The essence of Pleasence

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

Today is October 5th, 2019.  Donald Pleasence, one of my all-time favourite actors, was born on this day exactly 100 years ago

 

The distinctive Pleasence, with his domed and usually hairless head, his popping eyes and unsettling stare, and his alternatively smooth and sepulchral voice, was a peerless character actor.  Though he’s mainly remembered for his sinister roles, he could effortlessly inhabit a range of personas – characters who were pathetic, tragic, eccentric, obsequious and, occasionally, virtuous.

 

In celebration of the great man’s 100th birthday, here are 15 of the performances that for me most memorably capture the essence of Pleasence.

 

1984 (1954)

Controversial in its day, with questions raised about it in Parliament, the BBC’s mid-1950s version of George Orwell’s 1984 still has impact.  That’s largely due to its performances, most notably that of Peter Cushing playing Winston Smith.  But Pleasence is good too as Syme, the lexicographer enthusiastically working on Newspeak.  (“I’ve reached the adjectives at last!”)  Despite – or perhaps because of – his zeal for the Party, Syme ends up becoming an ‘unperson’.

 

The Flesh and the Fiends (1960)

John Gilling’s The Flesh and the Fiends is the cinema’s best take on the notorious Edinburgh duo of Burke and Hare, who in the early 19th century started selling cadavers to the dissection rooms of Edinburgh Medical School.  The problem was, Burke and Hare’s cadavers had had some assistance in dying.  Pleasence is loathsome as Hare, with atypically long, lank tresses, a battered stovepipe hat, a smirk and a maniacal gleam that shows he gets a perverse thrill out of murdering people.  As with the real-life Hare, following his arrest, he turns King’s evidence against his partner and gets released, though director Gilling adds an apocryphal scene where he’s blinded by torch-wielding vigilantes the moment he leaves the jail.

 

© Triad Productions

 

Hell is a City (1960)

For someone who made a lot of horror movies, Pleasence had surprisingly little to do with Britain’s Hammer Films, the studio most associated with the horror genre at the time.  Hell is a City is a Hammer movie, but ironically isn’t a horror one but a crime one – and by the standards of British cinema then, is surprisingly gritty.  Pleasence plays Gus Hawkins, a shady but sympathetic bookmaker whose wife gives him the run-around while she attends to the spiritual and physical needs of the film’s villain, a murderous criminal fleeing the law.  In the role of the duplicitous Mrs Hawkins is Billie Whitelaw, whom Pleasence killed in The Flesh and the Fiends, so I suppose there’s justice in that.

 

The Great Escape (1963)

Pleasence’s performance in The Great Escape culminates in one of the saddest scenes in cinema history.  He plays Colin Blythe, a genteel but unfortunate prisoner-of-war in the high-security Stalag Luft III who goes blind just before the inmates stage the mass break-out of the title.  However, Blythe has been befriended by an American pilot called Hendley, played by James Garner, who agrees to take him along when it’s his turn to escape from the camp.  All goes well and Hendley and Blythe manage to steal a German airplane and fly it towards Switzerland and freedom.  They get to within yards of the Swiss border when the plane suffers engine trouble and crashes.  Then, while the bloodied Hendley tries to gather his wits amid the plane wreckage, the sightless and disorientated Blythe stumbles off in the direction of an approaching German patrol.  One of the German soldiers raises his rifle…  I get a tear in my eye even thinking about what happens next.

 

Cul-de-sac (1966)

The Roman Polanski-directed Cul-de-sac has a surprisingly svelte Pleasance playing an artist shacked up with his gorgeous young wife (Francoise Dorleac, who was the sister of Catherine Deneuve and who died in a car accident in 1967) on an island off the English coast, which is actually Lindisfarne off Northumbria.  Their idyll ends one day when two criminals-on-the-run (Lionel Stander and Jack MacGowran) show up.  Things then become positively Beckettian as the villains wait, futilely, for their superiors to appear and rescue them.  Cul-de-sac is overlong, but is a haunting experience thanks to the gorgeous bleakness of its location and its black-and-white photography.  It also contains the bloodcurdling sight of Pleasence, whilst involved in some kinky horseplay with Dorleac, hurtling around in lipstick and a frock.

 

© Compton Films / Tekli British Productions

 

Fantastic Voyage (1966)

Your IQ must be lower than your shoe-size if you haven’t worked out within ten minutes that Pleasence is the foreign-agent saboteur among the crew in this colourful sci-fi epic about a submarine of medical experts being miniaturised and injected into the body of a dying scientist so that they can perform internal surgery on him.  Still it features a delightful scene near the end where Pleasence is devoured by a hungry white blood cell.  (Other great Donald death-scenes: getting mauled to death by a bear that’s obviously a stuntman wrapped up in a shaggy rug in 1960’s Circus of Horrors, and being ingested by a monster that’s half-human and half-Venus flytrap in 1974’s startlingly tacky The Mutations.)

 

You Only Live Twice (1967)

The James Bond film where we get to see Bond’s arch-nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld for the first time, You Only Live Twice has Pleasence playing him with all the accoutrements that popular culture associates with Blofeld – bald head, white jumpsuit, white cat, pool of piranhas for dropping incompetent minions into.  Mind you, the filmmakers immediately abandoned the template and cast two actors with very different appearances and personas, Telly Savalas and Charles Gray, as Blofeld in the next two Bond movies.  That, of course, didn’t stop Mike Myers from using the original Pleasence / Blofeld blueprint for his Dr Evil character in the later Austen Powers movies (1997-2002).

 

Wake in Fright (1971)

Nick Cave reckons Wake in Fright is the greatest Australian movie ever and I wholeheartedly agree.  It’s the tale of a young, bright and ambitious teacher (Gary Bond) who becomes increasingly desensitised and degenerate the longer he’s stranded in the macho outback town of Bundanyabba.  Pleasence plays Doc Tydon, an educated man who’s already plumbed the depths of ‘the Yabba’ and who becomes Virgil to Bond’s Dante, guiding him through the town’s various levels of hell.  The scene where a drunken Tydon sits on the porch of an outback pub and raves about “Socrates, affectability, progress” being “vanities spawned by fear”, before going berserk and smashing up the place, shows the mighty Donald at his most unhinged.

 

© American International Pictures

 

Deathline (1972)

Gary Sherman’s grisly and ahead-of-its-time horror movie Deathline has Pleasence playing Inspector Calhoun, a working-class copper investigating the disappearances of late-night travellers on the London Underground.  (Clue: it’s something to do with the last-surviving, cannibalistic descendent of a group of workers who were entombed by a cave-in while the Underground was being built in the 19th century.)  Calhoun isn’t really a nice character.  He’s sly, cynical, irascible and, as a boozy scene involving his only friend (Norman Rossington) shows, a nightmare to get out of the pub at closing time.  However, when he finally discovers the cannibal’s hideous subterranean lair, his exclamation – “What a way to live!” – suggests a feeling of empathy, even of kinship with the lonely creature.

 

The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water (1973)

1970s children’s television in Britain featured many short public-information films that used harrowing and graphic images to convince kids that it was not a good idea to play on railway tracks, inside electrical sub-stations, next to farm slurry pits, etc.  Pleasence lent his doomy tones to The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, which warns the little ‘uns to keep away from rivers, canals and ponds and is the most harrowing film of the lot.  He voices the titular spirit, a black, cowled figure who lurks in the misty background while a succession of stupid children – “the unwary, the show-off, the fool” – are lured to watery graves.  So memorably ghoulish is Pleasence’s narration that, 45 years on, I can still recite every word of it.  (“Sensible children!” he spits.  “I have no power over them!”)  And to make it even creepier, when he dematerialises at the end and leaves his cowl floating on some murky water, we hear his voice echoing out of the cowl: “I’ll be back… back… back!”

 

© Amicus Productions / Warner Bros.

 

From Beyond the Grave (1974)

The best of the horror anthology movies produced by Amicus Films, Hammer’s biggest rival during the 1960s and 1970s, this features Pleasence in one story as an old soldier called Underwood, reduced to selling matchsticks and shoelaces on the street.  Underwood is adopted by a mediocre, frustrated man called Lowe (Ian Bannon), who’s trying to win respect for himself by lying about imaginary heroics he performed during the war.  Despite having a wife and child, Lowe gradually becomes enamoured with Underwood’s weird daughter – and we realise that it’s Underwood, not Lowe, who’s doing the manipulating.  In a neat piece of stunt casting, the daughter is played by Pleasence’s real-life daughter, Angela.  Meanwhile, wonderfully, in the role of Lowe’s ten-year-old son is the future comic writer and Labour Party activist John O’Farrell.

 

Telefon (1977)

Pleasence plays a Soviet scientist who, during the darkest days of the Cold War, helped to ‘seed’ the USA with deep-cover Soviet agents.  These brainwashed agents don’t know they’re agents, but when they hear a ‘trigger’, which is a stanza by poet Robert Frost, they become zombie-like, grab some explosives and carry out kamikaze-style attacks on nearby military installations.  Pleasence goes rogue and travels to America, where he tries to start World War III singlehandedly by activating the brainwashed agents.  Thereafter, there are many explosions and much reciting of poetry by Pleasance: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep / But I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep…”

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / United Artists

 

Halloween (1978)

In 1978, planning a horror movie called Halloween about a murderous psychopath on the loose on October 31st, director John Carpenter decided he wanted ‘an old British horror guy’ to play Dr Sam Loomis, head of the psychiatric hospital from which the psychopath escapes.  After offering the part of Loomis to Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, without success, Carpenter approached Pleasence and the great man bagged his second most-famous role (after Blofeld).  I have mixed feelings about the massively influential Halloween.  It has a hackneyed script, but benefits from Carpenter’s masterly direction, an endearing turn by Jamie Lee Curtis as the resourceful ‘last girl’ and, obviously, Pleasence’s gravitas.  That said, I’m sure when Pleasence signed up for this, he didn’t expect to appear in four of the film’s five, increasingly ropy, direct sequels.

 

Blade on the Feather (1980)

A TV movie written by the brilliant Dennis Potter, Blade on the Feather has Pleasance playing a wealthy and stuck-up novelist who’s discombobulated when a young stranger, played by Tom Conti, arrives one day, ingratiates himself into his household and starts asking awkward questions – questions to do with some long-ago espionage skulduggery, which resulted in the death of Conti’s secret-agent father.  Stylishly directed by Richard Loncraine and excellently acted by Pleasence, Conti and Denholm Elliot, Blade on the Feather was no doubt Potter’s disgruntled response to events of the previous year – when Anthony Blunt had finally been unmasked as the ‘fourth man’ in the Guy Burgess / Donald Maclean / Kim Philby spy scandal that rocked Britain in the 1950s and 1960s.  Despite confessing to treason in 1964, Blunt’s crime was kept secret for the next 15 years and he was allowed to enjoy a respectable and privileged life at the heart of the British establishment, working as curator of the Queen’s art collection.

 

Escape from New York (1981)

Working again with director John Carpenter, Pleasence plays in Escape from New York a future US president who’s trapped in a hellish version of New York after his plane crashes there.  The city has become so anarchically crime-ridden that the authorities have simply sealed it off, left it to its own devices and turned it into a huge, unstaffed prison into which they dump all their felons.  An ultra-violent, dystopian United States with a president called Donald?  Thank heavens that prediction didn’t come true.

 

Anyway, a century on…  Happy birthday, Mr P.

 

© Central Office of Information

 

The importance of being Ernst

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(c) Eon Productions
(c) Eon Productions

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Details of the forthcoming 25th official James Bond movie were announced via a media rollout on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook on April 25th, 2019.  This came after a series of delays, script rewrites and changes of director that, depending on your point of view, is a sign that the long-running James Bond franchise is in trouble or is just part-and-parcel of the cumbersome business of getting a Bond epic to the screen.  Anyway, two important questions remain unanswered.  Firstly, what is the new Bond movie actually going to be called?  And secondly, will Bond’s archenemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who made his long-awaited comeback in the previous instalment Spectre (2015), return for this new one? 

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It’s been reported that Christoph Waltz, who played Blofeld in Spectre, won’t be in the new film.  However, previous films and the Ian Fleming books that inspired them have depicted Blofeld as someone with a penchant for radically altering his appearance.  So it’s still possible that he’ll be back in Bond 25, played by a different actor – perhaps Rami Malik, who’s been unveiled as the film’s main ‘villain’.

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Ernst Stavro Blofeld, super-intelligent and super-nasty leader of the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion organisation (SPECTRE for short), is a paradoxical figure.  On one hand, in popular consciousness, he’s as much a part of Bond tradition as Q’s gadgets, shaken-not-stirred dry martinis and the Aston Martin DB5.  Mention of him conjures up images of a sinister foreigner sporting a shaven head, wearing a white Mao-suit, stroking a white cat and feeding minions to piranha fish when they fail to carry out his orders.  It’s no surprise that when Mike Myers lovingly spoofed the Bond movies with his Austen Powers ones (1997-2002), he made sure he spoofed Blofeld too with the character of the bald-headed, Mao-suit-wearing, cat-stroking, piranha-feeding Dr Evil.

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But on the other hand, Blofeld isn’t really in the Bond books and movies that much.  He appears in only three of Ian Fleming’s 14 Bond novels and short-story collections, and in one of those, 1961’s Thunderball, Bond and Blofeld never meet – Bond spends the novel tangling with Blofeld’s lieutenant, Emilio Largo.  Meanwhile, Blofeld is featured in seven of the 24 Bond movies made over the past six decades by Eon Productions, but makes only fleeting appearances in three of them.  And three of the four films where Blofeld is a substantial character were made during the first decade of the franchise.  Before Waltz stepped into Blofeld’s shoes in Spectre, we’d hardly seen anything of the old rogue since 1971’s Diamonds are Forever

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(Still, in terms of presence in popular mythology versus lack-of-presence in the original source material, Blofeld has nothing on Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis Professor Moriarty, who doesn’t figure in 58 of the 60 Holmes stories.  He only properly appears in one story and lurks offstage in one other.)

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(c) Jonathan Cape

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Thunderball, the novel in which Blofeld made his debut, was really a collaborative effort.  It was written by Fleming but based on a script he’d put together with Irish writer-director Kevin McClory and British playwright and screenwriter Jack Whittingham for a Bond film in the late 1950s.  The film came to nothing and Fleming’s publication of the novel a few years later resulted in legal action from McClory and Whittingham.  Although who came up with which ideas in Thunderball has been a matter of dispute, I’m inclined to believe Blofeld was the product of Fleming’s imagination rather than McClory or Whittingham’s.  For one thing, Fleming had attended Eton in the company of one Thomas Blofeld and he probably borrowed his old schoolmate’s surname for the character.  (This real Blofeld was the father of the famous cricket commentator Henry Blofeld.)  

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Meanwhile, Blofeld’s Wikipedia entry suggests that Fleming took inspiration for his personality from the infamous Greek arms dealer Basil Zaharoff.  After escapades in his youth as a confidence man, bigamist, possible arsonist, dodgy goods exporter and general manipulator and social climber, Zaharoff came to specialise in selling weaponry – weaponry that sometimes didn’t work, as with the Nordenfelt 1 submarine that he flogged off to Greece, Turkey and Russia.  Zaharoff also had no qualms about supplying arms to countries that were fighting on either side of a conflict, which is a very Blofeld-ish thing to do.

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(c) Jonathan Cape

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Over the course of three novels – Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963) and You Only Live Twice (1964) – Blofeld is quite a shapeshifter.  In Thunderball, he’s a whale of a man, some 20 stones in weight.  In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he’s slimmed down to 12 stones, wears green-tinted contact lenses and, disconcertingly, has a syphilitic gumma on his nose.  And in You Only Live Twice, he’s bulked out again, though with muscle rather than fat.  His mouth flashes a gold-capped tooth and his nose has been fixed. 

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More interesting, though, is how Fleming charts Blofeld’s mental development (or degeneration).  The Blofeld of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has succumbed to that most bourgeois of diseases, snobbery, and is pestering the College of Arms in London to acknowledge him as a reigning aristocrat, the Comte Balthazar de Bleuville.   (A genealogy expert tells Bond how respectable people lose all dignity when they’re angling for a title or a coat of arms: “they dwindle and dwindle in front of you… until they’re no more than homunculi.”)  By You Only Live Twice, Blofeld’s state-of-mind has gone from snobbery to insanity.  He lives in a castle on the Japanese island of Kyushu and has installed a bizarre ‘garden of death’, teeming with deadly flora and fauna and riddled with sulphurous fumaroles, which has become a popular visiting spot for people wanting to commit suicide.  To be fair, by this point Bond isn’t much saner than Blofeld, due to Blofeld having murdered his wife Tracy at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

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(c) Eon Productions

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The films, in tune with the escapist mood of the 1960s, were happy to use Blofeld and SPECTRE as their fantasy baddies from the start – unlike the earliest novels, which were set in the Cold War and had the Russians providing the villainy.  Blofeld makes his first appearance in 1963’s From Russia with Love.  “Let his death be a particularly unpleasant and humiliating one!” he decrees of Bond.  However, he has only a minor role and remains hidden within a large chair, and we only see his hands stroking the glossy white fur of a Persian cat.  (The white cat was a detail added by the filmmakers, although in Fleming’s books Auric Goldfinger did own a ginger cat – a rather unfortunate one, for he ends up being given as dinner to Goldfinger’s sidekick, Oddjob.)  Blofeld was played physically by the Scottish actor Anthony Dawson, while his mellifluous voice was supplied by the Austrian actor Eric Pohlmann.  Two years later, Dawson and Pohlmann reteamed to play Blofeld bodily and vocally in the film version of Thunderball, but again it was a minor, away-from-the-action role. 

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It wasn’t until the 1967 movie You Only Live Twice – which confusingly preceded the movie version of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1968), even though they appeared the other way around as books – that we get to see Blofeld’s face for the first time, as does Bond.  And he’s played by the sublimely sinister Donald Pleasence with all the classic Blofeld accoutrements (bald head, Mao-suit, cat, piranhas).  Interestingly, though, as soon as the filmmakers had created the definite Blofeld template with the goblin-like Pleasence, they immediately chose not to continue with that version of the character.  For when Blofeld reappears in 1968 in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he’s played very differently by the celebrated Greek-American actor Telly Savalas.

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(c) Eon Productions

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Savalas’s Blofeld is physical, macho and, when we see him flirting with heroine Diana Rigg, brutishly charming.  To be honest, he’s a shade too physical and macho for the role and you can’t help feeling he’d have made a better henchman than the Big Villain.  But Savalas is certainly believable when doing the strenuous outdoors things required by the script, such as leading a ski-group in pursuit of Bond and wrestling with him during a breakneck bobsleigh ride.  Much as I like Donald Pleasance, I couldn’t imagine the creepy, pop-eyed English character actor hurtling down a mountainside on a bobsleigh.

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Incidentally, when Bond and Blofeld meet up in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the script glaringly contradicts the continuity established by its predecessor.  Despite coming face-to-face at the climax of You Only Live Twice, in the new film Blofeld doesn’t recognise Bond at all.  (Admittedly, Bond does look different all of a sudden because producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Salzman had just replaced Sean Connery with George Lazenby, but let’s not go into that.) 

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Like its literary equivalent, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service ends with Blofeld murdering Bond’s wife Tracey.  As Blofeld also features in the next Bond movie, 1971’s Diamonds are Forever, you’d expect it to be a tough and intense affair.  But Diamonds are Forever is nothing of the sort.  Sean Connery (enticed back into 007’s shoes by a 1.25-million-pound paycheque after George Lazenby jumped ship) is given five minutes at the beginning to look vengeful and that’s it.  Then the film becomes the epitome of cinematic Bond laziness, its plot meandering nonsensically from one action set-piece to another, its visuals packed with easy-on-the-eye spectacle and lavishness.  No doubt this was because the melancholic On Her Majesty’s Secret Service hadn’t been a big success and producers Broccoli and Saltzman wanted to play it safe and return to a formula that audiences were comfortable with. 

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Blofeld in Diamonds are Forever is played acerbically and amusingly by English character actor Charles Gray.  While he’s wreaking havoc with a deadly laser gun mounted on a satellite, he sneers: “The satellite is now over Kansas.   Well, if we destroy Kansas, the world may not hear about it for years.”  Indeed, Gray and the bemused, past-caring Connery make quite the double act.  “What do you intend to do with those diamonds?” demands Bond at one point.  Blofeld retorts, “An excellent question, and one which will be hanging on the lips of the world quite soon.  If I were to break the news to anyone, it would be to you first, Mr Bond.  You know that.”

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(c) Eon Productions

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Diamonds are Forever was the last Bond film for a long time in which Blofeld (and SPECTRE) are prominent.  This was due to ongoing legal issues with Kevin McClory, which stemmed from the controversy over the novel and original film script of Thunderball.  However, a villain who’s obviously Blofeld – though he isn’t named for the aforementioned legal reasons – does turn up at the beginning of the fifth Bond movie starring Roger Moore, For Your Eyes Only (1981).  He’s bald, has a white cat, is now in a wheelchair and neck-brace and, returning to the policy of From Russia with Love and Thunderball, he’s physically played by one actor, John Hollis, and voiced by another, Robert Rietti.  In the film’s pre-credits sequence, Blofeld traps Bond above London in a remote-controlled helicopter.  Alas, what begins as an exciting action set-piece descends into typical Moore-era silliness when Bond gains manual control of the helicopter, and somehow scoops Blofeld and his wheelchair up on one of the helicopter’s landing skids, and drops him into a factory chimney. 

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Having won the right to remake Thunderball, Kevin McClory did so in 1983.  His production company brought out Never Say Never Again, a rogue Bond film unconnected with the Eon series – although it did have Sean Connery, no doubt keen to thumb his nose at his former employers, reprising the role of Bond.  Since McClory had the rights to Blofeld too, it was inevitable that Bond’s old nemesis should feature in the plot. This time he’s played by the mighty Swedish actor Max von Sydow but, like in the original Thunderball, he doesn’t have much to do.  Now I admire von Sydow, but all I remember about him in this film is my surprise at seeing Blofeld with a beard and in a grey business suit.  And from the way von Sydow clutches the little fellow to his chest, this Blofeld really loves his white cat.

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(c) Taliafilm / Warner Bros.

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In 2013 the legal row was finally settled with Kevin McClory’s estate and Eon Productions were free to use Blofeld and SPECTRE again – and they did in their very next film, the emphatically titled Spectre.  In the role of the 21st century Blofeld is Christoph Waltz, who plays him as a charismatic but psychotic Euro-scumbag.  Unlike most Blofelds of old, he sports a full head of hair and commits crimes against fashion as well as against humanity by wearing his loafers without socks.  But he still has the cat. 

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The new Blofeld also goes by another name, Franz Oberhauser, and we learn eventually that he’s connected to Bond through his father, Hannes Oberhauser, who brought up the young James Bond after his parents were killed in a climbing accident.  This backstory involving Blofeld and Bond brought hoots of derision from many movie critics, though I didn’t have much of a problem with it – the adoptive father-figure of Hannes Oberhauser existed in Ian Fleming’s original, literary Bond-universe and Bond talked about him in the short story Octopussy, published in 1966.  It’s just unfortunate that the third Austen Powers film, Goldmember (2002), has a similar revelation linking Powers and Dr Evil.

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And so the million-dollar question now is, with Waltz seemingly departed, will Rami Malik be playing yet another incarnation of Ernst Stavro Blofeld in Bond 25?  And if so, what will the latest Blofeld be like?  One thing I’m fairly sure about, though.  If Blofeld is returning, I reckon the theatrical agent of a certain fluffy, white Persian will be getting a telephone call very soon.     

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(c) Eon Productions

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