James Bond and the Specter of SPECTRE


James Bond #24 officially hits U.S. theaters this Friday and old-school Bond fans are chomping at the bit. For starters, the end of 2012’s “Skyfall” essentially brought the old band back together. It reunited everyone’s favorite oversexed, functionally alcoholic spy/professional assassin with a new M (Ralph Fiennes, stepping into Bernard Lee and Judy Dench’s shoes), a younger Moneypenny (Naomie Harris, stepping into the very big pumps of the great Lois Maxwell), and a vastly younger Q (in reality, super-youthful 35-year-old Ben Whishaw, taking the part that once belonged to Desmond Llewelyn, who was pretty much born craggy).

All that’s missing is just the right super-nemesis, but never fear: “Spectre” will be our first chance to see the reassembled team in action against its most famous opponent, a stateless organization bent on world domination for profit and for the sheer fun of being really, really evil.

The Face of Evil

But what will today’s SPECTRE be like? The original Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion and it’s leader, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, was alluded to in the first Bond movie, “Dr. No” (1962), and haunted the series for years afterward. Even so, at first, Blofeld was just a disembodied voice and a hand stroking an unusually compliant white cat. It wasn’t until 1967’s “You Only Live Twice” that we finally saw the face of the man behind the international organization dedicated to world domination at any cost.

That face changed considerably as he was played three times by three very different actors, beginning with the diminutive, creepy and bald Donald Pleasance as the original Dr. Evil. He would morph into the much more testosterone-driven Telly Savalas (later TV’s “Kojak”) in 1969’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” and would then grow a full head of hair to be played by the imposing Charles Gray in 1971’s “Diamonds are Forever.” As much as this might be an artifact of the lack of concern with continuity that was standard before the comic book geek takeover of Hollywood, it actually lines up somewhat with the Blofeld of Ian Fleming’s original novels, who lost and gained large amounts of weight and underwent major plastic surgery to elude detection.

In the case of “Spectre,” we are informed that the organization is now embodied by none other than Inglourious Basterd Christoph Waltz, who is not identified as Blofeld in the trailers but who wears a suspiciously familiar Nehru jacket. (Inquiring minds can get the whole story, and we do mean the whole story, on Wikipedia.) With all due respect to the impressive trio of Pleasance, Savalas and Gray – all truly first-rate actors – Waltz just might be the most charismatic performer yet to step into the part of Spectre’s leader. On the other hand, there isn’t a cat in sight in the trailers and clips we’ve seen. That may be because there was no mention of a kitty in the original James Bond novels, or could it be that today’s SPECTRE head is more of a dog person? Or maybe there’s a big kitty reveal in the film to come. We’ll see.


The Birth of SPECTRE

SPECTRE became the model for no end of pop culture super-secret, super-villain conspiracies throughout the latter half of the 20th century and on into the present. The germ of the concept origin actually goes back to one very specific event and the canniness of James Bond’s creator.

Genuinely evil, ultra-murderous Soviet dictator Josef Stalin actually died about a month before the 1953 publication of the first James Bond novel, “Casino Royale.” However, while the fiercely anti-communist Ian Fleming had no problem continuing to make the Soviet organization SMERSH responsible for all manner of over-the-top mayhem, the relative warming of relations between the West and the East that followed Stalin’s demise worried the author; it seemed possible to him that the Cold War might effectively be over by the time the first James Bond movie was released. So, Fleming concocted the idea of a power-mad international organization dedicated to the destruction of both the Soviets and the NATO Western alliance, possibly bankrolled by the then-emerging superpower known as Red China.

Things got complicated, though, because Fleming had been working with Irish-born producer Kevin McClory and assorted writers on a series of scripts which eventually became the basis of the novel and later the movie, “Thunderball.” The degree to which McClory and the other writers had contributed to the novel’s story – including the creation of SPECTRE and Blofeld – remained a bone of legal contention with McClory.

At the same time, even as the Cold War began to reheat, the Bond production team clearly took to the idea of SPECTRE. It’s likely they enjoyed the outlandish simplicity of a super-secret transnational, apolitical organization of evil and partly because it actually was apolitical. Throughout the 1960s, liberals and conservatives tended to differ sharply on the question of whether or not the Soviet Union was – as Ronald Reagan would later put it – “an evil empire” or simply America’s well-armed adversary. So, having bad guys that weren’t particularly beholden to either side helped the series avoid serious controversy, even as such Cold War issues as the U.S. bloody involvement in Vietnam were becoming more and more highly charged.

SPECTRE was the force behind the evil Dr. No, and the plot to kill James Bond in “From Russia with Love,” but was not a part of Auric Goldfinger’s diabolical plan to nuke Fort Knox. “Thunderball” was delayed for years by the ongoing suit, until it was temporarily settled by making Kevin McClory a producer on what turned out to be the most wildly successful film in the franchise up to that point. However, in the years that followed, McClory kept the suit alive and claimed ownership over SPECTRE.

That’s probably why the Eon team of producers led by Harry Saltzman and Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli were rather careful in how they portrayed a character who appeared to be Blofeld in 1981’s “For Your Eyes Only.” It’s definitely why, two years later, Sean Connery returned to Bondage in “Never Say Never Again,” a non-canonical Bond film and “Thunderball” remake produced by McClory.

The legal wrangling continued on into the next century and well after the deaths of all the main players. Probably not-so-coincidentally, what has to be one of the longest running lawsuits in show business history was finally fully resolved in 2013, not long before “Spectre” began production.

SPECTRE…Yesterday and today

Although we have spoilery access to the broad outlines of the plot of “Spectre,” it’s still hard to know how the 21st century version of SPECTRE will differ from the 20th century version. We do know there is a relationship between it and Quantum, the terrorist-funding organization that bedeviled Bond in Daniel Craig’s first two outings as James Bond. We suspect/hope it will continue it’ habits of terminating under-performing employees with extreme prejudice, though we don’t know if exploding chairs, alligators or piranhas will be involved. We can always hope for a cat, though.

Feline or no feline, we’re happy to see the return of SPECTRE and its leader. A good hero needs a great enemy. Let’s say our hopes are reasonably high.


You can follow us on Twitter and Facebook for content updates. Also, sign up for our email list for weekly updates and check us out on Google+ as well.