The Importance of Being Ernst
The criminal organization S.P.E.C.T.R.E. (The Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion) was the organization behind all the world's trouble in the first six of seven James Bond movies, and it's head, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (played by, respectively Donald Pleasance, Telly Savalas and Charles Gray) showed up for the first time in the fifth, although he'd been in two of them as a faceless entity stroking a white persian cat on his lap. In those films, his criminal organization had been responsible for toppling American missile launches, pitting the British and Russian spy networks against each other, hijacking nuclear weapons from NATO, sabotaging the Russian and American space programs to create a nuclear conflict, distributing a zero-growth virus as part of an elaborate blackmail scheme, and kidnapping a tech billionaire in order to put a laser firing satellite into orbit in order to offer nuclear supremacy to the highest bidder. These are bad-guys with a ruthlessly entrepreneurial streak.
But they haven't been around for 40 years? Where have they been? Where every bad corporation ends up (unless you're Goldman Sachs)—in court. SPECTRE was created for the first attempt at a James Bond movie in the 50's in a script written by Bond's creator Ian Fleming, producer Kevin McClory, and a screenwriter named Jack Whittingham, in order to create an alternate to the Soviet Union (a potential market for distributing their movie even then), which was traditionally the badski in Fleming's spy series. When the movie didn't pan out, Fleming took the plot and SPECTRE and wrote the novel "Thunderball," based on the screenplay. His co-writers successfully sued Fleming for plagiarism and McClory was given the exclusive rights to SPECTRE and Blofeld. The Bond series couldn't use them anymore. But McClory did when he re-made Thunderball with Sean Connery in 1983's Never Say Never Again (Max von Sydow played Blofeld).
|A bevy of Blofelds: Donald Pleasance, Telly Savalas, Charles Gray, Max von Sydow*
|SPECTRE has a ring to it: "Vanity has its dangers."
|They use a lot less stainless steel at SPECTRE nowadays.
|Jimmy was very bad.
|Caution: double entendre approaching
|The "throne room" of "The Pale King"
Saying anything more will just spoil a lot—some shocks, some surprises, some different zigs and zags from "the formula" as well as some bright spots—as SPECTRE takes another two full hours to complete (at 148 minutes, it is the longest of any James Bond film). I've always liked the tone of the Craig Bond's—hyper-serious even in the most outlandish of circumstances—no winking, no eyebrow-raising, no double-taking pigeons, no machine-gunning grannies, a minimum of slapstick (as was present during the Moore years), and in SPECTRE just a little bit of that starts to seep into the film. You won't see Craig mugging at the camera—he's too straight an actor to do that and he is more than aware of just how quickly one can shatter the illusion of tension.**** But, he will conveniently land on a couch when a building collapses around him—that will nicely pre-figure some stuff at the end.
|Look at you looking at me
If I have a complaint, it's that SPECTRE is not un-expected. There's a trend of making things neatly tied with bows of motivation in movies and the writers—John Logan, Purvis and Wade and Jez Butterworth—make things a bit too convenient. Everybody has fun with all the call-backs throughout the series—of course, SPECTRE HQ must be in a crater—but, one of the things about the SPECTRE stories is they had octopus-like loose ends. Not here. For all the dust-up's, everything is too tidy—right up to the point where we realize we've been watching a SPECTRE series all along.*****
For many, who have been cranky about the films not being "fun" anymore, SPECTRE will be the proverbial quantum of solace, a return to the more giddy days of Bond, just a dash of it, with a knowing panache that informs quite a number of scenes. ****** A bit of silliness here and there, like sugar in the salt-shaker. For me, someone who likes his spy satires in deadly earnest, it's a bit of a tactical retreat. I like it when the Bonds grab you by the scruff of the neck and wreck some furniture, rather than tickling you to death. I like Bonds to be respectable, even if they never, ever really were...in any incarnation. One worries that it's a trend to make the films more comfortable, more complacent, more what the public expects, which usually spells an approaching sea-change in the Bond movie series. "James Bond Will Return" as the last title says, but as what and for how long?
|"Think on Your Sins"
* The cat, presumably, is also different every film. That Blofeld is a persian cat-fancier is a trope that has been used since the first Blofeld "appearance" (his face wasn't shown in either From Russia With Love or Thunderball), but it was never mentioned by Fleming for the character—it was purely an invention by the writers-producers. Or was it?
Here's Vincent Price as Richelieu in the M-G-M version of The Three Musketeers:
And I wonder if Marlon Brando was thinking about it when he picked up a studio stray for a scene in The Godfather.
** Which is funny. In the 60's, the "Bond formula" was that the film's ended with the big finale, only to have Bond have his post-mission relaxation spoiled by a determined henchman or something, who has to be dispatched before the credits can roll.
*** That sequence is a corker. After the opening gun-barrel (yay!) the movie begins with a sequence during the Day of the Dead that starts with one long continuous shot that is so elaborate and circuitous, Martin Scorsese is considering becoming a still photographer. In fact, Stephanie Sigman's entire role is contained in that one shot, detailing Bond's stalking of a target and his subsequent attempt to kill him "by any means necessary." It is one of the dizziest and throat-lumping sequences in the series.
**** Craig's commitment to the series has garnered him something that even Sean Connery could never get and caused him to quit the series—a co-producer credit. I didn't notice it, initially, in the Main Title sequence by Daniel Kleinmann (not one of his best) as I was too distracted by inky octopi crawling over naked silhouettes—that tends to happen to me for some reason.
***** I could go into detail, but the film just came out and I don't want to spoil what goes on and how the producers make the progression, or even point out similar examples in recent movie history. That would be telling. And there must be SOME secrets to the world's most well-known spy.
****** My chief problem is the motivation of the villain, who turns out to be Ernst Stavro Blofeld, on a mission to not conquer the world, but to control the knowledge of all the world's spy agencies, a super-NSA that can tap into any phone, any CCTV, rather like...oh, the NSA. That very lack of motivation could have inspired a nice little dig. For instance, after Bond's comment that Blofeld is "just a voyeur," really, he could have followed up with:
Bond: And what are you going to do with all this knowledge—this power? Feed the world? Heal the sick? (glances at Blofeld's cat) Open a spay/neuter clinic?
And when he finds out that Blofeld has been, basically, making Bond's life miserable the past few films as revenge for a disappointing past:
Bond: Why don't you act like a NORMAL person and just send me an insulting birthday card every year?