donald Pleasence's Blofeld was content to let his henchmen do much of the dirty work. In contrast, Telly Savalas's Blofeld takes a much more "hands on" approach. Not only does  Telly Savalas's Blofeld actually engage in hand to hand combat, he even leads the chase on skis when they pursue James Bond.  Telly Savalas's Blofeld also possesses a good deal more charm and more of a sense of humour than Donald Pleasence's Blofeld. He lacks the petulance of Donald Pleasence's Blofeld as well. Of course, that is not to say that Blofeld is still not insecure. Whereas Blofled previously seemed happy to work in the shadows, in On Her Majesty's Secret Service he now seems to want people to take notice of him. It is exceedingly important to him that he is recognised as the Count de Bleuchamp, to the point that he willing to extort the entire world to get the title.

Like You Only Live Twice, Blofeld is the chief antagonist in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Indeed, the film marks the second face to face confrontation between Blofeld and 007. And once more Blofeld's plot is truly, well, Bondian in scope. Namely, Blofeld plans to use a powerful virus that will sterilise the world's crops and hence cut off its food supply. As if there was not enough animosity between Bond and Blofeld to begin with, the movie ends with Blofeld and his henchwoman Irma Bunt doing the worst thing possible to Bond. Quite simply, they murdered his new bride Countess Tracy di Vicenzo (played by Diana Rigg).

Blofeld's final confirmed appearance in a Bond film produced by Eon Productions (at least for the time being) was in Diamonds Are Forver (1971). If anything Blofeld seems to have grown since we last saw him, actor Charles Gray standing an impressive 6 foot two inches. He is also no longer bald--Blofeld now sports a healthy head of silver hair. He has changed his tastes in fashion again, once more favouring something akin to the Mao suit. Of course, he also utilises a number of doubles throughout the film--individuals altered through plastic surgery to resemble him. While Blofeld's appearance has changed, he still has his white cat.

Diamonds Are Forever would also see Blofeld with an extravagant plot. Namely, he plans to use diamonds to create laser satellites capable of destroying a whole city. Of course, the city that Blofeld plans to destroy is Washington D.C. While Blofeld has once more hatched an extravagant scheme, however, his personality has changed once again. Although more physically formidable than ever, Charles Gray's Blofeld is once more content to let his henchmen do his work for him. Indeed, Charles Gray's Blofeld is a very ineffectual fighter, having apparently forgotten all the fighting skills that Telly Savalas's Blofeld knew. This is not to say that Charles Gray's Blofeld is entirely different from previous incarnations. He still possesses the charm and sense of humour that Telly Savalas's Blofeld had. And given his plot involves building a laser big enough to destroy cities, he also has Telly Savalas's Blofeld's need for people to take notice of him. That having been said, it would also seem that in Diamonds Are Forever Blofeld has finally gone utterly mad. Indeed, in a few exchanges with Bond it seems possible that Blofeld is not entirely sure who he is. Is he Blofeld or one of his doubles?

Diamonds Are Forever would mark Blofeld's last official appearance in Eon Productions' Bond films, at least for the time time being. The pre-credit sequence of For Your Eyes Only (1981) features an anonymous, bald headed man with a white cat, shot largely from behind, who attempts to kill 007. Clues that the villain could be Blofeld are Bond's visit to Tracy's grave prior to the encounter, the villain's appearance resembling that of Blofeld in earlier films (in both You Only Live Twice and On Her Majesty's Secret Service Blofeld was bald), the presence of the white Turkish Angora cat, and dialogue indicating he and Bond have a past history. Regardless, neither the actor nor the character are credited in the film. It seems likely that the producers meant for the character to be Blofeld, but due to the ongoing issue with the rights to the character, they could not say that it was him.

Blofeld would also appear in one of the Bond films not made by Eon Productions. Kevin McClory had retained the rights to film the novel Thunderball. Mr. McClory and others then produced another version of the novel, Never Say Never Again (1983), with Sean Connery once more assuming the role of James Bond. Like the novel Thunderball Ernst Stavro Blofeld appears in Never Say Never Again, although it is second in command Emilio Largo who executes the plot in the film. In Never Say Never Again Blofeld is played by Max von Sydow. He is tall and thin, with a full head of grey hear and a grey Van Dyke beard.

Never Say Never Again marks the last appearance of Blofeld on screen, although it seems possible he will appear in the upcoming James Bond film SPECTRE. It has been confirmed the criminal organisation will be the antagonists in the film, making it likely that Blofeld will appear. That having been said, it has not been confirmed by Eon Productions that Blofeld will appear. While there have been rumours that Christoph Waltz will be playing Blofeld, he has categorically denied this (he is listed as playing the character  Franz Oberhauser instead).

While Goldfinger probably has more name recognition than Blofeld does, arguably Blofeld is the most iconic Bond villain. Indeed, the Donald Pleasence version of Blofeld in particular has had a lasting impact on pop culture. He has provided the inspiration for several other supervillains through the years. Inspector Gadget's archenemy, Dr. Claw, is clearly inspired by Blofeld. Dr. Claw leads his own criminal organisation ("M.A.D.") and, like the original Blofeld, his full body is never seen. He also has a cat, M.A.D. Cat, whom he strokes much like Blofeld. Giovanni in Pokemon also owes a bit to Blofeld. He remained unseen for much of the first season and he also has a Persian cat. Perhaps no villain draws upon Blofeld more than Dr. Evil in the "Austin Powers" movies. Indeed, Dr. Evil is clearly a parody of Blofeld as played by Donald Pleasence. Even one Bollywood villain was inspired by Blofeld. Shakal from the 1980 movie Shaan clearly takes his inspiration from Blofeld. Blofeld's criminal organisation SPECTRE would also have a lasting impact. Groups from THRUSH on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to KAOS on Get Smart to M.A.D. on Inspector Gadget owe a good deal to SPECTRE.

Blofeld was the only major villain to face James Bond multiple times. Indeed, it is never actually clear that Bond ever killed Blofeld (if it was Blofeld at all, it was possible he survived their encounter in For Your Eyes Only). If Blofeld survived while other Bond opponents did not, it could well be because of Blofeld's adaptability. There have been other explanations for the differences in Blofeld's appearance and personality in the various Eon Productions films, but one possible explanation is that Blofeld approached his villainy much like an actor approaching a role. Quite simply, Blofeld not only changed his appearance with each new scheme, but even his behaviour.  Indeed, this might be part of the reason Blofeld seems uncertain of his own identity in Diamonds Are Forever. Not only did his constant defeats at the hands of 007 probably take a significant toll on his sanity, but Blofeld had remade himself so often that he was no longer certain who the "real" Blofeld was!

Of course, it takes more than surviving even an opponent like James Bond to make a great villain. It also takes extravagant plots. With a few exceptions no one came up with plots as grandiose as Blofeld. He masterminded the theft of two atomic bombs in an attempt at extortion. He hijacked spacecraft in order to start World War III. He threatened to sterilise the worlds food supply. And, last but certainly not least, he planned to destroy Washington D.C. with a laser satellite. When it comes to grandiose plots few villains, even in the Bond franchise, match Blofeld. Even Goldfinger's plot to detonate an atomic bomb at Fort Knox seems somehow quaint given the things Blofeld wants to do.

Unless one counts For Your Eyes Only, it has been over forty years since James Bond last faced Ernst Stavro Blofeld in Eon Productions' Bond movies. Given the title of the upcoming Bond film (SPECTRE) and its subject matter, it seems like that Bond will fight Blofeld again. And while he may only be working behind the scenes in SPECTRE, it seems likely that Blofeld and Bond will meet face to face again soon enough.


Silver Screenings said...

Well, I'm a bit embarrassed to say this, but I think I've seen only two James B. movies, and neither one of them had this magnificent villain. However, that doesn't diminish my admiration for your well-researched and well-written post. I realize I've been too dismissive of the Bond franchise and its villains.

Thanks for joining the blogathon – and for expanding my horizons. :)

Kristina said...

Really fun and detailed overview, Last summer I went through a rewatch of all (but one of) the 007 movies, it was interesting to notice all those changes you talk about here. I love Pleasence but Savalas was something else-- Blofeld on a bobsled is one of the greatest images ever :)
Thanks so much for bringing this iconic character to the event, great to have you be part of it.