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The Messy, Improbable History of SPECTRE

Ian Fleming’s nefarious agency is back after 40 years of legal wrangling. But can a 21st-century James Bond and a 1960s-era antagonist be reconciled?

MGM Studios

Ian Fleming was afraid the Cold War would end too soon.

While serving as a British Naval Intelligence officer during the Second World War, he’d begun to think about writing a spy novel. By the end of the 1950s, his James Bond series was a huge success. Fleming met with several collaborators, chiefly the filmmaker Kevin McClory and the playwright Jack Whittingham, to brainstorm an original screenplay based on the exploits of his hard-living creation. But movies take a long time, and the conspirators worried that relations between the West and the East could improve so much in the interim that a scenario pitting Bond against Soviet spies like the ones he battled in Fleming’s early books would be old hat before the film’s prints were dry.

Their future-proof solution was SPECTRE, an organization that used Space Age, acronym-generating technology to ally itself not with any political or economic system, but to assorted malign abstractions. Decoded, the name stood for SPecial Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion. While the legal battle over which creator had dreamt up what would outlive them all, one thing was clear: No one could think of a suitably menacing word that began with the letter “P.”

That the 24th “official” James Bond film is called Spectre feels like a promise kept. The last scene of 2012’s Skyfall, the most lucrative and critically admired entry in the always profitable, suddenly venerable franchise, teased a restoration. Six years earlier, Casino Royale had given the (re)boot to decades of accumulated shark tanks and volcano lairs and disposable women with names like Pussy Galore and Holly Goodhead and Plenty O’Toole. In their place was the closest that action-adventure cinema ever gets to a character study. Daniel Craig’s leaner, greener, deadlier 007 was a “blunt instrument,” in the withering description of his boss, Judi Dench’s M. But the 38-year-old actor’s command of the role turned out to eclipse even Sean Connery’s.

In Spectre, Craig seems more Connery-like—fearless, entitled, and inscrutable—than ever. Meanwhile, the series’s brief detour into something approximating realism is concluded. SPECTRE is no longer an acronym, or if it is, no one troubles themselves to spell it out. The organization has its tentacles in phony pharmaceuticals and human trafficking, it’s revealed, but it doesn’t declare allegiance to abstraction, because under the regime of the director Sam Mendes and the writer John Logan (both returning from Skyfall), the Bond film franchise is now more than ever an abstraction unto itself. If Casino Royale was recognizably an adaptation of an Ian Fleming novel, Spectre is more like an attempt to film the Bond franchise’s Wikipedia page.

Its reintroduction of SPECTRE-the-organization is a miscalculation based on two things: A market-driven determination that Bond films should be more like the tradition-embracing Skyfall (worldwide gross $1.1 billion) than Casino Royale ($599 million), and the 2013 conclusion of a legal battle that had (mostly) kept the evil organization out of the Bond pictures for 40 years. No one had really missed it, and the filmmakers had already solved the problems of its absence in an unloved entry that took its clunker of a title from an unrelated Fleming short story: 2008’s Quantum of Solace. Reviving SPECTRE now, while playing to the unquenchable nostalgia of Bond devotees, only clarifies how ridiculous the institution has always been.
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Skyfall, Craig’s third outing in the role, is set much later in Bond’s career than his first pair of appearances. Early on in the movie, MI6 believes that Bond’s been killed by friendly fire, and he’s in no rush to let the agency know he’s survived. When he finally reports for duty (by breaking into M’s flat, a fun callback to Casino Royale), he’s out-of-sorts, out-of-shape, and addicted not just to booze, but pills. Still, M covers for him, and by the end of Skyfall’s deflating, rather too Home Alone-inspired final act, nearly all the familiar characters and tropes that Casino Royale had stripped away have regenerated. Once again, Bond is receiving equipment and derision from Q, flirting with Miss Moneypenny, and—for the first time since 1989’s grim Licence to Kill—taking orders from a man. That this new M is played by Ralph Fiennes is small compensation for Dench’s departure after a seven-picture tour of duty, but still a promising development.

Even so, the keepers of the Bond flame—Barbara Broccoli, the daughter of the original series producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, and her half-brother, Michael G. Wilson—didn’t have all the materials to fully return Bond to his Beatles Invasion-era primacy until two years ago, after Skyfall had become the highest-grossing film of all time in Britain. Late in 2013, a series of lawsuits that had ricocheted around courts in the U.K. and the U.S. for half a century was finally settled. This at last allowed 007’s greatest (and most oft-parodied) nemesis, the cat-stroking Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and his organization, SPECTRE, to return.

The new movie’s long-con promotional campaign has played coy about the fact that the character played by the Academy Award two-timer Christoph Waltz, one Franz Oberhauser, is in fact—spoiler alert—Blofeld, even if putting a shot of Waltz in a nehru jacket in the trailer was a clear provocation.

Waltz is more than equal to the task of contributing yet another colorful and inexplicably polite rogue to 007’s gallery, of course. Craig’s Bond already had two films behind him by 2009, when Waltz’s performance as the Nazi Colonel Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds snagged him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and substantially elevated his profile. So why the filmmakers chose to have him play a goofy character now best remembered as the inspiration for Mike Myers’s Dr. Evil in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery is a mystery beyond even the code-cracking resources of MI6.

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Blofeld and SPECTRE entered the world with the publication of Thunderball, Fleming’s eighth Bond novel, in 1961. Confusingly, Fleming based the book on the unproduced screenplay he’d hashed out with McClory and Whittingham—without crediting his collaborators. McClory sued and eventually got an out-of-court settlement that included the film rights to Thunderball.

It was no small prize. Because the rights to Casino Royale, Fleming’s first Bond adventure, were unavailable thanks to a little-remembered, 48-minute TV version from 1954, Cubby Broccoli and his partner Harry Saltzman had eyed Thunderball as their first Bond feature. But the legal fracas—plus the fact that Thunderball’s grand scale, including extensive underwater scenes, would make it too pricey for their first at-bat—pointed them toward the more modest Dr. No instead.

By the time they circled back around to Thunderball three years later, Bond was the biggest thing in movies, and money was no object. They gave McClory sole “produced by” credit on Thunderball, and licensed his rights—which had been generously interpreted to apply not just to the characters and concepts in whose creation McClory had participated, but to James Bond and all the other Fleming-created characters in the novel, too—for a full decade, just to be safe. Surely the Bond fad would run its course by 1975.

MGM Studios

SPECTRE was a part of the Bond films from the beginning, 1962’s Dr. No, wherein Joseph Wiseman’s titular antagonist revealed himself to be a member of the organization intent on disrupting a U.S. space launch with a giant nuclear reactor. After helpfully breaking down his organization’s secret recipe—Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, Extortion—he proclaims these ingredients to be “the four great cornerstones of power.” As if the acronym weren’t swell enough, in 1965’s Thunderball, SPECTRE associates wear conspicuous matching rings bearing the organization’s sigil: an octopus. (In any fiction where the spy didn’t make a big deal of introducing himself, in public places, by his real name, twice, this might perhaps seem indiscreet.)

Despite its love of logo-branded bling and high-ceilinged conference rooms with incinerator pits, SPECTRE operates in the shadows, playing the Cold War superpowers against one another. “World domination, the same old dream,” sighs Sean Connery when the claw-handed Dr. No volunteers his motives, as every one of 007’s opponents would be weirdly obliged to do.

In its sequel, From Russia With Love, Blofeld makes his film debut, though his face remains out-of-frame. He likens the U.S. and the Soviet Union to the Siamese fighting fish he keeps in a jar on his desk, who brawl until they’re both too spent to repel a patient third party. But SPECTRE doesn’t appear in the novels Dr. No or From Russia With Love at all. The cabal was a much bigger presence in the first decade of Bond films (1962-71) than in the books from which they had been very freely adapted.

While Eon Productions, the company Broccoli and Saltzman had co-founded when they got into the James Bond business, had intended from the start to build a spy-flick franchise, their thinking was shockingly short-sighted by contemporary standards. Franchises barely existed in the 1960s. 1934’s The Thin Man had spawned five sequels, and Universal’s monster movies shared a loose fictional universe that even permitted the occasional crossover, like 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. But the consistency of casting and fidelity to the source material that fans demand of, say, The Hunger Games pictures or the modern adaptations of born-in-the-60s Marvel superheroes were a nonissue right until the 21st century.

Eon filmed Fleming’s novels out of order and never thought twice about it, even when this made the continuity of the movies impossible to reconcile. And while Bernard Lee’s M, Desmond Llewelyn’s Q, and Lois Maxwell’s Moneypenny were all regular players, other recurring roles, like Bond’s C.I.A. buddy Felix Leiter, were recast willy-nilly.

But sidekicks are one thing. Nemeses are another.

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Blofeld appeared in four consecutive films between 1965 and 1971, played by a different actor each time. The last of these, Diamonds Are Forever—the film for which Connery was expensively coaxed back after breaking his contract four years earlier—belatedly explains Blofeld’s ever-changing appearance by saying the character regularly received plastic surgery and also had underlings surgically altered to resemble him, to confuse would-be assassins, a detail also present in Fleming’s books.

The movie offers no such reason for why Connery’s Bond had turned into the Australian model George Lazenby for one movie, then reverted to his thicker, grayer, more Scottish shape. (It didn’t help that Connery couldn’t be bothered to hide his boredom in the role this time, though given Diamonds’s awful script, you couldn’t blame him.)

Audiences’ willingness to suspend disbelief allows for casting changes, of course. But it still makes no sense that Blofeld doesn’t recognize Bond (Lazenby) in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, when 007 infiltrates his Swiss “allergy clinic” (bioweapons plant) in the guise of a genealogist investigating Blofeld’s claim of noble parentage. They were face-to-face just one movie ago, but Blofeld (Telly Savalas) behaves as though he and Bond are meeting for the first time. Is it because Bond’s disguise included an uncharacteristic ensemble of frilly shirt, kilt and glasses? It couldn’t be because the actors playing both Bond and Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service were making their first-and-only appearances.

MGM Studios

Just to show how little Broccoli and Saltzman sweated the small stuff—like casting—Diamonds’s Blofeld is played by Charles Gray, who had previously appeared in You Only Live Twice as one of Bond’s allies. (Donald Pleasance served as that film’s Blofeld.) They didn’t bother to change Gray’s look before reusing him; with his beady gray eyes and fist-sized cleft chin, he looks more like a mannequin than a man anyway. And his hilariously polite and unthreatening Blofeld was the least of the film’s problems.

Once the Thunderball option expired in the mid ’70s, McClory again busied himself trying to get his own Bond movie going. This would eventually result in 1983’s Never Say Never Again, a remake of Thunderball that stands outside the already-loose canon of Eon 007 films despite the presence of 53-year-old Connery in his seventh and final outing as Bond. (His public swearing-off of the role inspired the title, a suggestion of his wife.) Though it grossed a little less than Octopussy, the Moore-starring 007 flick released all of four months earlier, it’s a more enjoyable movie. It featured Max von Sydow as Blofeld, marking the character’s only appearance in a Bond movie between 1971 and today.

Except one.

In what could only be interpreted as a very public middle finger to McClory, Broccoli resurrected the unnamed-but-clearly-recognizable Blofeld for the pre-title sequence of 1981’s For Your Eyes Only. The film opens with Moore’s Bond visiting the grave of his wife Tracy, who was married to him for just minutes before being gunned down by Blofeld and his henchwoman Irma Bunt in the shocking final scene of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Bond is summoned to a helicopter, which a bald, nehru jacket-wearing, wheelchair-confined fiend hijacks via remote control, intending to crash it with 007 inside. After enduring some impressively staged near-misses with various buildings and/or the ground, Bond seizes control of the helicopter, then skewers Blofeld’s wheelchair on one of its landing skids and climbs into the air.

While For Your Eyes Only is remembered (if it’s remembered) as one of the less ostentatious Bonds, this bit is as silly as anything in Austin Powers. Blofeld’s final words in the series take the form of a bizarrely specific plea for mercy:

BLOFELD: We can do a deal! I’ll buy you a delicatessen! In stainless steel!

BOND (reaching through the cockpit window to pat what is clearly a dummy’s bald head): All right, keep your hair on.

According to the co-screenwriter and executive producer Michael G. Wilson, it was Cubby Broccoli himself who came up with the line. The director John Glen, who would helm all five Bond pictures made in the 1980s, thought it was just too good not to use. Unswayed by this invitation to enter the food-service industry, Bond drops Blofeld’s wheelchair and its occupant down a chimney of the Beckton Gas Works.

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McClory made a few more attempts to get back into the spy game before he died in 2006. In 1997, Sony Pictures announced they were going into business with him not only on yet another Thunderball remake—to be called Warhead 2000—but an entire Bond series, to compete with the Eon films then enjoying a resurgence with Pierce Brosnan as 007. MGM, the studio releasing the Eon movies, took Sony to court and won, but Sony laughed last: It led a consortium that acquired MGM in 2004. The current crop of Craig-starring films have all borne Sony’s logo.

The least well-received of them, Quantum of Solace, introduced its own shadowy cabal in lieu of SPECTRE, whose rights were still the subject of legal wrangling. Its plan was modest by the standards of Bond films, maybe even plausible: Its members were going to assist a Bolivian coup d’etat to further their long-term aim of controlling the world’s water supply. Its name, the Quantum Group, sounded more like an investment firm co-founded by Bono than an outfit that would electrocute operatives caught skimming in front of their colleagues.

Largely reviled upon its release seven years ago, Quantum has aged well, especially if you watch it with a fresh memory of Casino Royale. (They’re really two halves of a 410-minute movie, the only time two Bond pictures have been so closely tied.) In its most memorable scene, the villainous conspirators confer in plain sight, using earpieces, at an outdoor performance of Tosca. Bond does what he can to disrupt the meeting and identify its participants, but his efforts are largely futile—Quantum has cut a deal with the C.I.A. That development keeps the movie rooted in the dirty world of 21st-century espionage, while the rest flies in the face of the rationale often given for Bond’s 1960s ubiquity: Women wanted him, men wanted to be him. Quantum’s Bond was not a man whose life would inspire envy.

But he was recognizably a man, one in whose fate audiences could feel invested. By bringing back his abstraction-defined nemeses, the Bond people have once again reduced him to an idea, a silhouette in a tuxedo. And Spectre, for all its attempts to keep up with the Marvel movies and the Missions: Impossible and all of the other big-budget franchises Bond wrought, remains—forgive the pun—a period piece.