(c) Eon Films
Like every other James Bond fan in the universe, I was awfully excited last month when the title of the next Bond movie was announced: SPECTRE.
SPECTRE is the name of the secret criminal organisation that featured in a couple of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels and in several of the earliest, 1960s-vintage Bond movies. Thus, long-term fans have speculated excitedly that the new movie’s title indicates that SPECTRE-the-organisation will return to the Bond franchise in 2015. Who knows? Perhaps even Ernst Stavros Blofeld, SPECTRE’s super-intelligent and super-nasty leader, will return to the franchise too. And as anyone steeped in the Bond books and / or films will tell you, Blofeld is the greatest Bond villain of all.
However, if Blofeld does turn up in the new Bond movie, it’s unlikely in these more realistic, less fantastical times that we’ll see him depicted the way that he’s remembered in the public’s imagination – i.e. as he appeared in the 1967 film You Only Live Twice, sporting a shaven head, wearing a white jumpsuit, stroking a white cat, planning world domination from inside a converted volcano and dunking hapless minions into a pool of piranha fish when they fail to successfully carry out his orders. For one thing, the bald-headed / white-cat / converted-volcano / piranha-fish version of Blofeld was so thoroughly parodied by Mike Myers’ Doctor Evil character in the Austin Powers movies that it would be unwise to stick it in a serious film now.
However, this seems a good time to pay tribute to the man who played Blofeld in his most memorable incarnation in You Only Live Twice; the man who still, in many people’s minds, is Blofeld. I’m talking, of course, about the great screen villain and character actor Donald Pleasence.
Born in 1919, the son of a Nottinghamshire railway stationmaster, Pleasence set his sights on being an actor at a young age but had a few setbacks to endure before fulfilling his ambitions. The young Pleasance was offered a place in the Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts but passed on the opportunity because of a lack of money – he failed to win a scholarship that would have covered his living expenses and living fees. For a while it looked like he’d be following in his father’s footsteps with a career in railway management – he was posted to a station in Yorkshire – but then he managed to get a foothold in the theatrical world with a job as an assistant stage manager in the Channel Islands. This also enabled him to do some acting and by 1942 he was performing in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in London.
Then Pleasence experienced his next acting setback – World War II. Initially, he was a pacifist, which meant his first contribution to Britain’s war effort was to work in forestry in the Lake District. Later, he abandoned his pacifism and joined 166 Squadron in the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command. The consequence of this was that in 1944 he was on board a Lancaster NE112 that was shot down over Nazi-occupied Europe and he spent the remainder of the war banged up in a German prisoner-of-war camp. This experience would be useful two decades later when he appeared in legendary war movie The Great Escape (1963) and was able to advise director John Sturges on what POW life was really like.
Post-war, Pleasance’s acting career took off. He made his first film appearance in 1954’s The Beachcomber, but by then he’d already established himself as a presence in the theatre and on TV. In 1951, he appeared alongside Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh in stage productions of Caesar and Cleopatra and Antony and Cleopatra; and soon after he won acclaim for performances in plays like Harold Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice, Jean Anouilh’s The Lark, Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker and Ebb Tide, a stage version of the Robert Louis Stevenson short story that Pleasence himself adapted and starred in.
Meanwhile, Pleasence had dabbled in the fledgling medium of television as early as 1946. His best-remembered TV work from the early years of his acting career are probably his turns as Prince John in the much-loved Adventures of Robin Hood (1956-58); and as Syme in the BBC’s controversial 1954 adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984. Playing Winston Smith in that adaptation was Peter Cushing who, like Pleasence, would feature prominently in the weird and wonderful world of British horror movies in the decades that followed. (Two years later in 1956, Pleasence would also pop up in an inferior film version of 1984 directed by Michael Anderson.)
Although with his domed and shiny pate, bug-like eyes, penetrating stare and often-sepulchral voice Pleasence is remembered nowadays for being supremely sinister, he was adept at playing a range of types – not only the sinister, but also the pathetic, tragic, furtive, oddball and very occasionally, noble.
Two early examples of Pleasence in ‘pathetic’ mode that I’m fond of come from 1960. That year, he played the shifty but kindly bookmaker Gus Hawkins in Val Guest’s gritty – surprisingly gritty by the standards of British films at the time – crime saga Hell is a City. Poor Hawkins’ wife, played by Billie Whitelaw, is giving him the run-around because she’s busy attending to the spiritual and physical needs of the film’s villain, a gangster-on-the-run played by John Crawford. Meanwhile, the same year saw him in a supporting role in Sidney Hayers’ cheap and grotesque crime-horror melodrama Circus of Horrors. In this he plays a circus owner who generously offers shelter to Anton Diffring, playing a dodgy plastic surgeon fleeing the attention of the police. After Pleasence’s death, Diffring takes over the circus and uses it as cover for further, nefarious plastic-surgery activities. Pleasence isn’t murdered by Diffring, as you might expect. Rather, he expires during a hilarious sequence when, drunk, he attempts to dance with his circus’s resident bear, which is apparently played by a stuntman draped in a large shaggy rug. This bear is not one for dancing and reacts by mauling Pleasence to death.
(c) United Artists
Hovering somewhere between the ‘pathetic’ and ‘noble’ categories is Pleasance’s performance in 1963’s World War II / prisoner-of-war epic The Great Escape. He plays Colin Blythe, a genteel inmate of the high-security Stalag Luft III who has the misfortune to go blind on the eve of the titular mass break-out. Luckily (or arguably unluckily, from the way things eventually go) the ailing Blythe has been befriended by a captured American pilot called Hendley, played by James Garner, and Hendley selflessly takes him along when he makes his escape-attempt from the camp.
Well, Pleasence and Garner do get out of the camp and they almost make it to freedom. In fact, they get to within yards of the Swiss border when the German airplane they’ve commandeered develops engine trouble and crashes. Then, while a bloodied Garner tries to gather his wits amid the plane wreckage, the sightless Pleasence stumbles off in the direction of an approaching German patrol. One of the German soldiers raises his rifle… Only a heartless brute would fail to have a tear in his or her eye at what happens next. It is, as I argued in a blog-post last year, the Saddest Movie Scene Ever.
Incidentally, the recently-finished 2014 was not a good year for the acting alumni of The Great Escape. Not only did James Garner die in July 2014, but the year also saw the passing of Sir Richard Attenborough, who played Roger Bartlett, the escape-plan’s mastermind; and of Angus Lennie, who played the diminutive and highly-strung Scottish prisoner Archibald Ives. Actually, Lennie’s death halfway through the movie (he cracks up and gets riddled with machine gun bullets whilst trying to scramble over a camp-fence) provides The Great Escape with its second saddest scene.
By the time of The Great Escape, however, filmmakers had cottoned onto Donald Pleasence’s flair at playing psychotic bastards. For example, 1960 saw him play Hare in John Gilling’s The Flesh and the Fiends, cinema’s best-ever telling of the Burke-and-Hare story – he’s one half of the notorious duo who resort to serial-killing to keep the dissection tables of Edinburgh Medical School supplied with cadavers in the early 19th century. In 1963 he played another famous historical murderer, the title character of the movie Doctor Crippen. And it was hardly surprising that in 1965’s Biblical epic The Greatest Story Ever Told, he played history’s biggest villain, the Devil. Pleasence’s casting in this film was certainly cannier than the casting of John Wayne as a Roman centurion who, during Christ’s crucifixion, gets to say in his inimitable drawl: “Truly this man was the son of Gawd!”
(c) Triad Productions
Thus, in 1966’s science-fiction epic Fantastic Voyage, about a medical crew who are miniaturised in a submarine and injected into the bloodstream of an injured scientist to remove a blood clot lodged in an inoperable part of his brain, it’s not a great shock at the end when the secret agent who’s been trying to sabotage the mission is revealed as Pleasance. Actually, his death-scene in this film is as entertaining as the one he had in Circus of Horrors – he gets devoured by a hungry white blood-cell.
The following year saw You Only Live Twice and Pleasence’s famous performance as Ernst Stavros Blofeld. It’s interesting that the Bond filmmakers chose not to continue with Pleasance’s take on the character as a feline-loving homunculi with one foot on the pedal controlling the trapdoor to his piranha-fish pool. When Blofeld reappeared in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1968, he was played by Telly Savalas, who interpreted the character very differently – his Blofeld is physical, macho and brutishly charming. And two years later, in Diamonds Are Forever, Charles Gray played him as a suave, snobby and acerbic effete that made one critic liken him to “the president of a local golf club.”
During the 1960s and 1970s Pleasence seemed ubiquitous on cinema and TV screens. His output was remarkable not just for its volume but for its variety. Although he was typecast as a villain, Pleasance managed to work at half-a-dozen levels of cinematic respectability and in half-a-dozen genres at the same time.
He was in highbrow pieces like Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-sac (1966); Elia Kazan’s The Last Tycoon (1976); Ted Kotcheff’s neglected (but now rediscovered and reappraised) tale of human savagery in the Australian outback, Wake in Fright (1971); and a bleak slice of dystopian science fiction THX1138 (1971), directed by a young American filmmaker called George Lucas – whatever happened to him? He appeared in comedies like Watch Out, We’re Mad (1974), Barry Mackenzie Holds His Own (1974) and 1977’s popular Oh God! He made war movies like Night of the Generals (1967) and John Sturges’ The Eagle Has Landed (1976), in which he played Heinrich Himmler. (By way of balance, he played Winston Churchill too in the 1990 French TV movie Moi, Général de Gaulle.) He turned up in a couple of Westerns like Will Penny (1968) and 1970’s notorious bloodbath Soldier Blue. And he was featured in espionage thrillers like Peter Collinson’s Innocent Bystanders (1972) and two Don Siegel-directed pictures, The Black Windmill (1974) and Telefon (1977).
Actually, Telefon showcases Pleasence at his most barking mad. He plays a deranged Soviet scientist who, during the tensest days of the Cold War, worked on a project wherein the USA was ‘seeded’ with deep-cover Soviet agents. Brainwashed, these agents don’t even know they’re agents. But when they hear a ‘trigger’, which is a stanza by poet Robert Frost (“The woods are lovely, dark and deep / But I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep”), they acquire a zombie-like gait and expression, grab some explosives and carry out a kamikaze-style attack on the nearest military installation. Pleasence absconds from the USSR and arrives in America, where he tries to start World War III singlehandedly by activating the brainwashed agents in his old project – so he spends much of the ensuing film reciting poetry. (To stop Pleasence and avert Armageddon, the Soviet authorities send in their least expressive secret agent, Charles Bronson.) If the film’s premise sounds familiar, that’s probably because it was used again in the recent espionage thriller Salt (2010) with Angelina Jolie.
Meanwhile, in the then-prolific British film industry, Pleasence was as busy as a butcher making horror movies. As well as the aforementioned The Flesh and the Fiends and Circus of Horrors, he appeared in No Place Like Homicidal (1961), Tales that Witness Madness (1973), Deathline (1973), From Beyond the Grave (1974), The Mutations (1974), I Don’t Want to be Born (1975), The Devil’s Men (1976), The Uncanny (1977), Dracula (1979) and The Monster Club (1980).
(c) American International Productions
Pleasence gives one of his best performances in Gary Sherman’s Deathline. He plays Inspector Calhoun, a policeman investigating the disappearances of late-night travellers on a stretch of the London Underground. (Responsible for these disappearances are some subterranean-living, inbred, degenerate and cannibalistic descendants of a group of workers who were entombed by a cave-in while the Underground was being built in the 19th century.) Sly, cynical and irascible, Calhoun is hardly a sympathetic character. But Pleasence gives him an engaging impishness and he makes an amusing and entertaining contrast to the horror that’s unfolding in the subway tunnels below.
Deserving a dishonourable mention, meanwhile, is Jack Cardiff’s The Mutations, which stars Pleasence as a mad scientist intent on splicing together human and vegetable life. Not only does he use the unsuspecting students who attend his university lectures for his experiments, but he also has a deal going with a circus owner played by the soon-to-be-Doctor–Who Tom Baker. When the experiments go wrong, which they inevitably do, Baker gets to display the horribly-deformed results in his circus sideshow. This gradually raises the suspicions of the sideshow’s ordinary residents, in whose roles the filmmakers opportunistically cast the denizens of some real-life circus side-shows: dwarves, midgets, bearded ladies, human skeletons and a once-seen, never-forgotten chap called Popeye who can make his eyeballs shoot out of their sockets. Eventually, the sideshow performers turn on Baker, who gets ripped apart by a pack of mad guard-dogs, while Pleasance is ingested by his latest experiment, a student whom he’s managed to turn into a human Venus flytrap. The Mutations is possibly the barmiest and sleaziest thing that mainstream British cinema has ever produced. Indeed, it surprises me that Quentin Tarantino hasn’t got around to championing it.
Pleasence didn’t relent in his TV work, either. In Britain, he appeared in Lord Lew Grade’s epic series Jesus of Nazareth, in an adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles and in the BBC’s influential Play for Today. In the States, he turned up in countless TV movies, mini-series and guest-slots in shows like The Fugitive, Hawaii Five-O and Colombo. In Colombo, a show famous for having its dishevelled, blue-collar detective-hero track down and arrest rich, snobbish and pretentious big-shots who believed they’d committed the perfect murder, Pleasence was unusually sympathetic. He played a meek, gentlemanly wine-lover who kills his dastardly half-brother when that half-brother threatens his beloved winery.
It was some British TV work in 1973 that introduced my eight-year-old self to Pleasence. The actor lent his voice to a short public-information film broadcast during commercial breaks in children’s TV programming, warning kids about the dangers of playing near rivers, canals and ponds. The film features a black, cowled figure called the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water who, in Pleasence’s doomiest tones, explains that his mission is to lure to a watery grave “the unwary, the show-off, the fool.” We then see a shouty kid trying to retrieve a football from a quarry-pool in front of his mates. “That boy is showing off,” observes Pleasance. “The bank is slippery…” Splash! Exit one shouty, show-offy kid. “The show-offs are easy,” he comments. “But the unwary ones are easier still…” We see another kid dangling from a tree over a deep stretch of river. “This branch is weak, rotten. It’ll never take his weight…” Splash! Exit one dangly, unwary kid too.
(c) Central Office of Information
It isn’t until some sensible kids – “Sensible children! I have no power over them!” – turn up and rescue a third, foolish kid from drowning that the Spirit’s spell is broken and he dematerialises, leaving his cowl floating on top of some murky water. Just to make the film even creepier, though, we hear Pleasance’s voice echoing through the cowl: “I’ll be back… back… back!” So memorably sepulchral was Pleasance’s narration that, 40 years later, I can still recite every word of it. And not only is the film accessible on YouTube, but someone has even uploaded a drums-and-bass version of it there too.
In 1979 a young American director called John Carpenter planning a low-budget shocker called Halloween decided he wanted ‘an old British horror guy’ to play Dr Sam Loomis, head of the psychiatric hospital containing one Michael Myers, a psychopath entirely dedicated to killing anyone who wanders within stabbing range. Myers escapes from the institution on October 31st – Halloween – and a frantic Loomis has to hunt him down. After Carpenter had offered the part of Loomis, without any luck, to Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, he approached Pleasence. And so Pleasence landed his second most-famous role.
I have mixed feelings about Halloween. On the plus side, it has Pleasence and Jamie Lee Curtis, and Carpenter’s direction and music are great. On the negative side, it has a hackneyed plot and it doesn’t actually attempt to explore the innate, mystical creepiness of Halloween. The festival is just an orangey, pumpkin-illuminated backdrop for the carnage and the film could have as easily taken place at Christmas or Easter or on St Valentine’s Day or the Fourth of July. Also – something that wasn’t Carpenter’s fault – it inspired a million cheap imitators during the 1980s wherein nondescript teenagers were stalked and stabbed by nondescript maniacs, most famously the drearily robotic Friday the 13th movies.
Halloween and its sequels kept Pleasence busy. He reprised his role in Halloween II (1982) and although both Myers and Loomis were comprehensively killed off at the end of that film, they were back again in Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers (1988), Halloween V: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989) and Halloween VI: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995). The quality, needless to say, went down with each new sequel. Meanwhile, Pleasence got more gigs with John Carpenter. He appeared in his sci-fi horror movie Prince of Darkness (1987) and played the US president in his dystopian sci-fi actioner Escape from New York (1981). Come to think of it, future America must be dystopian indeed if it has Ernst Stavros Blofeld in the White House.
Pleasence’s work with Carpenter kept his profile high among younger filmgoers but much of his output during his later years was, putting it bluntly, crud. He ended up making many low-budget, low-quality horror movies in Italy and America – by this point Britain had stopped making horror movies and practically stopped making movies, full-stop – like The Demonsville Terror (1983), Phantom of Death (1988), Vampire in Venice (1988), The House of Usher (1989), Paganini Horror (1989) and Buried Alive (1990). In 1985 he worked with legendary Italian horror director Dario Argento, but by this time Argento was well past his prime. The best that can be said about the resulting film, Phenomena – which has Pleasance as a phony-sounding Scotsman and Jennifer Connolly as a schoolgirl who can communicate telepathically with insects, and which also features a mutant killer and a cutthroat-razor-wielding chimpanzee – is that it occasionally brings a bemused smile to the viewer’s face.
No doubt he got more satisfaction appearing in Woody Allen’s star-studded Shadows and Fog (1991) and in Leslie Megahy’s medieval-set curiosity Hour of the Pig (1994), in which he acted alongside Colin Firth. Incidentally, in 1991, Firth would co-star with him in a London-stage revival of Pinter’s The Caretaker, a play that Pleasence had originally appeared in in 1960 (with Alan Bates and Robert Shaw).
In 1995, when Pleasence died from heart failure at his home in France, he could boast 227 film and TV credits. He was 75 years old at the time of his demise, although when I read about it in the newspapers I was surprised that he wasn’t at least ten years older – during the preceding decades I’d seen him in so much stuff.
And Donald Pleasence wasn’t just impressive because of his prolific-ness. When it came to portraying goggle-eyed, sinister-voiced, cat-stroking evil, he was peerless. Indeed, if world-class screen villainy was the same thing as world-class football, Donaldo would definitely have been Ronaldo.
(c) Dino De Laurentiis Corporation