Bond is back, but what about Blofeld?

In two days — Thursday, Dec. 4 — it will be confirmed that Christoph Waltz will appear in the next James Bond film, still called just Bond 24, but its title will be announced in the same news conference.

The big question now is will it be confirmed that Waltz is playing Bond’s long-ago nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld? That’s what everyone expects. But the thing is, even if Waltz is playing Blofeld, the Bond producers may not announce it. At the same event for Skyfall, they tried to maintain the fiction that Naomi Harris was not the new Miss Moneypenny, even though that plot point leaked months earlier.

Yet as soon as Waltz’ casting was announced a few weeks ago (though not yet confirmed) many people, including myself, assumed he would be playing Blofeld. About the same time that Bond 24 director Sam Mendes ordered script rewrites, it was also announced that EON Productions, the company that makes the Bond movies, had finally acquired the rights to to Blofeld.

For complicated reasons, screen rights to that particular Bond villain belonged to the late Kevin McClory. McClory collaborated on the original story for Thunderball with Bond creator Ian Fleming, and after Fleming turned that story into a novel without McClory’s permission, McClory sued and eventually won the screen rights to Thunderball while Fleming kept the literary rights. Blofeld and his organization, SPECTRE, first appeared in Thunderball, that meant McClory controlled the rights to both those entities, and that partially explains why Blofeld and SPECTRE disappeared from the series when Sean Connery left. (An unnamed Blofeld did make a cameo appearance during the For Your Eyes Only pretitle sequence, an inside joke intended as a poke in McClory’s eye).

All that is an extremely simplified version of the McClory/Blofeld saga and it leaves out the Thunderball remake Never Say Never Again because I live in denial of the wretched movie’s existence. After several attempts to sue EON Productions, McClory died in 2006. Apparently it took another six or seven years of negotiations for EON to bring Blofeld and SPECTRE back into the fold.

I don’t believe Bond producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli would have made the effort to secure the rights to Blofeld if they didn’t intend to use him. And now that I, along with several million other people, have seen the teaser for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I am more convinced that Blofeld will return in Bond 24. Bond has to pull out something big to compete with The Force Awakens, which opens a month later.

But there already has been a counter rumor to Waltz’s casting, basically saying that EON will announce he is playing another character, and that character will turn out to be Blofeld. In other words, no white cat until the final act. Months ago, my gut told me this is the approach the filmmakers would take, that Blofeld won’t be the villain this time, but that Bond 24 will be setting up him and SPECTRE for Bond 25, which will be Daniel Craig’s final film as 007 unless he extends his contract.

However, J.J. Abrams tried the same thing with Benedict Cumberbatch playing Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness, and that backfired on him in a big way. Also, the Bond producers also did something similar in Skyfall, calling Naomi Harris’ character Eve through 99 percent of the film and not revealing her last name as Moneypenny until the final five minutes.

The one thing about the “Blofeld will be using a false name” rumor, reported in Britain’s The Daily Mail, that gives it credence is the false name cited: Franz Oberhauser, son of Hans Oberhauser. The elder Oberhauser was an Austrian ski instructor who served as a father figure to a teenage James Bond. The character is mentioned in the novella Octopussy (and appears in Charlie Higson’s Young Bond novel By Royal Command), so it is not a name some random rumormonger would pull out of the ether. Either you have to know your Bond lore to know of Hans Oberhauser, or you were allowed to peek at the Bond 24 script. Bond 24 will film in Waltz’s home country of Austria, so the Oberhauser name jibes with the film’s location. Plus, Mendes and Craig do love to explore Bond’s emotional issues. Imagine him hunting down the murderer of his father figure (which is the thrust of Octopussy).

Even with the Franz Oberhauser smokescreen, I still believe Waltz will be playing Blofeld, and I welcome the news. He is a superb actor who won an Oscar playing one of the most unnerving screen villains of recent vintage in Inglorious Basterds. Waltz has the opportunity to do what previous actors have failed to do, and that is to get Blofeld right on screen.

Even though Blofeld is one of Fleming’s most powerful creations, he has never made an imposing screen baddie. Frankly, Blofelf was a better villain in the early films when he was just a torso stroking a white Persian cat. He was a mystery, a cultured killer with a silky, menacing voice (provided by actor Eric Pohlmann).

The unseen Blofeld of From Russia With Love and Thunderball was so intriguing, an enigma maintained for four years in the spy crazed ’60s, that perhaps revealing his face in You Only Live Twice was bound to be a letdown. Czech actor Jan Werich was cast as the SPECTRE mastermind in Twice, but he grew ill just as production began. He was hastily replaced by a poorly cast Donald Pleasance. Despite his background as a fine character actor (The Great Escape), he was simply too short for the role. Sean Connery towered over him, and Pleasance looked silly craning his neck to deliver threatening lines. His high-pitched, screechy voice is a joke after Pohlmann’s deep, icy delivery.

Pleasance’s famous makeup, the scar that circles his eye, was an attempt to make him more menacing. It was only partially successful, but Mike Myers made millions with it decades later as Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers films.

Telly Savalas was the best of the screen Blofelds in the next film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. He is more active, actually participating in the big ski and boblsed chase scenes, proving he is a Blofeld willing to get his hands dirty. Or at least snowy. But Savalas is a bit too lusty to play the detached, cold criminal mastermind.

Then came the absolute disaster of Charles Gray playing Blofeld as a fey Vaudeville comedian in Diamonds Are Forever. He even appears in drag in this bargain basement excuse for a Bond movie.

Blofeld is a big name in the Bond movies, but the character has never achieved his villainous potential on the big screen. Waltz is the perfect actor to finally do right by old Ernst Stavro, unless it turns out he really is playing the son of a ski instructor.

Somehow, I doubt that.

The other big mystery about Bond 24 is the movie’s actual title. For a while I thought the producers would finally use The Property of a Lady, one of the few remaining Fleming titles, but what little I know about Bond 24 doesn’t support that title. I suspect that once again it will be an original title, but probably not SPECTRE Awakens.

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