In my first piece about the James Bond bad guys, I pointed out the fact that Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the notorious head of SPECTRE (The Special Executive for Counter Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) was a somewhat puny fellow in You Only Live Twice. As played by the late Donald Pleasence, he was decidedly less than impressive.
Yes indeed, you’re absolutely right…
I wholeheartedly agree with you…
Pleasence was an outstanding character actor. But the simple fact that he was a relatively small man made him a poor choice for the supposedly awesome Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Realizing this, the producers recast the part of Blofeld for the next 007 epic. In physical terms, they brought the character much closer to Ian Fleming’s original description. Large. Menacing. Violent.
They did this by turning ruff ‘n’ tuff American actor Aristotle “Telly” Savalas into Blofeld for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. But in so doing, it seems that they left something out. Something that, at least on the surface, was very important.
We are forced to come to a number of strange conclusions following YOLT. Once Blofeld escaped from Japan he apparently traveled to Brooklyn, New York, where he bought extreme lifts for his shoes to increase his height. He then eliminated his grotesque facial scar through very successful plastic surgery. And finally, he actually changed his continental accent through intense diction lessons! We might suppose that he wished to sound like a native New Yorker. And you know what…? It all worked precisely as planned! When we encounter him in OHMSS, he sounds just like an East Coast gangster! There is absolutely no trace of the previously remote, pseudo-superior, extremely sophisticated European. No trace at all.
Instead we find an evil, frightening menace! A violent man who doesn’t hesitate to get his hands dirty by taking part in the mayhem that he intitiates! When he is forced to stop “putting on airs,” Blofeld’s true nature comes to the surface. Not content to allow his minions to do the killing by themselves, he gleefully takes the lead with wild abandon! Yes indeed, he sounds very much like an American thug as he spouts his outlandish threats. But, accents aside, that is exactly what Fleming’s Blofeld had always been. A violent, monstrous thug. Thanks in no small part to the late Savalas, OHMSS offers a great deal of genuine suspense. Especially when he tries to kill Agent 007 by starting an avalanche on a snow packed mountain! Also, the furious climactic struggle between Bond and Blofeld proves almost as exciting and suspenseful as Bond’s fight with “Red” Grant in 1964’s From Russia With Love. After all is said and done, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a remarkable James Bond film!
Oh… wait a minute…I almost forgot…
Before I go on to the next film, I should mention the late Ilse Steppat as Blofeld’s helper, Irma Bunt. Much like Lotte Lenya as Rosa Klebb, Steppat’s stern appearance and grimacing expression made her more than a little menacing. Quiet but cruel. Calm but obviously psychotic. We could tell that a violent streak was lurking just beneath her surface. As a result, the level of suspense always rose whenever she appeared on screen. And need I say it? You know full well that, when the time finally came, her violent streak eventually exploded like a bomb in all its blood-spattering glory!
Since Diamonds Are Forever is a very silly James Bond film, the casting of urbane, sophisticated and decidedly British character actor Charles Gray in the role of Blofeld did little to add much suspense. I have said that Telly Savalas gave us the best interpretation of the notorious head of SPECTRE thus far. But, the part of Blofeld has never truly been properly cast. And the late Gray remains the worst of the lot. However, it certainly wasn’t his fault. He was simply the wrong type for the part. This is due to the fact that he was much too charming. But he was also physically wrong. It jumps out at you the moment Mr. Gray appears on screen. It’s annoying! Inexcusable! Unforgivable! Up ’til now, Blofeld had always been totally bald. It’s his trademark. In DAF, Gray sports a full head of perfectly coiffed hair! Can you believe it?! Blofeld with hair?! He actually decided to wear a toupee?! Next thing you know, he’ll appear in public dressed as a woman!
Actually, Blofeld’s clownish gay henchmen known as Wint and Kidd (Putter Smith and Bruce Glover) provide a smidgen of suspense in DAF as they calmly liquidate, often quite violently, a fair number of people. On the other hand, Bambi and Thumper (Donna Garrat and Trina Parks), a pair of very fit female acrobats, prove much less than menacing when they try to drown Agent 007 in a swimming pool! Not to worry. Bond quickly overcomes them by simply applying the breaststroke (as observed by his friend, Felix!). But the main reason Diamonds has very little suspense is most likely due to its truly awful special effects. They’re probably the worst ever created for any James Bond film!
Truth be told, Live And Let Die is every bit as silly as its immediate predecessor. But I don’t understand why so many ersatz film critics called it “racist.” Surely, it can’t simply be due to the fact that the villains are black. I’ve seen more overt racism in many TV crime dramas. Yes indeed, Clifton James played an exaggerated parody of a racist Southern sheiff in the film. But the obvious stupidity of his racism was precisely the point. That said, LALD is certainly flawed in one very important respect. It contains very little suspense. This is primarily due to the fact that all the main characters in the film, including Bond, tend to be extremely one-dimensional. It’s a common shortcoming shared by many 007 films.
The problems start with Yaphet Kotto as a drug trafficking dictator from an Atlantic island. Known as Dr. Kananga, he does little in the film but sneer, threaten and bluster (although, he wildly chews the scenery in a very entertaining confrontation with Roger Moore). Julius W. Harris, sporting an unconvincing mechanical hook on the end of his right arm (shades of Dr. No!), is a less than menacing henchman called Tee-Hee. The raspy voiced, decidedly rotund Earl Jolly Brown plays a second relatively benign henchman called Whisper. The amazing Geoffrey Holder is the most entertaining bad guy in the person of Baron Samedi (“The man who cannot die!”). Gliding through the proceedings like the elegant dancer that he is, one wonders why such a physically talented man would waste his time working for drug traffickers? Finally, the rogues’ gallery is rounded out by attractive Gloria Hendry as Kananga agent Rosie Carver. Fortunately for us, since Ms. Hendry isn’t a very good actress, she is given little screen time.
For hard-to-find suspense we are given some cleverly conceived situations. A long, brilliantly staged speedboat chase builds to an explosive climax. A huge (presumably poisonous) snake is used to threaten the heroine of the film. Another (presumably poisonous) snake threatens to bite James Bond’s posterior. But the best scene involves Bond’s pressing need to escape a gathering crowd of hungry alligators! In fact, for sheer tension, it’s one of the best, most original sequences of its type ever created for any Bond film! Let me just say that LALD may not be the best James Bond film ever made, but it certainly is one of the most entertaining.
On the other hand, The Man With The Golden Gun is something else entirely. I can sum it up with one word: BORING! No suspense. No thrills. No chills. No action (to speak of). In other words: NO NOTHING! Even the decisive duel between James Bond and the main bad guy, a hit man known as Scaramanga (Christopher Lee wielding the titular golden gun), is anti-climactic. And what, may I ask, ever possessed the filmmakers to insert the late midget actor Herve Villechaize as a henchman called Nick Nack?! The final confrontation between Bond and Nick Nack is an embarrassing slapstick comedy routine! Do yourself a favor and skip this one.
The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker are somewhat better films. However, their settings are the only real difference between them. Spy takes place in (and under) water, while Moonraker goes into outer space. Otherwise, they’re interchangeable. I must confess that I enjoy both films because they’re genuine spectacles. They also contain huge, well staged action sequences. But they really don’t have any suspense or tension. None. Whatsoever. At all.
The main bad guys in both films (Curt Jurgens as Stromberg, Michael Lonsdale as Drax) are nothing but dull, boring, Charles Gray-styled Blofeld wannabes. Heck, they even dress like Blofeld! Also, in both films, Bond initially kills a minor henchman in a fight before entering the cartoon world to face an oversized killer called Jaws (7 foot, 2 inch, Richard Kiel)! Apparently fitted with stainless steel choppers (hence the name Jaws), he takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’! Which is why we feel as though we’ve entered a Warner Bothers cartoon! You just cannot kill this guy! Heck…you can’t even injure him! I’m not sure he could even be bruised! Shoot him with a gun! Drop him from the sky! Crash him in a car! Blast him with a torpedo! Nothing happens to him! He survives everything! It’s fun to watch of course, but it completely destroys any and all hope for suspense or tension.
Which, at that point, couldn’t have been the goal of the James Bond film producers. Not any longer. Spy and Moonraker are as far removed from the tense reality of From Russia With Love as you could ever hope to get. As a result, the hard core James Bond fans began to complain. They wanted a return to basics and genuine secret agent drama. And thankfully, the producers responded. When we next saw Agent 007 he had come full circle. After too many years of disappointing Bond films, the real James Bond finally returned!
Next: Back to basics! A return to genuine tension and suspense!
Blair Kramer is a commercial artist who has written for various publications in the Chicago area, including A Guide to Art in Chicago, Salmagundi, and others. He has written film criticism for American Metal magazine as well as biographical articles for the American Jewish Historical Society, including a profile of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.