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The Cat is Back!
The Spectre Behind S.P.E.C.T.R.E.

3,177 words

The Cat is Back! [1]

The Cat is Back!

This essay is dedicated to Savitri Devi.

James Bond overheard pouring his heart out to a bartender, while downing his sixth vodka martini: “Aside from the torture devices, the explosions, the mindless, soulless, robotic minions, and the miles and miles of stainless steel, there’s one thing that still haunts me about Blofeld’s hellish world, one thing I can’t get out of my bloody nostrils: that godawful litter box smell!” 

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the cat is back! And Blofeld’s got him. I need not alert you to spoilers ahead, as by now everyone has heard that Spectre, the new Bond film starring the incomparable Daniel Craig, features the return of Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Though I found much of this film to be rather disappointing (an inevitable letdown after the superb Skyfall) I am delighted that the old man is back again. And I’m happy that Blofeld is back as well.

Let’s start with a little bit of history. Blofeld and the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. organization came about through the collaboration of Ian Fleming, Kevin McClory, and Jack Whittingham on a never-filmed screenplay titled James Bond of the Secret Service. The work began, I believe, in 1958, and it was apparently McClory who was the primary creator of Blofeld and his organization. Fleming liked the idea, as he was tired of using the Russians as villains. When nothing came of the project, Fleming adapted the script into his novel Thunderball, published in 1961.

The trouble is that Fleming . . . uh . . . forgot that the story was the result of a collaboration. McClory and Whittingham, understandably, filed suit — and won. The outcome was that Fleming’s health was ruined (he died a year after the court case concluded), and McClory was declared legal owner of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and Blofeld. This created a difficult situation for everyone concerned. Fleming had already used Blofeld in two other novels: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963) and You Only Live Twice (1964).

Furthermore, producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had added the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. organization to their film of Dr. No (1962; it did not figure in the novel), and both the organization and Blofeld were written into From Russia, With Love (1963; again, neither is in the novel). This meant that after the 1963 court decision, McClory could have sued Eon Productions for the use of his creations in its first two films. This problem was solved when Eon offered McClory a substantial amount of money to “lease” S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and Blofeld from him for a period of ten years, understood as beginning in 1962.

Since Broccoli and Saltzman had already bought the rights to Thunderball from Fleming, this presented an arguably more complicated matter — one that was solved by Eon co-producing the film version with McClory (who also, by the court’s decision, won the film rights to the story). This worked out to be a nice arrangement for Mr. McClory, since Thunderball was an absolute blockbuster. In today’s dollars it made approximately a billion.

But rather than get on with his life and perhaps create a dense and radiant muffin of his own design, the odious Mr. McClory spent the rest of his days trying to capitalize on the success of Eon’s Bond films by launching a competing Bond series of his own. This process began almost immediately after Eon’s “lease” on Blofeld expired in 1972. The evil genius was last seen in an Eon Bond film in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever. By the mid-’70s, reports were circulating that McClory was planning a film titled variously James Bond of the Secret Service, or Warhead. McClory quickly got Sean Connery involved, as actor, producer, and collaborator on the screenplay. And these two then brought the redoubtable Len Deighton on board.

Eon Productions fought back with an endless series of injunctions against McClory. And while the first Warhead script appears to have been completed in 1976, it would not be filmed until 1983, by which point the title had become Never Say Never Again. This would be McClory’s one and only victory. After this film, he had planned to make other Bond adventures, all somehow or other based on the original Thunderball screenplays to which he owned the rights, and presumably starring Connery. But Eon successfully defeated this in court.

Like the cinematic monster that just will not die, McClory kept on fighting. As late as 1999 Sony Pictures announced that, in collaboration with McClory, they would be making their own competing series of Bond films. When this was quashed, McClory then filed a suit against Eon claiming he was owed money (above and beyond the amount of his original lease) for all the Eon films featuring S.P.E.C.T.R.E. This too was quashed — and by now everyone could see that Mr. McClory was one of those people Ayn Rand called moochers and looters.

McClory died in 2006, whereupon Eon Productions (now headed by Barbara Broccoli and her half-brother Michael G. Wilson) quietly made a deal with his estate. For an undisclosed sum, they bought the rights to Blofeld and S.P.E.C.T.R.E. Partly, this was done to end — once and for all — attempts on anyone’s part to try to launch a competing Bond series through the back door of the complicated Thunderball rights. But Eon also wanted to bring back Bond’s most celebrated nemesis.

Actually, they had long wanted to. Originally, the villain in 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me was to have been Blofeld. But when McClory refused to negotiate the rights, and announced plans for Warhead, the villain’s name was changed to “Stromberg,” and he was given a new motive for his dastardly scheme: not extortion but idealism. Everything else remained the same — including the Mao jacket and the bit about dunking betrayers into a shark tank. (And the actor cast as Stromberg, Curt Jurgens, would arguably have made the all-time best Blofeld.) In 1981, in what has rightfully been interpreted as a giant middle finger held up to McClory, Eon featured a Blofeld-like villain in the opening sequence of For Your Eyes Only. The character — who is never named — is dispatched by Bond, but not before pleading “We can do a deal! I’ll build you a delicatessen in stainless steel!” (A line reportedly contributed by Cubby Broccoli.)

The cat in the hands of pervy Donald Pleasance in You Only Live Twice 1967 [2]

The cat in the hands of pervy Donald Pleasance in You Only Live Twice (1967)

So, what is it that made this unnamed villain recognizable as Blofeld? I’m glad you asked. First, he is bald — as Donald Pleasance was in You Only Live Twice (arguably the most physically memorable Blofeld). Second, he wears a Mao jacket. And third, he lavishes affection on a luxurious white Persian cat wearing a diamond collar. Without question, this is the feature of the Blofeld persona that everyone remembers. It has been copied and parodied countless times. One of my favorite instances of an outright copy is in the Bruce Lee film Enter the Dragon (1973), where the villain appears wearing a Blofeld-like jacket and carrying a white Persian cat (I’m guessing it was not the same cat). I love this one because it’s not camp, it’s naïve. Apparently somebody in Hong Kong just thought that white Persian cats are in indispensable accessory for the super-villain. And then, of course, there is the Persian-rendered-bald in the Austin Powers movies, about which the less said the better.

Now, I knew that S.P.E.C.T.R.E. was making a comeback in Spectre. Indeed, the film is called Spectre, which was definitely a clue. But I was unsure that Blofeld would be resurrected. After all, I kept hearing that the film’s villain (played by Christoph Waltz) was called “Oberhauser.” Imagine my delight when, near the end of this overlong movie, “Oberhauser” announces that he has assumed a new name: Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Admittedly, there are problems. First, S.P.E.C.T.R.E. is now Spectre; the acronym (SPecial Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, Extortion) is gone. I heard they thought it seemed corny now. But still more problematic is why this Blofeld is Blofeld. The film reveals that the guy’s name really is Oberhauser. He decides to change it after, decades earlier, murdering his own father after he agreed to become legal guardian to the young James Bond. Yes, rather than share his toys with James, the psychotic young Oberhauser kills his father. And this is why he hates Bond, and why all that has happened in the previous three Bond films has been orchestrated by Oberhauer. Or something like that. If this seems pat, overcomplicated, unnecessary, and implausible it is because it is simultaneously all of these things.

Oh, I forgot: after committing patricide Oberhauser changes his name to Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The explanation: “Mother’s bloodline,” he says to Bond. Okay, so his mother’s maiden name was Blofeld. But from whom did he lift the Greek middle name? Things were a lot less complicated in Fleming: he’s named Ernst Stavro Blofeld because his father is German and his mother is Greek.

But setting this aside — saints preserve us he’s wearing a Nehru jacket (or a janker; it depends on your perspective)! And they use an adaptation of the old Spectre ghost/octopus emblem (first seen in From Russia, With Love). Oh, and by the way: Blofeld wears his Nehru jacket with slippers and no socks. I’m still trying to figure that one out (see the film — I’m not making it up). This is revealed in the Spectre’s rather grim torture sequence in which — yes! — the cat appears.

At first I thought I must be dreaming. A number of critics have commented on the fact that in this film, Eon has tried to give us more of the “old Bond” that many have missed in the Craig entries. And this definitely appears to be true. I’m not surprised we got Blofeld back, but the filmmakers deserve real credit for not restraining themselves on the cat issue. So what if it’s now camp? After the highway of despair that was the last three Craig movies (they’re good, mind you — but grim) we deserve a little camp.

As you must have gathered from the foregoing, I think that Spectre is a mixed bag of a movie. But almost anything was bound to disappoint us after Skyfall. I will say no more, as I know that Trevor Lynch is planning a full review [3]. Here I wish only to celebrate the return of the cat. Let us now take a trip down memory lane and recall the highlights of this evil cat’s nine lives:

Cat makes its first appearance in From Russia, With Love -- 1963 [4]

Cat makes its first appearance in From Russia, With Love (1963)

1. The cat is introduced in From Russia, With Love (1963). Blofeld wears a regular suit in this one — looks black, or very dark blue. Every time I watch the scenes where he’s holding the cat I think about the fur problem. And I imagine Hans, the huge, blond superman thug from You Only Live Twice whisking him with one of those sticky lint rollers. Blofeld’s face is not seen. His body is played by Anthony Dawson, who was Professor Dent in Dr. No, and he is voiced by Eric Pohlmann. We watch as Siamese fighting fish go at it in Blofeld’s fish tank. Then Blofeld feeds one of them to the cat. This is about all the cat has to do, I’m afraid. Poor pussy. But he was only getting started.

2. Thunderball (1965). The cat’s next appearance is two years later. Blofeld’s face is again unseen, and he is played by the same two actors for body and voice. This is the famous S.P.E.C.T.R.E. board room sequence. Blofeld realizes one of his underlings has betrayed him. At a command from the cat in his lap he presses a switch and electrocutes the reckless fool. The best part is when the chair sinks into the floor, then rises again without the body. Actually, I am kidding: the cat doesn’t tell Blofeld to do it. But there is really no way to know what Blofeld is thinking, is there?

Cat in the arms of Blofeld in Thunderball 1965 [5]

Cat in the arms of Blofeld in Thunderball (1965)

The Blofeld that never was -- Czech actor Jan Werich holds the cat in You Only Live Twive before being fired from the film (allegedly at the cat's request) [6]

The Blofeld that never was — Czech actor Jan Werich holds the cat in You Only Live Twice before being fired from the film (allegedly at the cat’s request)

3. You Only Live Twice (1967). In this one, Blofeld’s face is finally revealed. The producers originally cast Czech actor Jan Werick to play him. But after five days of filming, he was deemed unsuitable. (“He looked like Father Christmas,” said director Lewis Gilbert.) Werick was replaced by Donald Pleasance, who is suitably pervy and creepy. I should note here that Christoph Waltz plays Blofeld in similar creepy fashion. And — Spoiler alert! — he winds up near the end of the film with a scar just like the one they gave Pleasance. Two notable scenes in YOLT: Watch carefully the scene near the end of the film in Blofeld’s control room. As the ninjas attack and bombs start going off the cat looks REALLY scared, and is clawing the hell out of Pleasance’s Mao jacket. This is the first time Blofeld is seen in this getup, by the way. Later: when Blofeld is escaping, as he goes to flip the self-destruct switch in his gigantic volcano lair, he is still carrying the cat. Is the cat there to soften Blofeld’s image? Curious.

4. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). Here Blofeld become Telly Savalas. Not an inspired piece of casting in this, the best of all Bond movies. The producers thought Pleasance unsuited to the film, due to the fact that this Blofeld is more vigorous (he skies, for instance). The cat makes an all-too-brief an appearance, first being stroked by Savalas in his lap (Savalas wearing a janker), then being tossed out of Savalas’s lap when he learns that Bond has escaped his mountaintop lair.

Telly Savalas holds the cat in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) [7]

Telly Savalas holds the cat in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

5. Diamonds Are Forever (1971). About the cat being there to “soften” Blofeld’s image: in this one we actually see the cat sitting on Blofeld’s desk eating Tender Vittles out of (what else?) a stainless steel bowl. This is the scene that makes me think about the litter box. Where is it? Under Blofeld’s gigantic desk? In the ornate bathroom that Bond breaks into when first arriving in Blofeld’s penthouse lair? What kind of litter does Blofeld use? Clumping? Scented? Well, in this film he would have to use that Arm and Hammer multi-cat litter because here we get TWO cats! Yes, Blofeld has a double. And, appropriately, his cat has a double as well. Confronted with the two Blofelds, Bond thinks he knows which is real. So he savagely kicks one of the kitties, sending it sailing, claws ablaze, into the chest of one of the Blofelds. Then he pulls out a concealed bolt-gun and kills the man with a shot to the head. Alas, it is the double, not the real thing. “Right idea, Mr. Bond,” purrs Blofeld. “But wrong pussy,” Bond replies.

Charles Gray's Blofeld feeds cat from stainless steel cat bowl -- proof he has a heart after all [8]

Charles Gray’s Blofeld feeds cat from stainless steel cat bowl — proof he has a heart after all

In this film Blofeld is played by Charles Gray, in some scenes wearing a lovely pearl-grey Mao jacket. Gray’s Blofeld is very, very, very gay. And, as a result, for the first time we notice just how froo froo an accessory this cat really is.

Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the film adaptation of Diamonds Are Forever [9]

Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the film adaptation of Diamonds Are Forever

Later on, Bond girl Tiffany Case (Jill St. John) sees an old woman heading for a chauffeured limousine and carrying a Persian cat. Somebody must have tipped Tiffany off about Blofeld being a cat lover, because she is instantly suspicious. And, yes, it turns out that the old woman is Blofeld in drag! Poor Tiffany is captured and shoved into Blofeld’s limo. “Well, well,” he says. “Look what the cat dragged in.” Later, in conversation with Bond, millionaire Willard Whyte (Jimmy Dean) refers to Blofeld as “Your friend with the cat.” It becomes official with this film: it doesn’t matter who plays Blofeld or what he looks like. The cat is the thing. Is “Blofeld” just there to mind the cat? And what is this cat’s name? Macavity?

Charles Gray as Blofeld in drag holds cat [10]

Charles Gray as Blofeld in drag holds cat

By the way: just how do Tiffany and Whyte know that Blofeld has a cat? The only possible answer is that Bond talks about it. A lot.

To Tiffany, lying next to her in bed smoking: “. . . That’s not the worst thing. That’s not what’s bothering me. It’s that cat that he has. Arrogant little bastard! I can’t get its eyes out of my head, or . . .” (picking fur out from under his lip) “. . . or its hair out of my mouth. The fucking hair is everywhere.” Tiffany: “James, it’s okay. It happens to every man now and then.”

To Willard Whyte: “You still don’t get it, do you! That laser is a gigantic cat toy. . . . Don’t look at me like that. Have you ever seen a cat chasing a spot projected by a laser? This thing is so powerful it can project a spot on the moon — or burn through solid metal. In the hands of that cat, we’re all mice down here!” Without looking at it he hurriedly unscrews the top on a vodka bottle and takes a swig. Bond (recoiling): “Ugh! Siamese vodka.” (Bond fans: how many references to other Bond films can you spot in the above?)

6. As discussed earlier, Blofeld and pussy disappear from the Eon films after Diamonds are Forever. Well, except for For Your Eyes Only (1981). This is the one where the character who “looks like” Blofeld makes an appearance. Fun cat fact: When Bond’s helicopter lifts “Blofeld’s” wheelchair (see the film), the cat immediately abandons him. This means either (a) the cat does not like Blofeld, or (b) the cat is a cat.

Max von Sydow holds the cat in Kevin McClory's Never Say Never Again 1983 [11]

Max von Sydow holds the cat in Kevin McClory’s Never Say Never Again (1983)

7. Never Say Never Again (1983). In the odious Mr. McClory’s not-bad Bond movie, Max von Sydow plays Blofeld. Here he wears a standard suit, as he did in the McClory-produced Thunderball. The cat features prominently in one shot, when von Sydow picks him. Otherwise, it has nothing to do — except gaze at the camera at one point, in an exquisite close up.

Which brings us to . . .

8. Spectre (“Now!” as they would say in the Matt Helm movies; or “the Current Year,” as we say today): All I can add to what I have said before is that here — for the first time in Bond history — the cat jumps into Bond’s lap. “Hello pussy,” he says. Now, THIS would have given Blofeld a much more plausible motive for revenge. I know people like this, who can’t stand it when their pets show affection to others.

Will the cat return in the next Bond movie? Because there almost certainly will be a next. Spectre is nowhere near as good a movie as Skyfall, but it’s still raking in the money. At the end of this film Blofeld is captured — and we know what that means: someone will spring him. He will be back. And where there is Blofeld, the cat cannot be far behind. The cat, after all, is clearly the brains of the outfit.