The SPECTRE of Defeat

 Posted by on December 15, 2015 at 12:34 pm  Books, Film, Reviews & Discussions
Dec 152015

spectreWhen it was announced last year that SPECTRE would be the follow up to SKYFALL in the James Bond series, I could barely contain my excitement. Daniel Craig’s first outing as Bond in CASINO ROYALE (2006) quieted the critics who loudly complained when he was cast. The film is very faithful Ian Fleming’s novel and a return to seriousness of the early Sean Connery outings. CASINO ROYALE goes further and portrays James Bond as a character with real feelings (something the Connery films never did). Furthermore, Vesper Lynd is no garden variety “Bond girl” and Le Chiffre is arguably the most fully fleshed out Bond villain since Auric Goldfinger. Many questioned whether or not James Bond could continue in a post 9/11 world. CASINO ROYALE answered that in the affirmative with an exclamation point.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, that was the zenith of Danial Craig’s Bond arc.

bondQUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008) picks up where CASINO ROYALE leaves off and, as it seemed to channel Jason Bourne more than James Bond, was a bit of a let-down for me. Same for SKYFALL (2012) which, among other missteps, used the recent action movie trope of the bad guy deliberately allowing himself to be incarcerated as part of his nefarious scheme. The third act suffers as Bond’s plan to protect M (who is targeted by the bad guys) seems rather half baked. Of course, there are lots of plot holes to be found in all of the Bond films, but SKYFALL is too melodramatic for me to ignore them. And in a blatant act of fan-service, the old Aston Martin is brought out of mothballs. However, the storyline of James Bond dealing with the loss of his parents while setting up clever booby-traps in his childhood estate to fight off adversaries evoked HOME ALONE more than Bond films of the 1960s.   Given that SKYFALL set a box-office record for the franchise (even adjusted for inflation), I’m clearly in the minority.

The final scene of SKYFALL, which takes place in the new M’s office surrounded by old school decor and a “Moneypenny” working the door, further reinforces the notion that the Bond series was returning to the tone set by the entries from the 1960s. Enter SPECTRE.

SPECTRE is the evil organization behind the villainy in all but one (GOLDFINGER) of Sean Connery’s six outings as 007 (seven if you count 1983’s “unofficial” Bond film NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN, but for the sake of this piece, I won’t).

“S.P.E.C.T.R.E.” is an acronym for the “SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion” which, along with its creator Ernst Stavro Blofled, appears in only three of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels: THUNDERBALL, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE and YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE.

IanFleming_ThunderballIn 1958, Ian Fleming, Kevin McClory, and Jack Whittingham worked on an original script as part of an early aborted attempt at a Bond film. Not wanting current events surrounding the Cold War to impact their movie, they deliberately choose to avoid using the staple villains of Fleming’s existing novels (such as SMERSH, a Soviet spy organization). Thus, SPECTRE and the Blofeld character was born. When that film deal fell through, Fleming incorporated those elements into his 1961 novel THUNDERBALL.  This set the stage for a legal battle that lasted close to fifty years.

In the meantime, SPECTRE was incorporated into the film versions of DR. NO and FROM RUSSIAN WITH LOVE by a different production team that didn’t include McClory and Whittingham. As the Bond craze took off, its imitators used a similar approach to antagonists. For instance, OUR MAN FLINT pitted Derek Flint against “Galaxy” and THE SILENCERS had Matt Helm facing “Big O.” The details of the epic SPECTER/Blofeld legal battles between McClory and the Bond franchise can be found elsewhere on the Internet, so I won’t ramble on more about it here. Suffice to say, DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1971) was the last Bond film to feature Ernst Stavro Blofeld. While the opening teaser of FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (1981) depicts a bad guy who looks and acts a lot like Blofeld (compete with cat), it’s more of an homage (read parody) and the character is never identified by name.

By 2013, a settlement was reached with the McClory estate giving the rights to Blofeld and SPECTRE to MGM (the current owners of the official Bond franchise). As a result, Daniel Craig’s next Bond outing was titled (almost victoriously) SPECTRE. My inner fan-boy couldn’t have been more geeked.

Alas, that jubilation was short-lived.

My first problem with SPECTRE is its attempt to retrofit Blofeld’s organization as the umbrella antagonist of Daniel Craig’s three previous Bond outings. I cannot imagine this was the intended direction for the arc of the four films from the start. The fact that a similarly evil (and titular) crime organization (Quantum) was created for QUANTUM OF SOLACE would seem to support that view. So, my guess is that once the SPECTRE “brand” became available, it was shoe-horned in.

My second complaint is that the shift in tone from the hard edge of CASINO ROYALE to the tongue in cheek approach that characterized most of Connery’s outings doesn’t quite fit with Craig’s interpretation of the role. Certainly, Connery adapted his Bond from deadly earnest in DR NO to winking at the audience in THUNDERBALL.  He’s recognized by many as the “best” Bond because he was able to seamlessly marry the two approaches. On the other hand, with Craig one can almost hear the gears shifting as he transitions between his various iterations of Bond. Thus, the jokes feel more forced than organic.

Another of my problems with SPECTRE is simply bad writing. Early this year, I read reports that the script for SPECTRE went through some extensive last minute rewrites. It certainly felt at times as if they were making it up as they went along. At one point, I chuckled out loud in the theater when, after experiencing first-hand two full hours of traumas inflicted by Blofeld, Bond loudly retorts “You’re bluffing” upon hearing the details of one last threat from the man. Ernst Stavro Blofeld bluffing?  Really? It struck me as if Bond’s reply was written that way because he had to say something. Groan.

By far, the worst thing about SPECTRE is how it fritters away the potential of the organization that has been so important to the franchise. I frankly can’t remember if they even explain the meaning of the name.

Consider THUNDERBALL which, in my opinion, contains the best SPECTRE briefing scenes of the series.  Blofeld is unseen (my favorite approach) and characterized primarily by his cat. The feline costar was never in the books and simply a cinematic device to give Blofeld something to do with his hands when he wasn’t pushing switches to electrocute disappointing subordinates.  The briefing scene clearly establishes that SPECTRE is an apolitical criminal operation whose main goal is to generate revenue. I’d argue that with director Terence Young at the helm, THUNDERBALL does this as effectively as the Cuban boardroom meeting in THE GODFATHER Part 2.

Furthermore, production designer Ken Adams’ modern, stainless steel SPECTRE conference room with ergonomic seating is contrasted with the stodgy, slower moving, and antiquated look of the MI6 briefing room where all the 00’s gather later in the film.  This subtly adds to the drama as it creates the impression that the “bad guys” are better equipped and organized than the “good guys.”

thunderball-74A similar SPECTRE boardroom meeting is held in the new film. It starts out promising and appropriately ominous. Of course, no SPECTRE meeting is complete without one of the members getting killed off. However, the obligatory board member death in SPECTRE makes no sense. Instead of Blofeld meting out the usual punishment for failure or disloyalty, a SPECTRE operative dies at the hands of  Mr. Hinx (SPECTRE’s “Odd Job”) for no apparent reason other than some obscure “challenge” rule held by the organization. The final look of confusion on the hapless victim’s face matched my own. Basically, it would appear that advancement in this “dedicated fraternity” is not based on past success or the quality of one’s contributions, but brute force. I think that the filmmakers wanted to include a killing in their SPECTRE meeting to quickly establish the nature of that organization and did so at the expense of any internal logic. They also needed a way to introduce their stock Bondian henchman. So, two birds are killed (so to speak) with one stone. It didn’t quite work for me.

Likewise, the Blofeld character himself doesn’t quite work for me. Without spoiling anything, the most I can say is that his motivations are somewhat underwhelming. In CASINO ROYALE, we are clearly shown that Le Chiffre is fighting to save his life after a foiled investment scheme which necessitates desperate efforts to pay off his murderous creditors. Le Chiffre’s cold brutal nature, asthma inhaler and blood dripping tear duct effectively serve to punctuate the threat he poises James Bond. In SPECTRE, Blofeld is primarily characterized by his usual preference for collarless jackets. In the novels, Blofeld gradually descends into madness. In SPECTRE, a glimpse of what makes him tick is revealed (the aforementioned spoiler), but that plotline simply doesn’t make compelling cinema.

blofeldsDonald Pleasence played the first onscreen Blofeld in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967). He was a last minute replacement for the actor originally signed (Jan Werich). While a fine character actor, Pleasence doesn’t really live up to the menace of Blofeld built up in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE and THUNDERBALL.  He melodramatically sports a facial scar to heighten his evil (which would later be parodied in the Austin Powers films).  Charles Grey’s interpretation in 1971’s DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER is more interesting but focuses on erudite humor over menace.

For my money, the best Blofeld of the franchise was Telly Savalas in 1969’s ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (George Lazenby’s only Bond film). Savalas looks more like the literary Blofeld (who was half Greek). More importantly, his Blofeld, as depicted, is a pragmatic profiteer. During the obligatory info dump wherein Bond gets a outline of the villian’s evil plan, Blofeld calmly explains that doesn’t expect to have to make good on his threats as the world powers won’t “let it come to that.” Yes. In a way, he’s bluffing. But this time I buy it.

Dr. No takes it out on the world to compensate for the loss of his hands. Auric Goldfinger is a greedy smuggler with an over-the-top fetish for gold. In SPECTRE, it’s never clear if Blofeld is crazy, a corporatist sociopath, a sadistic killer, a megalomaniac, or whatever. It’s said that in the Bond novels, James Bond is the hero but the villains have all the good lines. In SPECTRE the good lines are too few and too far between.


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