Sunday, 5 July 2015

Blofeld's cat in the Bond films and beyond

There's a moment in Spooks: The Greater Good when MI5 agent Will Holloway, played by Kit Harington, enters the house of a suspected villain and is confronted by a white cat. Will quips that they've got their man, alluding to the white cat associated with James Bond's arch-nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Since making its first appearance in From Russia With Love (1963), Blofeld's cat (we never find out its name) has become a well-established meme in popular culture, eliciting recognition even without the appearance of Blofeld or Bond, and providing useful shorthand in television or film dramas for villainy, usually of the grand, international kind.

The Blofeld of Ian Fleming's novels does not own a cat. Goldfinger does, but his is ginger (as befits a man obsessed by gold), not white. Blofeld's cat was, then, an invention of the screenwriters of From Russia With Love, principally Richard Maibaum (although there is something of an older tradition of cats associated with villains; as @craigarthur_nz reminded me, the criminal mastermind Dr Nikola, created by Victorian novelist Guy Boothby, had a black cat named Apollyon). Given that we do not see his face, Blofeld was presumably given a cat to make the shots of his lower body and lap more interesting for the viewer (and dignified for the actor, in this case Anthony Dawson), but in so doing the screenwriters also created a visual symbol of Blofeld and, by extension, (renewed) a symbol of nefarious activity.

 
Blofeld's cat in From Russia With Love
The cat itself is a traditional Persian, a long-haired breed that accompanies all subsequent screen appearances of Blofeld, including For Your Eyes Only (1981) and Never Say Never Again (1983). With the hint that Blofeld will return in Spectre (2015), there is a chance that the cat will return too (will a white cat herald the presence of Blofeld before Blofeld is himself revealed?). If the makers of the forthcoming Bond film rely on recent representations of Blofeld's cat, however, we could be seeing a different breed.

The meme of Blofeld's cat has been imitated almost from the moment that the cat first appeared in the Bond films. For example, in Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon (1973), a film that copies many traits of the Bond films, crime lord Han is seen carrying a white cat, apparently also a traditional Persian. In Austin Powers (1997), Blofeld-like character Dr Evil has a traditional Persian cat at the start of the film.

A more recent allusion to Blofeld's cat is in the film Cats & Dogs (2001), which features as its villain a white cat called Mr Tinkles. The cat instantly recalls Blofeld's cat and identifies the character as villainous, but curiously the breed is a modern Persian, not a traditional Persian of the Bond films, the difference being that the modern Persian has a flatter face.



It is this modern Persian that appears to have been depicted in The World According to Blofeld's Cat: Unofficial Musings from the Volcano Lair (Tumbleweed, 2015), an amusing book in which Blofeld's Cat offers the sort of provocative opinions about subjects as diverse as selfies, call centres, public transport and musicals that many of us are probably thinking but dare not say!

Whether the next incarnation of the screen Blofeld's cat is the modern, or the traditional Persian remains to be seen, but thanks to the success of the early Bond films and regular appearance in later, non-Bond films, the cat is likely to remain an important symbol of on-screen villainy for some yet.

1 comment:

  1. The cat-stroking supervillain trope seems to date back to Cardinal Richelieu, who in real life owned 14 cats. Movie versions of "The Three Musketeers" picked up on this--in the 1921 French serial kittens walk randomly across Richelieu's desk, while in the 1948 Hollywood version Vincent Price's Richelieu is often seen petting his cats (as seen here: http://catsonfilm.net/2012/10/21/cat-of-the-day-003/).

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