The Fictional Crime Syndicate SPECTRE: What Every Mid-Century Modern Enthusiast Should Know and Love

Dr Evil Blofeld

“I didn’t spend six years in Evil Medical School to be called Mister.”

~ Dr. Evil, villain in Austin Powers spoofing Ernst Stavro Blofeld

By the same token, Ernst Blofeld—SPECTRE’s number one operative—didn’t spend fifty years tied up in lawsuits and reverting license agreements to be called “the reason for nearly every problem and devastation James Bond faced over his life.”

Or did he…?

In the recently released Bond film—Spectre—Blofeld gleefully takes the wrap for many of the major tragedies of Bond’s life since his childhood. This scenario is a bit challenging for Bond aficionados to swallow.

Perhaps more compelling—yet equally difficult to believe—is the narrative of the real life evolution of the fictitious SPECTRE, from its intellectual infancy to its current day title as a feature film. (Although, because of the above mentioned license agreements issues, SPECTRE must now be written as “Spectre”. In this post I’ll continue to write it as an acronym, because I’m a vintage chick, and it will always be SPECTRE in my heart.)

Let’s leap back in time. In 1958 Bond novelist Ian Fleming approached Kevin McClory—a screenwriter, producer, and director—for a collaboration. Their mission: to produce the first James Bond film. Jack Whittingham, a British screenwriter, joined the team, and between 1959 and 1960 the three men struggled to craft a script with a working title of Thunderball.

However, as McClory and Whittingham attempted to wrap up the failing screenplay, Fleming boldly went rogue. Without McClory or Whittingham’s knowledge or consent, Fleming sent a draft copy to his agent. The result…Thunderball was published as a novel in 1961 with only one author credited:  Ian Fleming. Needless to say, McClory and Whittingham were not happy.

Lawsuits exploded and even though copyrights were awarded in 1963 the battle over Thunderball raged on for years. Buried within the Thunderball script lay a villainous treasurer named SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion)—a fictional crime syndicate with a modern, corporate structure.

Long story short… EON, the film producers of the majority of the Bond films, only possessed a license to use the SPECTRE organization and its operatives for six films, from 1962 until 1971. It wasn’t until November 2013, seven years after the death of Kevin McClory, that his estate returned the SPECTRE license to Danjaq, LLC, the parent company of EON. Exactly two years later, Blofeld and SPECTRE returned to the world of motion pictures.

There is no question that SPECTRE’s roots are planted in the mid-century—specifically the early 1960s. In 1961 Fleming published the Thunderball novel featuring SPECTRE as Bond’s foe, and EON introduced the organization to the world on the big screen in 1962. It’s my opinion mid-century modern—as a culture, style, and attitude—peaked around 1960. Hence, SPECTRE’s modern characterizations grow out its period of creation, but also—and less obviously—its creator’s ideology.

Three strong, defining elements of modern in the above mentioned context include efficiency, functionality, and breaking from tradition. SPECTRE nails these themes and keeps on punching.

Numerical order is efficiency in its rawest sense. Every operative within SPECTRE is assigned and referred to by a number, from one to twenty-one. Ernst Blofeld—head of SPECTRE who’s featured in seven EON films and one Warner Brothers production of James Bond—is Number One. Emilio Largo, second in command and the main antagonist in Thunderball, is referred to as Number Two. Number Three was allocated to short yet feisty Rosa Klebb. In From Russia with Love—EON’s second Bond film—she engaged knives from the tip of her shoe during an attack on Bond. Though quite serious in Bond films, all three of these characters were hilariously spoofed in the 1997 movie Austin Powers, as Dr. Evil, Number Two, and Frau Farbissina.

bond klebb

Numerical labels create a sense that all members are replaceable, and thus easily eliminated. This immediate mortality is displayed often, including in the current Bond film Spectre, as operatives are swiftly disciplined for their failures at the conference table by means of violent and gruesome death.

In the movie version of Thunderball, Number One (Blofeld) determines Number Nine is guilty of embezzlement. Number One flips a switch and Nine is electrocuted in his leather chair as the other operatives look on. Without hesitation, or even removal of the body, the meeting continues—it’s business as usually for SPECTRE.

blofeld conference

Some film variations of Ernst Blofeld exemplify a definite effeminate bent for the character. Sporting a Mau suit (very mod, by the way) while caressing a fluffy, white pussycat, Blofeld wears a deep scar across his face and is presented as less manly than Bond. This unique stereotype falls well within the modern cultural ideals of breaking from traditional super villains, and serves as a precursor to the sexual revolution and acceptance of alternative sexual lifestyles. However, the underlying intent may actually be more politically charged than cultural. As Fleming’s country suffered post war decline, the author and film producers position a virile, masculine British agent (Bond) against the lesser, deformed Russian villain (Blofeld). It was a modern stab at a cold war enemy.

It is often postulated that Fleming chose a corporate model (as opposed to a government structure) for SPECTRE because he believed—in 1959—that the cold war could end before the projected release date of the Thunderball film—in two years— and he didn’t want the film to be “dated.” I believe this theory is too simplistic; I think Fleming’s reasoning was grounded in modernism.

England’s post war decline as an imperial producer gave way to corporate expansion with its economy turning to banking and stocks. Harold Perkin, a British social historian, called this “the rise of the professional society.” Fleming came to age as a writer in this era and thus, so did Bond. But this evolution is most apparent in the motivations of SPECTRE, which are as equally ideological as they are capitalist. In Thunderball, SPECTRE steals two NATO atomic bonds, and holds the world ransom for £100 million in diamonds (capitalistic), in exchange for not destroying an unspecified major city in either England or the United States (ideological).

Not only does Fleming’s antagonist follow a modernist model, but the author’s writing narrative also adheres to elements of efficiency and with a parting from tradition. In the book, Ian Fleming & James Bond: The Cultural Politics of 007 (a collection of fifteen essays), Fleming’s style is described as “characterized by an almost arid order and efficiency. At times, character and suspense literally give way to textbook-like displays of professional knowledge—decisively non-narrative list, definitions, and reports.”

Kingsley Amis, British author, describes the “Fleming Effect”, in which Amis “praises [Fleming] for his ability to construe the fantastic in precise, realistic terms.” Amis also suggests that Fleming is more interested in the encyclopedic facts than action—that the author provides the excitement of action only to help us swallow the influx of presented facts.

blofeld and feline

So how does SPECTRE fare in the newest Bond flick—released November 6—which shares its name? Does the organization remain efficient, modern, and corporate? Does Blofeld retain his cold wickedness while clinging to his fluffy feline? Does a sacrifice at SPECTRE’s notorious conference table measure up to previous, horrific, operative exterminations? I’ll let you decide. Even though Spectre is far from my favorite film in the franchise, I found it fascinating how EON patiently bided time for forty years, then dusted off a mid-century work of art and unveiled it as a far-reaching, contemporary spectacle.




Goodman, Greg. “The Battle of the Bonds: From Thunderball to Spectre”. Universal Exports:  Keeping 007 Safe Since 1996. N.p, n.d. Web. 9 Dec 2015.

Amis, Kingsley. The Bond Dossier. New York City, New York. New American Library, 1965. Print.

Comentale, Edward P., Stephen Watt and Skip Willman. Ian Fleming & James Bond: The Cultural Politics of 007. Indiana University, Bloomington Indiana:  Indiana University Press, 2005. Print.



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