Published on December 12th, 2014 | by Greg Payne0
James Bond SPECTRE – The Return Of The Big Bad
Pinewood Studios, December 4, 2014. Skyfall director Sam Mendes, accompanied by James Bond series producer Barbara Broccoli, stand onstage in front of a gaggle of entertainment press and cameras simulcasting the event worldwide. After a quick bit of recap of the last three Bond films in montage, Mendes introduces himself and his producer, then they step aside again for one more brief film clip, a promo teaser announcing the title of the next double-oh-seven sure-to-be-blockbuster. Bits of letters appear on the screen, and the one word title reveals itself before a bullet hole appears with a bang, dead centre: SPECTRE. “Those of you who have some knowledge of the Bond franchise and the legend of Bond,” Mendes says to the crowd after stepping back onstage, “will probably have some idea what that refers to, but I couldn’t possibly comment.” Very sly. Even the casual viewer gets it: the Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion is the new Big Bad.
For the Bond films, this is big news for the future direction of the franchise. Big, but not wholly unexpected. After the palate-cleansing of the series reboot of 2006’s Casino Royale, in which the iconic character was brought back to Year Zero and set loose in what some forget, in the wake of the record-shattering box office of the three Daniel Craig films, was at the time a worrisome gamble to see if a suave, tuxedo-clad establishment figure could cut the cinematic mustard in a post-Bourne landscape, DanJaq/MGM/Sony are banking on the next phase in the series to succeed by looking more directly to its past.
At least for this aficionado, who grew up on the Connery and Moore classics but still can’t help but view them as odd if sentimentally beloved period pieces now, the quiet final scene of Skyfall caused as much heart-racing as any setpiece that had come before it in the movie. As Dame Judi Dench’s office was seemingly whisked out of existence to be replaced by one in which Bernard Lee would have felt quite at home, as a flirtatious secretary with a certain silly name settled into the desk outside the double-cushioned doors, as a new techno-savvy quartermaster set up shop in the basement, and as a four-note John Barry sequence began to swell in the background, it was as if the final pieces of a puzzle slipped into place. Not that Bond was back: that had already been proven true without a doubt. Rather, that the vintage tropes of 007’s world, established by the storytelling that made the character a figure known and recognized around the world fifty years ago, were going to be woven into the saga once again.
To a degree, the concept alone of SPECTRE in the Bond movies is a course correction. Despite its ultimate grosses, coming in just a shade behind its immediate predecessor, 2008’s Quantum of Solace is not a critically beloved entry in the series. Time may be more kind to it than initial impressions: a recent rewatch reminded me that it’s quite a solid piece of work, with wonderful production design and some scorching chemistry between Craig and Gemma Arterton, but does wobble more than a bit plot-wise, and suffers from action sequences edited to the point of inducing seizures. One of the gambits of the film was to introduce a shadowy criminal organization into the mix, a cabal of sinister industrialists known as Quantum, which was obviously meant to serve as a SPECTRE for the new generation of films. One really can’t fault the Bond production team: it wouldn’t be until November 2013, over a year after Skyfall’s release, that they regained the rights to the SPECTRE name.
Yup, it’s that old legalistic irritant, the rights-holders, which had the world’s most celebrated secret agent doing battle with (huh?) a water monopoly. The story has been oft-told so it needn’t be rehashed here, but in a nutshell, SPECTRE and its associated characters were trapped for decades in the legal limbo arising from Ian Fleming’s collaboration on an unproduced screenplay with Jack Whittingham and Kevin McClory in the late fifties. This screenplay begat the novel Thunderball, the SPECTRE organization, years and years of court cases and ultimately, the non-canonical misfire of Never Say Never Again and Kim Basinger having an asterix next to “Bond Girl” in her résumé. Though it came close to it once the rights to Fleming’s first Bond novel were finally obtained in 1999 after years of wrangling, Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson at last hold all the key toys with which to play in terms of James Bond mythology.
So what does this mean for Bond on film? Does Quantum go the way of the likes of Sylvia Trench and 007’s knowledge of lepidoptery, brief flirtations that didn’t pan out? Does it evolve into SPECTRE or get absorbed into it? Most importantly, will it run its schemes from a hollowed out volcano? Though it’s almost certain that both leaks from the set and misinformation from the studio will be filling our newsfeeds over the next seven months of shooting, anyone not in the genuine know will have to guess. So to lay the groundwork for the guesswork, here’s a brief history of eyepatches, white cats, Nehru jackets and sharks with frikkin’ laser beams on their heads. That was SPECTRE, right?
For much of the run of Fleming’s original Bond novels, and in keeping with the cold war tenor of the times, our hero did battle with either Soviet agents working for a heavily-fictionalized version of SMERSH (SMERt SHpionem, or “Death to Spies,” a Soviet intelligence agency disbanded in 1946 in the real world) or western villains backed by them. It wasn’t until 1959 that SPECTRE appeared on the scene in the Thunderball screenplay-and-then-novel, after Fleming guessed incorrectly that the cold war was winding down and a British spy fighting Russian plots would seem anachronistic by the time the movie came out. Hence, the apolitical SPECTRE, dedicated to purely profitable criminal pursuits rather than ideologically-driven world domination.
When the movies, filmed in a different order than the novels were published and thus tossing out the literary continuity, kicked off in 1962, Fleming’s supposition had proved howlingly wrong, but SPECTRE still made for a well-designed enemy that could serve as the antagonist as the series progressed no matter what the real-world geopolitical situation looked like. In fact, despite a legend that suggests at times that one film was all that the Bond producers had in the pipeline, the third-act reveal in Dr. No of the mysterious organization being a behind the scenes player in the eponymous villain’s plot reads now as nothing but setup for a sequel. “SPECTRE?” Bond says over the “Remind me why I’m still keeping you alive?” dinner that serves as a breather for the audience before the non-stop climax, planting for the first time the seeds of a worthy adversary that will be dealt with later.
From Russia With Love
Appearing just one year after the inaugural film, this first sequel (which in this reviewer’s opinion is the absolute high point of the Connery run) has a compelling sense of realpolitik, in that it’s one of only a handful of films in the entire franchise in which 007 does anything remotely resembling what a real life MI-6 agent would do, investigating a potential defector in an attempt to snag a encryption machine. It also marks the first of only two times in the film series in which SMERSH is mentioned, and here it’s more of a cover for the actual puppet masters of the plot. This is the film that introduces Ernst Stavro Blofeld as SPECTRE’s ringleader, kept as a figure of mystery with his face offscreen. In fact, From Russia With Love does more to set up the character of SPECTRE Number One than of the organization he runs, or at least his physical traits: the ring, the white cat, the unplaceable European upper-class accent delivering dire warnings. By the film’s end, SPECTRE has come across more as a small gang of plotters rather than an international cabal. All that would change soon enough, though it would be another two films before we got the full on SPECTRE experience.
Talk about a Year One. Most critics will say that Goldfinger is the film in which the Bond series found its groove (or settled into its rut, as some wags would have it). And there’s a strong case to be made: gadgetry took centre stage, “Major Boothroyd” became “Q” and the sight of Shirley Eaton as a gilded statue showed that one iconic image will make a blockbuster. Thunderball, however, is arguably far more influential. In its plotting, its underwater sequences, and the characterizations of its varied villains, the fourth film in the series influenced more than just the Bond films that came later, it introduced story elements that have been ripped off, rehashed, and parodied ever since. About half of the tropes played off of in Austin Powers can trace their lineage to this film.
It’s also where SPECTRE takes centre stage, and finally gets a proper introduction to the audience in a vivid and unforgettable sequence. A hidden panel in the Paris offices of the International Brotherhood for the Assistance of Stateless Persons slides open to reveal the corporate boardroom from hell. Blofeld and his cat are back, hidden behind a screen and presiding over a board meeting in which acts of extortion, murder and the hijacking of nuclear warheads are listed off impassively as action items, and downsizing is accomplished via electrocutions. Thunderball gives us our first sense of who SPECTRE is and their sphere of influence. It speaks to the strength of the plotting in 1965 that to watch the film now is to invite more than two hours of ticking off the clichés on your fingers, then remembering “Oh right…none of this was well-worn and hackneyed yet.” Every movie since in which a megalomaniac has held the world ransom with a nuclear threat is a cinematic child of Thunderball.
You Only Live Twice
Here’s where SPECTRE begins to go off the rails a bit conceptually, while at the same time providing the movie world with a whole new set of tropes and archetypes. And despite the even bigger, more grandiose scheme being enacted (kidnapping of space capsules mid-flight in an attempt to provoke a nuclear exchange between the superpowers), somehow this time around SPECTRE seems….I dunno, smaller. Like it’s just the Blofeld show now. Gone is the executive board, and in its place are henchmen, femme fatales and hordes of nameless jumpsuited cannon fodder answering to one guy at the top with a penchant for collarless jackets, much like most of the films that would come later in the series well into the eighties. The idea of SPECTRE as the menace behind the scenes is invoked early on, in a hot tub conversation between Bond and Tanaka, the head of the Japanese secret service, but the name is rarely used again. I’d argue that the moment in which Donald Pleasance leans around the corner of his chair to give the camera its first look at the face of Blofeld, is the moment where SPECTRE stops being a going concern of the films. With his Nehru jacket, ever-present white cat and his front-row seat for the action (rather than getting updates from afar back in Paris), Ernst Stavro Blofeld is the man in charge, as may as well be SPECTRE for all the storytelling is concerned.
You Only Live Twice is rightly celebrated for its spectacle, and the sheer scope of production designer Ken Adams’ volcano set. At the same time, this is where the series takes a solid left turn into logistical lunacy: SPECTRE hollowed out a freaking mountain and are launching spacecraft from it! At least now we know where all the money they were tabulating at that board meeting in the last movie went to, and who knows how lavish their lair might have been had the blackmail plot actually worked out. (I love comedian Dana Gould’s take on how Bond villains acquire such ridonkulously lavish resources: “Well oddly enough, my uncle died, and left me this empty volcano!”) When…spoiler alert, I guess…Blofeld escapes at the end, we know he’ll be back. SPECTRE, however, seems almost an afterthought by this point.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
This underrated, George Lazenby-starring, odd-duck entry in the series tries to have it both ways, SPECTRE-wise. On one hand, an early mention of the organization places it about level in the criminal hierarchy as a mafia gang which, considering they had a functioning space program two years earlier, seems a step down. On the other, Blofeld’s latest caper, involving brainwashing a bevy of luscious Carnaby Street dingbats into being sleeper agents delivering crop-destroying viruses through perfume spritzers (ah, the sixties…), has no such grandiose end goals as nuclear annihilation. Rather, he wants a pardon for his earlier shenanigans and the title of a French count. The who the what now? With his retirement, has someone else taken over SPECTRE, or has it quietly disbanded, a bunch of former Nazis, Cosa Nostra, and Stazi agents wandering the streets of Europe, let down that their second careers never really launched an effective product?
Though Blofeld was back in Diamonds Are Forever (in this reviewer’s opinion, pretty close to the nadir of the entire series), SPECTRE was not, and 1971’s nuclear plot was a solo act for Blofeld, played by Charles Gray as a mincing, effete plastic surgery disaster, light years removed from the menacing off-camera manipulator of From Russia With Love. The last gasp of SPECTRE onscreen was Never Say Never Again, Kevin McClory’s 1983 attempt at making his own big-screen Bond at last and to establish a competing franchise. The movie itself doesn’t work terribly well and is wholly unnecessary—it’s basically Thunderball (slight return) with video games instead of baccarat and Rowan Atkinson pratfalling into the pool—but in it, SPECTRE returned to its original glory at last. While still a fantastic (in the original sense of the word) concept, SPECTRE had never been more convincing onscreen, hatching their plan for nuclear blackmail with steely menace underlaid with convivial joy at getting away with it all.
To make SPECTRE a convincing threat is thus the biggest potential pitfall for the series’ current producers and screenwriters. If the first Daniel Craig outing had to satisfy an audience whose standards for action sequences had been tuned and tweaked by parkour and eskrima thanks to Jason Bourne, an evil cabal with world domination on its mind now has to contend with the cinematic legacy of the League of Shadows and Christopher Nolan’s “realistic” take on Batman. One of Skyfall’s great strengths was that it was the most downright British entry in the series in many years: the standard exotic locales provided the backdrop for the first half of the film, but the back nine was set in gritty, recognizable London and on grey Scottish moors. In other words, The Real World, at least one that the character of James Bond could conceivably inhabit. The Craig era hasn’t lacked for exoticism and spectacle—once again, for all its failings, Quantum of Solace paid much more tribute to the legacy of Ken Adam than Casino Royale had—but for better or for worse, this era of the franchise is unspooling in an age of self-reflection and deconstruction. Launching nukes from an oil derrick off of the Bahamas (or whatever) isn’t going to cut it for 2015’s jaded audience.
The Quantum group didn’t particularly catch fire, possibly because one left the film with the impression of the organization being “A bunch of rich people…doing stuff…with contracts…” the likes of which we have more than enough in real life anyway. Where the concept did work was in the sense of paranoia it engendered within MI-6. We’ve been infiltrated, no one is safe, how well do you know the agent next to you? In an age when security from the enemy within is a much more relatable concern than defense against a laser beam from space, SPECTRE is going to have to have some people on the inside. One can only wonder at the positioning of Andrew Scott onstage at the cast reveal: introduced by Sam Mendes as “a new addition to the Whitehall family” and then conspicuously made to stand with the “one and out” cast rather than the series regulars…they wouldn’t be so obvious with their mole, would they? Leading baddie Christoph Waltz’s character is named “Oberhauser” and the imdb lists no one as “Blofeld” at this point, but who knows, this could always be a J.J. Abrams styled “No seriously, he’s not Khan!” feint.
Rumours and supposition already abound online, but as I write this the film is a week into production and another autumn will have fallen again by the time we get to see the finished product so let’s face it: virtually everyone who knows what to expect from SPECTRE were standing on stage next to Sam Mendes at Pinewood last week, and they aren’t talking. And while each leak will be studied by some fanatics like it like it was the Zapruder film, the rest of us who rush out the night of release and plunk ourselves down in a centre seat ready to take in the latest 007 spectacle with a laser focus won’t be partaking. There’s a magic involved in keeping any series going, to say nothing of one that’s been causing pulses to skip for more than half a century. Whether the new-and-improved SPECTRE comes with the cosmetic trappings of early sixties continental Eurotrash, architecturally dubious bases of operations and a litter of white cats with jewelled collars, or whether it’s been reinvented for a generation for whom the cold war is already a quarter century gone and whose standards of cinematic credibility are substantially higher, there isn’t the…well, let’s say ghost of a chance that it won’t be welcomed into the canon.
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