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A View to a Bond Baddie: Ernst Stavro Blofeld

To celebrate James Bond’s 50th birthday on screen, we’re going to take a look at the character and his films. We’ve already reviewed all the classic movies, so we’ll be looking at his iconic baddies, and even at the character himself.

Blofeld is unique among the Bond villains for his capacity to keep turning up. He’s appeared in more on-screen adventures than any other Bond baddie, and he survives in the popular imagination, with a lot of gossip about the next Bond film likely to debate whether or not they’re bringing Blofeld back. The character has endured in the public imagination as the Bond baddie, and he’s perhaps best immortalised as Micheal Myers’ Doctor Evil from the Austin Powers movies. However, watching his appearances again, I’m actually struck by how little consistency there is in the portrayal of his character, and I can’t help but wonder if the reason he endures is because of his versatility as an adversary.

Bond movies have a remarkable adaptability. They can be serious, campy, ridiculous, sombre, mature and juvenile, often all at the same time. As far as Bond villains go, Blofeld’s really the only villain who can compete with that.

He looks like the cat who got the canary…

To be fair, I suspect there are a lot of reasons that Blofeld has endured as a character. He was rooted in the franchise from the very beginning – well, almost the very beginning. He first appeared in From Russia With Love, while the film was careful to retroactively clarify his involvement with the events of Dr. No. He haunted the Bond movies like a phantom from there on out, skipping on Goldfinger between his first appearance in From Russia With Love and his last appearance in Diamonds Are Forever.

(And that’s discounting the character’s out-of-continuity appearance in Never Say Never Again and the unnamed – but obvious – cameo in For Your Eyes Only. The guy certainly gets around a lot. He clearly has a better agent than even Jaws. The fact that he proved impossible to kill probably also helps. I’m still not convinced that Roger Moore properly killed him by dropping him down that chimney stack in For Your Eyes Only, but he gets points of effort.)

You could argue that they’re the same character, but it’s a Gray area…

Appearing – in one form or another – in five of the first seven Bond movies will certainly establish a character as essential to the franchise. However, I think that there’s some other factors involved in his lasting appeal. I think that he’s naturally an iconic character. Introducing the white fluffy cat in From Russia With Love was an ingenious decision on the part of the production crew, as it gave the camera something to focus on while Blofeld was monologuing. It made the decision not to show his face seem more artistic and more memorable than any other attempt to delay paying for a potentially expense actor in the part.

Although his physical appearance dynamically changed from movie to movie – along with the actor playing or voicing him – I think that there’s something to be said for Donald Pleasence’s Blofeld. The appearance really just evokes all the classic Bond villain tropes so perfectly, and it’s clear that Pleasence’s Blofeld was the defining physical influence on Doctor Evil. The grey suit, the physically character with an imposing military apparatus, the facial scar, the low voice with the faint European accent – these are all classic Bond villain tropes, and I think that Pleasence’s Blofeld really solidified them in popular imagination.

A faceless CEO…

To be entirely fair, Pleasence’s Blofeld really owes a massive debt to Doctor Julius No as portrayed by Joseph Wiseman, who has been incorrectly rumoured to have dubbed Blofeld’s voice in Thunderball. The wardrobe in particular evokes Wiseman’s No, as does Pleasence’s economy of movement and the relatively understated nature of the portrayal. In contrast to more flamboyant Bond villains like Goldfinger, Julius No and Pleasence’s Blofeld seem more graceful and elegant.

However, next to nothing about Blofeld is consistent between films, from his appearance to his body language to his motivations or methodology. It’s often hard to believe that the three “major”Blofelds – Donald Pleasance, Telly Savalas and Charles Gray – could be the same character. Indeed, it’s almost harder to reconcile than the idea that Sean Connery played the came character as Roger Moore. That said, I suspect that’s part of the appeal of the character. He’s able to be all things to all people. It’s impossible for one character to incorporate all the archetypes and clichés that we associate with Bond villains. However, across those three interpretations, Blofeld comes pretty close.

A Pleasence to deal with…

Pleasance is, in many respects, the most cliché Bond bad guy ever. He has the most lovely (and extravagant) lair that Ken Adams ever designed. He has a pool of piranha in his hidden volcano lair. He has the technology to kidnap space ships… and couldn’t be bothered making a legitimate fortune off it. He has Bond at his mercy repeatedly, and… shoots other random characters instead. When he finally decides to put Bond out of his misery, he walks Bond into the middle of the battle field to do so. The inevitable occurs, and Bond survives.

Roger Moore has described Pleasence’s take on the character as a “gay Himmler”, and it makes sense – You Only Live Twice did foreshadow the series’ descent into camp. With his short stature and shaved head, perhaps Pleasence’s Blofeld is the ultimate expression of the infantilised Bond villain – he literally looks like a baby, a petulant child that Bond needs to sort out. Kingsley Amis argued that the best of Fleming’s villains were dark father figures, but I think the films also supported the idea that they were malicious overgrown children. Pleasence’s Blofeld stops just short of a major temper tantrum when things start to fall apart. “Kill Bond! Now!”

Sitting tight at Piz Gloria…

What’s interesting about Blofeld in You Only Live Twice, as compared to his two immediately subsequent appearances, is that he is very clearly a middle-man. Blofeld isn’t provoking war between Russia and the United States for his end. He’s very clearly working at the behest of a third power. When Bond consults with Henderson about the kidnappings, Henderson makes it clear that this is a geopolitical power play.

“And don’t ask me who’s doing it either,” he informs Bond. “But I have a fairly shrewd idea that a major foreign power is behind it all.” Bond clarifies, “You mean, apart from Russia and Japan?” Henderson replies, “Oh it’s not Russia, old boy, I’m sure of that. It’s not Japan either.” There’s really only one other major geopolitical power in that part of the world, and even Blofeld concedes that it isn’t S.P.E.C.T.R.E. that benefits from this politically. “In a matter of hours, after America and Russia have annihilated one another, we will see a new power dominating the world,” he boasts.

A cool cat…

Red China is a very clear political adversary in the early Bond films, even more than Russia – perhaps a sign of cooling attitudes toward Soviet Russia. Doctor No has a very full staff of military officers, who appear to come from Asia. They aren’t hired henchmen, but look like actual soldiers from a major military power. China would have an obvious interest in sabotaging America’s rockets, and Dr. NO conspicuously ignores China in his monologue about how America and Russia both refused to employ his talents.

Blofeld meets with his benefactors in You Only Live Twice, who claim to be negotiating on the part of their government. “Our clients are satisfied with the progress so far?” Blofeld asks. “My government is quite satisfied,”his Asian colleague responds. It’s very hard to imagine that – even though it isn’t explicitly named – it isn’t Red China that is sponsoring Blofeld’s efforts in international terrorism. It ultimately isn’t that important, but it’s striking that Pleasence’s Blofeld is revealed to be a businessman in the business of terror, a mad man willing to push the world towards nuclear war for his own material gains.

How much do you reckon Blofeld’s insurance premium is these days?

It also creates the impression that Blofeld was never quite as powerful as he let on, that he lacks any real imagination or vision in his evil plots. Despite trying to present himself as the man-behind-the-man, he’s really just a sub-contractor to the real players on the political stage. In From Russia With Love, he monologues about the third fish waiting for the two fighting fish to wear each other out. The two fighting fish are Russia and the West, but the third patient fish isn’t S.P.E.C.T.R.E. at all, despite his posturing.

Telly Savalas’ Blofeld is a very different character in many respects, with countless contrasts to that presented by Pleasence. Pleasence was happy for Blofeld to remain in the background and patiently watch the world destroy itself from his secret lair. Savalas’ Blofeld seems less secure about himself and his position in things. He hides in plain sight, taking over a ski lodge literally at the top of the world. He might not have a spaceship-eating-rocket, but he’s more ostentatious than Pleasence ever was.

Who loves you, Bondy?

Savalas’ Blofeld feels more like a social striver – the insecure Bond villain who desperately seeks legitimacy and status. Much like Goldfinger bought his social status, Francisco Scaramanga seemed unhappy with his lot in life, and Gustav Graves marauded as a member of British high society, Savalas’ Blofeld also seems uncomfortable in his own skin. His whole plot is effectively ruined because he wanted the title of de Bleuchamp – allowing Bond to infiltrate Piz Gloria posing as a researcher.

“He wants to leave his mark on the world,” we’re told of Savalas’ Blofeld, in marked contrast to the more low-key and subtle villainy of earlier instalments. When Bond, posing as Sir Hillary, dares to suggest he must investigate his claim, Blofeld is quick to clarify what he sees as the situation, “To confirm, Sir Hilary. There’s no doubt of the truth.” This gives Bond one advantage over Blofeld – Bond is kind of gentleman that Blofeld wishes to be, and so he can withhold his approval in a manner that clearly infuriates the villain. “It’ll take more than cutting off your earlobes, Blofeld,” Bond warns him, “to turn you into a count.”

You can count on Blofeld to cause trouble…

He’s certainly fixated on the proving himself high borne. When he holds the world to ransom, M outlines Blofeld’s conditions. It turns out that he doesn’t just want big piles of money. He wants something more, too. “Official recognition of his title when he retires into private life as Count de Bleuchamp. He seems to set great store by that.” When he kidnaps Traci, he seems to develop a romantic fixation on the Countess, undoubtedly drawn to her high social status. His affection and appreciation seem entirely genuine. When she suggests that she wants to see the sun rise, he isn’t dismissive, but romantic, trying desperately to sound cultured, “Ah, so poetic a pleasure.”

The irony, of course, is that Savalas’ Blofeld is little more than a thug. He’s certainly the most physically imposing of the actors to play Blofeld. It’s hard to imagine Donald Pleasence or Charles Gray leading the ski chase to hunt Bond down themselves. We’re told that S.P.E.C.T.R.E. is the largest criminal organisation in Europe, but Blofeld suddenly seems much more hands-on in managing them. Smoking his cigarettes and pretending to be cultured, it’s clear that Savalas’ Blofeld is a brute rather than an intellectual, despite his pretension. Apparently this take on the character inspired Bruce Timm’s work on Lex Luthor, Superman’s iconic adversary.

He’s on top of the world…

Savalas also plays Blofeld as more of a traditional sinister father figure than Pleasence did. While Pleasence was prone to temper-tantrums and keen to demonstrate his fancy new toys, Savalas finds himself playing more of a stern counterpart to Bond. When Bond arrives in Piz Gloria, he finds that Blofeld runs it like a prison, locking all his guests in at night. He perfectly manages each of the girls staying at the resort. When Bond gets in his way, Blofeld basically locks him in his room. This is most obvious when he discusses the mountain climber that his men found trying to reach Piz Gloria“We have rules which must be observed.”

Of course, like all villains, Savalas’ Blofeld can be just as petty as any other bad guy. When Bond foils his plan to hold the world hostage, he betrays his thuggish roots by striking at Bond with a drive-by shooting. When Bond questions the science behind his scheme, he rather sensitively responds, “The methods of the great pioneers have often puzzled conventional minds.” Despite his imposing demeanour and his sinister plans, Savalas’ Blofeld is governed by his insecurities and inadequacies.

He’s an expert in the Feld of not killing Bond…

I actually think that Savalas plays one of the better Bond villains in the series, one of the best developed. I just think he’s hampered by following Pleasence, which means that he has to inherit all these design attributes that attempt to connect him to his predecessor – the cat, the costume, that sort of thing. The problem is that these trappings don’t suit Savalas as well as they suited Pleasence and, as a result, he occasionally looks a bit uncomfortable. I have no doubt that – had Savalas been playing a character free of the burden of following Pleasence – he’d be regarded as one of the strongest Bond villains in the canon.

And then there’s Charles Gray’s interpretation, which somehow manages to be radically different from each of the two almost antithetical performances by Donald Pleasence and Telly Savalas. Indeed, if you want to believe there’s some continuity between the appearances, you have to accept that either it’s three different characters or that Blofeld is suffering from some mental disorder, possibly the result of a psychological breakdown every time Bond thwarts his plans.

Blofeld can be a real drag some times…

To be fair, that’s actually not a bad idea. Certainly, Fleming’s Blofeld had a massive psychological breakdown after the events of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. When Bond tracks him down in You Only Live Twice, the spy almost pities the wreck of a man running a sleazy suicide garden – the obvious suggestion being that the defeat by Bond “broke” Blofeld mentally, and led himself to reinvent himself as something of a lunatic. This is something of a recurring theme when it comes to dealing with Bond. Witness the devolution of character like Franz Sanchez of Dominic Greene at the climaxes of Licence to Kill and Quantum of Solace respectively. Blofeld’s breakdown just happens over three movies, instead of one.

Alternatively, you could argue that Bond killed the “real” Blofeld at the start of Diamonds Are Forever, and the one who drives most of the plot is just as psychotic and unstable doppleganger. Certainly, Gray’s Blofeld almost seems like a reaction against the relatively understated methods of Savalas (biological warfare… bah!) and the low profile of Pleasence (working for the Chinese… bah!). In cotnrast, Gray’s Blofeld seems to desperately want attention from the world. He wants to be noticed, to the point where he sends a giant diamond-encrusted satellite into orbit.

A low Blo(feld)…

When Bond arrives on the oil rig, Blofeld seems almost insulted at the lack of attention that he merits. “How disappointing!” he protests. “I expected one head of state, at the very least.  Surely you haven’t come to negotiate, Mr Bond? Your pitiful little island hasn’t even been threatened.” He speaks with nothing but contempt of the major global powers, as if demanding that – after they’ve humbled him a few times – they should finally bow to him. “This farcical show of force was only to be expected.  The Great Powers flexing their military muscles like so many impotent beach boys.”

Gray’s Blofeld is the flamboyant and extravagant villain that many would come to expect in the Roger Moore era. He’s loud and he’s brash, and decidedly camp. There’s really no sense that he’s to be feared at all, he’s more of a comic figure – Bond’s victory over him is assured and it’s almost comical the contrived lengths that Blofeld goes to in order to avoid killing Bond. At the mercy in his lift, Blofeld drugs Bond, builds him into an oil pipeline and… waits for him to escape.

A model citizen…

There is something deeply pathetic about Blofeld here. It seems like he’s been humbled, and humiliated, and is desperately trying to leverage some power – the last desperate gasp of a would-be despot without any dignity remaining. It’s interesting that S.P.E.C.T.R.E. is hardly mentioned here. Blofeld mostly uses the apparatus of Williard Whyte’s business to advance his own interests. He suggests that Bond might have dismantled it, or at least scared his goons into hiding. He can’t even find another possible double. “You killed my only other double, I’m afraid. After his death, volunteers were – understandably – rather scarce.”

Gray’s Blofeld seems quite mad, as if he’s finally gone completely around the bend. Even identity seems like an elastic concept to him, as he seems repeatedly unable to keep track of which Blofeld is really which. When Bond kills one of his duplicates, he comments, “He would have been me, if you’d given him another couple of days” While discussing the science involved, Blofeld explains how they copy his voice. “And a miniature, transistorised version is installed in his neck. Or is it his neck? I never can remember. Anyway, no matter. We both sound alike.” Blofeld simply can’t keep track. His identity all so elastic and flexible that he can’t even be sure that there’s a “real”him any more.

A cut above the rest?

I’m fonder of Diamonds Are Forever than I should be, and I find it a much easier watch than most of the Moore films that followed, mainly because it’s often ridiculous, but never boring. While the character of Blofeld becomes a tired and played-out joke here, Charles Gray seems to have a great deal of fun, playing the character as a villain who is completely around the bend. It’s really the only way to reconcile the mess of a script.

I think that, across these three performances, Blofeld encapsulates all the great themes and concepts we associate with Bond baddies. He’s both spoilt child and stern father. He’s a thug pretending to be a count, and he’s comfortable enough to hide in the shadows. He’s threatening, but he’s camp. He’s a very real physical threat, and he’s no real threat at all. He’s as flexible as his opponent is, and I think that’s part of the reason he endures so very well.

You might be interested in our other Bond villain character studies:

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