Wednesday, May 20, 2015

SPECTRE: A primer

34 years after their last scheme, Bond's old nemesis SPECTRE will be making its comeback at the end of this year. Here's a brief refresher of their past exploits.  

DR NO (1962)
BIG BAD: Dr No. One of SPECTRE's best men, he is enormously arrogant about his own abilities, which ultimately proves his undoing. He has metal hands, after an accident involving nuclear material.

SCHEME: Dr. No is using radio waves to topple American rockets after they are launched, to delay the American space program.

HENCHMEN: Professor Dent, Miss Taro, The Three Blind Mice. While none of these characters have specific gimmicks, they are good enough at their jobs that they have been able to infiltrate Jamaican society without suspicion. The three 'Blind' killers are extremely efficient in their initial assassinations, but are less than capable when faced with another professional. 

SPECTRE: The first reference to the organisation. At this stage, the organisation is presented as a cadre of criminal masterminds with world domination as their ultimate goal. 

REVIEW: On the face of it, Dr. No is a good ambassador for the organisation. However, when you start to break it down, things fall apart. For one thing, it is difficult to see how messing with rocket launches will pave the way for world domination. For another, No has poor judgement when it comes to his underlings -- all display varying degrees of incompetence which make it easier for Bond to put together what is going on. He also comes up with a really over-complicated method for killing Bond (putting a tarantula in his bed). Finally, while his hands are strong, they are not strong enough to save him from falling to his death. 

SCORE: 6/10

FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE (1963)

BIG BAD: For once, there are two villains behind the master plan. The first is Rosa Klebb. A high-ranking ex-member of SMERSH, her defection has been kept quiet by Soviet authorities to save face.  She is basically the Soviet equivalent of Bond, even sharing his eye for the ladies.












Klebb's partner is Kronsteen. A chess master when he is not formulating schemes for SPECTRE, Kronsteen is incredibly intelligent but also incredibly arrogant. His unwillingness to recognise his own failings is ultimately his undoing. 

SCHEME: As revenge for the death of Dr No, SPECTRE will lure Bond into stealing a Russian decoding machine and then kill him. They then plan to publicise his death as a salacious affair-gone-wrong that will embarrass MI6. They then plan to return the decoding machine to the Russians for a reward. 

HENCHMEN: Red Grant. A psychopath who escaped Dartmoor prison, he has been trained by SPECTRE to become their best operative. He is cold and very shrewd. His only weakness is vanity - he sees Bond’s death as a personal achievement, and chooses to gloat over this rather than dispense with him immediately. Even when Bond turns the tables on him, Grant remains relatively unfazed. It is only thanks to Q Branch that Bond is able to finish him off. 

SPECTRE: We are finally introduced to Dr No’s backer, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Though unseen, he is a powerful figure who is feared by his subordinates.  

REVIEW: One of the finest of the Bond films, and one of the best showcases for SPECTRE. Its plan is well thought out and its operatives (particularly Grant), are more than a match for Bond and his allies. 

SCORE: 9/10

THUNDERBALL (1965)

BIG BAD: Emilio Largo. The most effective of Blofeld’s lieutenants, he acts as both the brains and brawn for this project. He leads the diving expeditions to hide the stolen nuclear weapons (to the extent of personally killing the pilot who has stolen them). He has no compunction about personally torturing anyone who has betrayed him, and even acts as his own strong man in the climax. He manages to get the drop on Bond, and is only prevented from killing him by a harpoon through the back. It is a testament to his capabilities that, as stated in the novel, Largo is next in line to lead SPECTRE, should Blofeld die. 

SCHEME: To steal a pair of nuclear war heads and threaten to trigger them in a major population centre unless NATO pays them a massive ransom.

HENCHMEN: Fiona Volpe. Hard to tell what her rank is, but she appears to be a more senior version of Red Grant. She handles the initial subterfuge to steal the nukes, and also takes charge when it comes to assassinating Bond. More of an outright femme fatale, she seems to enjoy the more recreational aspects of undercover work as much as the killing. So basically, she's a female James Bond.

SPECTRE: This is the first film in which we get a sense of the organisation’s reach. Blofeld has a group of lieutenants, each representing a major criminal group or secret organisation from around the world. The American Mafia and Japanese Yakuza are among those represented. The group resembles a corporation, with Blofeld as Chairman of the Board, and each lieutenant responsible for a particular area of operations. According to the briefing sequence at the beginning of the film, the group is involved in action both large scale (the Great Train Robbery) and petty (blackmail). It is apparent that SPECTRE is willing to do just about anything, if the price is right. Their plot to ransom stolen nuclear weapons represents their first major, independent venture. 

REVIEW: SPECTRE goes for broke in their first major venture. It's a little over-complicated (the whole plastic surgery subplot is a contrivance too far), but they come pretty close to carrying the scheme off. They also have some serious manpower, and are willing to take on the US Navy without hesitation.

SCORE: 8/10

YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967)

BIG BAD: Blofeld is finally revealed. A scarred megalomaniac whose only meaningful relationship is with his cat, he exerts great power over his minions through fear rather than respect or admiration.  

SCHEME: To incite global nuclear war by stealing American and Soviet rockets and making each superpower think the other is responsible.

HENCHMEN: Helga Brandt is cut from the same cloth as Thunderball’s Fiona Volpe. Though Brandt’s exact rank is unclear, like Volpe, she appears to be a member of some kind of security branch within SPECTRE. Brandt’s chief job is to pose as a secretary to the tech magnate Osata, who is supplying SPECTRE with rocket fuel. Her real job is to act as both a bodyguard and a minder to keep her ‘boss’ in line. She is not particularly effective or interesting, and is only memorable for getting eaten alive by Blofeld's piranhas.

Blofeld’s muscle, in this case, is Hans. A tall blonde Aryan in the mould of Red Grant, he proves an effective (though brief) foil for Bond at the climax.

SPECTRE: Here, SPECTRE is once again presented as an apolitical mercenary organisation, with its antics financed by a foreign power (implied to be China). It has a foothold in legitimate business with Osato Industries, and the technological know-how to fire a man-made rocket into space and have it land (repeatedly) in the same place without a glitch. It has also increased its manpower markedly from previous ventures (what is their hiring policy like?), and has been able to build and sustain a massive lair inside an active volcano. 

REVIEW: I guess SPECTRE's brain trust has still not recovered from the death of Kronsteen, because this is a mess. The hijacking rockets part works, but their motivation is mystifying: Why would SPECTRE want to entice nuclear war when that would mean their fee would be worthless in the economic collapse which would follow? Plus, Blofeld himself is a letdown. Not only is it difficult to imagine Donald Pleasance's version of the character dominating people like Dr. No and Largo, he proves to be highly incompetent. He has several chances to kill Bond, but never takes up any of them until it is too late. Definitely the organisation's least effective incarnation.

SCORE: 1/10

ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969)

BIG BAD: Blofeld returns, complete with a new face. This version is much tougher than his initial appearance, with the kind of charisma and intelligence necessary to wrangle agents like Dr No and Largo.   

SCHEME: Blofeld is looking to retire with a title, so he has brainwashed the patients of his allergy clinic to spread a virus which will wipe out every crop and livestock on the planet. 









HENCHMEN: Irma Bunt. Arguably the most successful stooge of the series, she is the one who kills Bond’s new wife Tracy.

SPECTRE: Though the name is never stated, the organisation is still alive, though Bond’s previous escapades have clearly taken a toll on its power and influence. In OHMSS, the group is on the run. Blofeld is clearly the last of the major players left, with no equivalent of Dr No or Largo to carry out his schemes.

REVIEW: Simultaneously bizarre and mundane, this is not nearly as insane as You Only Live Twice, but still, it is not much better. Mind controlling farmer's daughters to sterilise crops might make sense on a small-scale level, a worldwide version seems like it would be riddled with potential pitfalls. Blofeld's motivation is so insane, I'm surprised his supporters have not realised the old boy has lost the plot and abandoned him.

SCORE: 4/10

DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1971)

BIG BAD: Blofeld returns, this time with hair! Despite a strong supply of one liners, this version has  little aptitude for anything else. While he has been able to maintain the ruse of being a reclusive billionaire for a good few years, his plan and goals remain somewhat obscure. 

SCHEME: Kinda hard to break down. This part is clear: Blofeld has kidnapped billionaire Willard Whyte and assumed control over his business empire. With these resources, Blofeld has built and launched a satellite armed with a super laser powered by diamonds. Here is where it gets foggy. He either wants to create world peace by destroying nuclear stockpiles ala Supes in Superman IV or wants to sell nuclear supremacy to the highest bidder (whatever that means). Both explanations are offered, without further detail, by other characters, leaving this viewer completely confused.

HENCHMEN: Mr Wint and Mr Kidd. These killers elevate the act of assassination to a kind of performance art. They take great delight in coming up with unique methods of dispatching their victims, mainly, it seems, to satisfy their penchant for macabre puns. Their exact relationship to Blofeld is not clarified - either they are SPECTRE operatives or free-lancers. Their main mission is to terminate the members of Blofeld’s diamond-smuggling network. Either way, despite their over-complicated methodology, they prove to be highly efficient in this task.   

Secondary hench-ing is provided by Bambi and Thumper, a pair of female acrobats assigned to guard Willard Whyte, who put Bond through his paces.

SPECTRE: For their last stand, SPECTRE is in better shape than their last venture. They have infiltrated a major conglomerate without detection and have kept things running smoothly. One wonders why, considering their love for profit, they didn't just continue running the company. It is hard to tell how many of Blofeld's henchmen are SPECTRE operatives or just unknowing corporate flunkies.

REVIEW: Baffling, from top to bottom. Blofeld uses doubles to confuse Bond and divert attention, but he has convinced the authorities that he is dead -- so why have the doubles around? The space laser makes no sense, and Blofeld's ultimate goals are confusing and contradictory. Thankfully, Wint and Kidd around. They are effective and creepy, with a macabre sense of humour.

SCORE: 2/10

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