Pussies Galore

Just ahead of my imminent appearance on Outsiders on Sky Australia, here’s our Saturday movie date:

Who’s the best Blofeld?

Well, that would be the guy in the books. Ian Fleming’s Blofeld is very precisely delineated, beginning with his debut in Thunderball in 1961, which was a novelization of a movie project that had never gotten off the ground, and so was credited to Fleming plus a couple of screenwriting hands imposed by litigation. The complications arising therefrom would destabilize the 007 franchise until well into this century.

Nevertheless, Ernst Stavro Blofeld himself seems personal to Fleming: We are told that he was born on May 28th 1908, which happens also to be the author’s date of birth, and he bears his distinctive surname because Fleming was at Eton with a Norfolk farmer called Tom Blofeld, who was the father of Henry (“Blowers”) Blofeld, the BBC’s peerless cricket commentator, a pillar of “Test Match Special” for almost half-a-century, and the second most famous Blofeld on the planet after Ernst Stavro. Ian Fleming had a genius for character names – Moneypenny, Goldfinger, and the consciously unremarkable James Bond – and he made them stick.

The Blofeld of the books was born to a Polish father and a Greek mother (hence “Stavro”) in what’s now Gdynia in what was then part of Kaiser Bill’s empire. On the eve of the Second World War, he destroyed all official records of his existence and went into the evil-mastermind business, eventually founding SPECTRE (the SPecial Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion).

It is in this capacity that he is first glimpsed on screen, in From Russia with Love (1963) and Thunderball (1965). In neither film do we see his face – only his legs and lap and the hand stroking the white Persian cat. The voice (which is terrific and instantly Blofeldian) is that of Eric Pohllman, an Austrian actor who spent most of his career in Britain, but the kitty-caressing hand belonged to Anthony Dawson, previously seen as the duplicitous Professor Dent coolly dispatched by 007 in Doctor No: “That’s a Smith & Wesson,” says Bond, eyeing the weapon Dent is leveling at him after deploying it somewhat promiscuously throughout the room, “and you’ve had your six.”

They could have stuck with the faceless menace. As the Pohllman voice with Dawson digits suggests, finding the perfect Blofeldian package is trickier than one might think. But they decided to show him to us as a man in full in You Only Live Twice (1967) and signed the Czech actor Jan Werich. When he flew in from Prague and arrived at Pinewood, Cubby Broccoli and Lewis Gilbert thought he seemed more like Santa than Stavro, but they staggered on for five days before finally giving up and replacing Werich with an English character actor whose biggest part to date had been the title role in Dr Crippen.

His name was Donald Pleasence, and he was born one hundred years ago today – October 5th 1919 – into a Yorkshire stationmaster’s family. Like Blofeld, he had an interesting war: a conscientious objector, he was appalled by the death and destruction wrought by the Luftwaffe’s 1940 attacks on London and so signed up with the RAF. Four years later he was shot down over Germany and spent the duration in Stalag Luft I, where he put on many theatrical diversions for the amusement of his fellow prisoners. After the war came a few prestigious theatre roles (Hobson’s Choice, The Caretaker), a lot of telly filler (Robin Hood, Danger Man), and finally and transformatively the first full-body Blofeld.

Ian Fleming, as is his wont, is very specific about Ernst Stavro: He has a black crew-cut, black eyes and luxuriant lashes, no earlobes, a violet-scented mouth from a near paranoid consumption of fresh-breath mints, long tapering hands and feet, etc. Despite having “never been known to sleep with a member of either sex”, he somehow manages to acquire a syphilitic sore on his nose.

The screen Blofeld has none of these things. Donald Pleasence went bald early and had a soft babyish face – or, to invert the thought, many newborns can look oddly Pleasence-like: When passing round the very first picture of me and my daughter, I never failed to get a laugh with “That’s me and Donald Pleasence in You Only Live And Let Die Another Day” or some such. With an intense stare and (aside from the occasional high-pitched shriek) a soft-spoken voice, he had for a villain a pleasant (Pleasent?) manner. Presumably that’s why they felt they had to oomph him up a bit with a dueling scar. In the wake of Doctor No, but not Red Grant or Goldfinger, Pleasence cemented the notion of 007 villains as calm chaps in Nehru jackets: “I’m afraid you’re growing rather tiresome, Mr Bond”, etc.

Pleasence was succeeded by a pre-Kojak Telly Savalas in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). This is a splendid film, marred by only two things – Bond and the baddie. I yield to no one in my admiration for Mr Savalas, and (as Pleasence demonstrated) Blofeld is a flexible character unconstrained by Fleming’s original. But he cannot, I submit, be a Noo Yawk tough; it is tonally wrong – even before he goes all moony and puppyish when Tracy (Diana Rigg) starts making eyes at him. Still, it falls to Telly’s Blofeld to inflict a more lasting wound on 007 than anybody else, one that I shall forebear to mention not because it’s an OHMSS plot spoiler but because I sort of feel they’re going to reprise it in next year’s No Time to Die.

Consumed by revenge, Bond encounters Blofeld next in Diamonds Are Forever (1971), where he has had reconstructive surgery and emerged as Charles Gray with a languid drawl and a cigarette-holder. The fluffy white Persian has not had reconstructive surgery, which is a bit of a giveaway surely. Gray’s amused reaction when he espies a lumpy audio cassette with the top secret codes spoiling the pert curve of Jill St John’s bikini bottoms is worth the price of admission, but, engaging as he is, this film marks the descent of Bond villainy into self-parody. That leaves Blofeld’s pre-titles turn in For Your Eyes Only (1981), in which John Hollis anticipates Dr Evil’s Mini-Me and one is grateful when Roger Moore’s chopper tips Blowers down a factory chimney and we can all settle back to enjoy Sheena Easton warbling the title song.

Ernst Stavro Blofeld is not, in fact, named as such in the credits of Eyes Only. By 1981, Cubby Broccoli & Co were in a serious legal dispute with Kevin McClory, who was credited on the original Thunderball novel as a co-writer of the original “screen treatment”. McClory had ongoing rights to Thunderball, and in 1983 remade it as Never Say Never Again, with Max von Sydow as Blofeld, who on paper would seem a perfect choice. Alas, the script gave him nothing to do, and he affects a strange manspreading posture with the cat. In the Nineties, McClory tried to put together a third Thunderball, called Warhead, with Liam Neeson as Bond and presumably yet another Blofeld. But the project foundered and it took nearly a decade after his death for Cubby’s guys and McClory’s estate to resolve their differences. But hallelujah, at last Blofeld would be back – this time as played by Christoph Waltz from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds.

At which point Bond’s producers decided to do so much damage to 007’s arch-nemesis that they might as well have left him at the bottom of that chimney in For Your Eyes Only. Waltz, like Eric Pohllman all those years ago, is Viennese by birth, so he would seem to put Blofeld back where he belongs – in the Mitteleuropean murk from which emerge so many memorable fanatics of the Fleming oeuvre. In Spectre (2016) the Persian cat is back too, even if Herr Waltz doesn’t seem to get quite the gleeful pleasure out of stroking it that Donald Pleasence and Charles Gray did. With the condescension of a man who thinks he’s better than the part, Waltz underplays Blofeld to the point of torpor, giving us a somewhat earnest Ernst who, like others in the reinvented Bond universe, confuses solemnity for seriousness.

But, worse than that, the makers of Spectre inflicted incredible vandalism on Blofeld’s backstory. Fleming is said to have had in mind someone like Basil Zaharoff, one of those old-school machiavels playing off one great power against another. Spectre by contrast turns Blofeld into the world’s most lavish case of sibling rivalry. For all the gizmos and Nehru suits, Bond films of yore managed at least to acknowledge the Cold War, the nuclear stand-off, the Afghan insurgency against the Commies, post-Soviet Russia, etc. Since the grittiness of Casino Royale, 007’s world has shrunk to the point where the entire British intelligence and security budget is devoted to the pursuit of enemies who have no greater motivation than that, back when they were both lads, James got more attention during skiing lessons. We’re expected to believe that the greatest multinational evildoing conglomerate on the planet exists simply because Bond pantsed Blofeld in Sixth Grade. That’s more ridiculous than anything in A View To A Kill or Moonraker.

Since the reboot a decade or so back, the franchise has alternated between classics and duds – Casino Royale and Skyfall for the former, otherwise Quantum of Solace and Spectre. We’re not due a dud next year, but No Time to Die will have its work cut out repairing the damage of Blofeld’s rebirth.

Which brings us back to the man whose centennial falls today – a middle-aged English character actor of unprepossessing mien called in at the last minute to sub for a bloke who seemed too much like Father Christmas. Three decades later, for the Austin Powers films, Mike Myers matched his parody Bond against a parody Blofeld – the bald, babyfaced Dr Evil. Notwithstanding a few vocal and facial tics borrowed from his old telly boss, “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels, Myers’ Dr Evil is in its essentials Donald Pleasence’s Blofeld. Savalas, Gray and von Sydow may have followed in his wake, but the first head-to-toe screen Blofeld remains the best.

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