In 1908, the writer and journalist G.K. Chesterton (a friend of H.G. Wells and a significant influence on Mahatma Gandhi, Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Collins among others) gave a brief description of a secret anarchist organisation in his book, “The Man Who Was Thursday”. Each of the seven members of a pan European council each took the name of a day of the week as a cover name, each in fact unknown to the other.
In some ways, SPECTRE as a similar organisation, has captured the popular imagination for the past fifty years. It has been parodied but is also emulated as the definitive organisation of shadowy evil and manipulation. Be it “The assassination Bureau”, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”, “ALIAS”, “Person of Interest” or even the UK kids’ cartoon “Dangermouse”, we can detect a homage and nod to the secretive organisation.
We could imagine in a parallel universe, the characters of Professor Moriarty, Alvin Sloane, Gustavo Fring and Raymond Reddington all having a place at SPECTRE’s table.
Perhaps it is because in this global village, with the myriad of information, news and views, all of us seek answers and perhaps look to a shadowy group as the sole explanation for all the contrived ills in our fragile world. The reason why SPECTRE has continued to appeal to us is precisely its elusive and exclusive mystery.
A lynch pin both from the production point of view and for the recent ‘soft reboot’ of the Bond movies with Daniel Craig, is the figure known simply as Mr White. This rather delphic character, says very little in “Casino Royale”, but his revelation in “Quantum of Solace”, of the almost omnipresence of his organisation, creates more questions than answers. In the recent teaser trailer for “SPECTRE”, he appears to be the keeper of secrets, not just for 007, but for the audience.
The organisation – mentioned as Quantum – appeared as a solution to Bond’s traditional shadowy nemesis; that is until the MGM and Danjaq LLC reached a legal settlement with the McClory estate. The only difficulty is what in fact is Quantum and how does it relate to SPECTRE?
The character known as Mr White is key to understanding these organisations. He appears in “Casino Royale” as a silent ominous figure who puts nasty people in contact with those equally unsavoury. It is he who facilitates the encounter of the African terrorist Steven Obanno with Le Chiffre, a financier known for offering global banking services to the criminal underworld. He says very little but observes the transaction of $100 million in cash. His organisation seems to facilitate criminal enterprises but not necessarily become directly involved.
In the earlier film, “Thunderball” the eye patched villain Emilo Largo attends a SPECTRE briefing in Paris. In this brief scene, the audience discover the global reach of the organisation, involved in extortion, assassination and acts of terror. Indeed, during the area reports, ‘Number Five’ mentions that £250,000 (over £3 million today) was the consultative fee gained from the successful execution of the British train robbery. Like SPECTRE, which appears apolitical and without ideology, Mr White appears to interact with criminal enterprises and individuals throughout the world, enriching finances but also creating a web of networks across the globe.
Like Raymond Reddington, the protagonist in NBC’s hit TV drama, “The Blacklist”, Mr White seems to help people with their logistics. He does not ‘seem’ to implement criminal actions, but is happy to facilitate others to do so.
However, when Le Chiffre loses the large sum of money entrusted to him, Mr White personally dispatches him reminding him: “Money is not as valuable to our organisation as knowing who to trust”. That being said, money is a still a motivation in manipulating Vesper Lynd in the tragic finale in Venice.
Even though he appears as an observer practically throughout “Casino Royale”, the figure of Mr White is a very significant character. He drives the continuity between this and subsequent Bond movies, but his presence also alludes to much more in what is not seen, nor said.
After being attacked by 007 on the banks of Lake Como, at the end of “Casino Royale”, we witness Mr White’s associates frantically expend considerable ammunition and effort to prevent him from falling into the hands of British Intelligence at the beginning of “Quantum of Solace”. He is obviously a key figure within his organisation.
From the brief interrogation scene with Bond and M in “Quantum of Solace”, we garner three things. If Vesper had survived he and his associates would have sought to manipulate Bond because of his love of her. Secondly, he points out the anxiety of his own organisation to retain its secrecy, before quipping that in fact neither MI6 nor CIA even know that his organisation exists. Finally, before his escape, he mentions they have people everywhere…even in the room, among M’s protection detail.
For the rest of the “Quantum of Solace” Mr White’s presence goes unrecognised. He attends the outdoor opera performance at Bregenz in Austria, and engages in the rather unique meeting there. But unlike others in the radio transmitter discussions with Greene, he stays to enjoy the opera Tosca and so remains hidden from 007.
We see no more of Mr White. Bond’s nemesis is essentially Dominic Greene and his plot to facilitate General Medrano’s ‘coup d’etat’ and so secure the majority of Bolivia’s water resources.
The high speed car chase to avoid Mr White’s capture; his remark to M concerning the secrecy and virtual invisibility of his organisation and also the unique manner of Greene’s meeting in Bregenz, shows that the organisation that Mr White works for goes to great lengths to shroud their existence.
Hiding plain sight, a quality that the character of Gustavo Fring had refined and perfected over many years in the hit AMC series “Breaking Bad”, seems to be a singular component of the organisation that Mr White is attached to. But is his organisation Quantum?
Remember it is Dominic Green, not Mr White who mentions Quantum, both in the radio transmissions and to Bond in the desert. Indeed, there are several minor associates of Greene milling around at his Bolivian party, identifiable by Q lapel pins. Considering the efforts to retain secrecy, why advertise it in such an obvious way?
At least the higher echelons of Quantum appear to have all the characteristics of an organisation similar to SPECTRE. Those who attend the night at the opera seem to hold global portfolios in industrial and telecommunication infrastructure as well as positions of great political influence. Indeed, we should not even assume that those at the opera know the obvious identity of one other, apart perhaps from their lapel pins.
Perhaps this is the role of Mr White, to facilitate, to act as an intermediary, all with the intention to preserve anonymity and hermetically seal secrecy in their plans and operations. Albeit, he does not direct affairs. Dominic Greene does and seems to relish this position. However, Mr White seems to coordinate the many whispered voices at the Tosca opera, or at least listen, observe and wait.
In JJ Abrams’ “ALIAS” tv series, produced by ABC, the villain Arvin Sloane coordinates the activities of SD-6, which – to all but a select few – seems to operate as a covert agency of the CIA based in LA.
However, hidden behind a corporate front of a multinational bank – Credit Dauphine – SD-6 is a criminal organisation, staffed by dupes. Only later in the series, is it revealed that SD- 6, is but one cell of a much larger and insidious organisation, the Alliance of Twelve.
No doubt, in a ‘homage’ to James Bond and the criminal organisations 007 encounters, Sir Roger Moore plays Edward Poole, the head of SD-9, based in London.
Perhaps Mr White is tasked to operate in a similar manner? Perhaps Quantum is but a cell within the tentacled organisation of SPECTRE? Perhaps Mr White is indeed a key figure within the hierarchy of SPECTRE, whose presence facilitates the ambitions and activities of Dominic Greene and other members of Quantum, all the while preserving and insulating SPECTRE from visibility or suspected motivation?
Is Quantum a rival organisation? Considering the efforts of Mr White’s organisation to ensure its invisibility within the global criminal underworld, it is unlikely. Any attempt by SPECTRE to liquidate a supposed rival organisation would be unnecessarily expensive, generate unwanted attention and risk exposing its existence to global intelligence agencies In the light of Mr White’s brief incarceration by MI6; the exposure of Quantum’s associates at the opera; the failure of Dominic Greene and the uncovering of the ‘honey trap’ of the Canadian intelligence agent in Russia, perhaps the highest echelons of SPECTRE decided to create a ‘fire-break’ with the section or cell operating as ‘Quantum’.
To ensure every trace of its connection to the wider organisation, perhaps key associates and collaborators were marked for quiet liquidation. Perhaps the movie “SPECTRE” begins with Bond intercepting an assassin in the vicinity of South America, tasked with one such mission.
So what of Mr White?
His presence in the recent “SPECTRE” teaser trailer shows a rather haggard individual. Is he terminally ill? Is he allowed to spend his remaining days alive, assured that as he said to Le Chiffre, knowing who to trust is more valuable to his organisation?
Not likely. It’s more likely he has a target on his back. If he was able to readily identify a key sleeper agent within protection detail of the chief of British Intelligence, it is very likely he retains much information, possibly critical information that makes him a credible threat to SPECTRE.
Perhaps that explains his rather philosophical conversation to Bond – “I always knew that death would wear a friendly face, but not yours”. This sounds like a man who has grown tired of running and ready for death. A man who SPECTRE is still speaking about both out of growing concern and necessity.
Not only the appearance of the SPECTRE ring, but also the chessboard, is very symbolic in the teaser trailer. I believe 007 actually places the ring on the space where the King sits at the beginning of every game of chess. Perhaps this a reminder that SPECTRE, like the King, being the most important piece, is also the most vulnerable on the board. Like the King, SPECTRE has many pawns and pieces to move, use, threaten and ultimately – when the time comes – sacrifice in order to win.
The enigmatic character of Mr White, whose very name betrays no colour but like the chessboard, only simple contrast, is a key figure in Daniel Craig’s tenure as 007. Not only will his reappearance act as a catalyst for 007’s future, but serve as a reminder of Bond’s classic past, both the character and the franchise.