Modesty Blaise can best be described as an interesting mess. One of director Joseph Losey's most expensive and atypical films, it's a complicated, confusing, and sometimes tiresome collection of SuperSpy situations and characters that never finds a satisfying tone, although some aspects of its production are superb.
Gabriel (Dirk Bogarde) is an effete master criminal who's successfully convinced Interpol of his death. His headquarters are on a private Mediterranean island, in an abandoned monastery equipped with electronic equipment and adorned with modern art. His first lieutenant is a fussy accountant, McWhirter (Clive Revill, in another role) and the place is well-stocked with gourmet food and hunky henchmen. An informer, the mime Crevier (Joe Melia), is delivered, and Gabriel sics his housemother / executioner / possible wife Mrs. Fothergill (Rossella Falk) onto him - she strangles the painted-face clown for fun with her knees. Gabriel shoots down the decoy diamond jet with a laser-tipped rocket, but soon figures out which boat the diamonds are really on and prepares a submarine drilling machine to rob them from the hold while the ship is moving. Flying south, Willie and Modesty enjoy a drive and escape a short capture by Tarrant and Paul. Finally contacting Gabriel, Modesty has to watch while Willie is forced to help in the submarine diamond theft, which goes off perfectly. Back at his island, the wily pair don't stay locked up for long. Gabriel offers to join forces with Modesty, but she prefers to use the gadgets hidden in her clothes to free Willie, contact Abu Tahir, kill Mrs. Fothergill and steal the diamonds back. Just as it looks like they're trapped, Abu Tahir shows up with a small army of bedouins, who save them, and rout Gabriel's men, while Willie and Modesty sing a love duet.
Director Joseph Losey is a director that fans either love, or have no tolerance for whatsoever. He was just getting up some steam in America (The Prowler, a great film) when the blacklist sent him running to England. There he slowly worked his way back up to prominence, sometimes even using a pseudonym to hide his identity as a non-English talent. He hit the big time in the art-film stakes with pictures like Eve, The Servant, and Accident, moody works that used his favorite actors, Stanley Baker and Dirk Bogarde, and were often written by his favorite scribe, Harold Pinter. Losey's champions consider some of his best pictures among the most brilliant ever made, with complex characterizations expressed not in the words of the script, but in his compositions, blocking, and attention to details of character.
Losey's detractor's say, Baloney, that for each watchable film there are five stinkers. ("Oh, it's another Joseph Lousy movie", a well-known animator friend used to tease.) When he does something, it's always overstated, high-art pretentious, and patently obvious. They have no use for his neurotic characters and his unsubtle, concrete-block allusions (their words, not mine) to perverse sexuality.
Modesty Blaise came at the height of Losey's intense, moody string of dramatic hits in the '60s. A light comedy SuperSpy thriller without aspirations to deeper meanings, it garnered a lot of anticipation. What would the director of the sexy sofa scene in The Servant do with sexy Antonioni star Monica Vitti? When the film was shown at Cannes, it was booed, and from then on the question was, 'Why did you make Modesty Blaise?" It was if they were saying, "Why did you bother doing subject matter for which you were totally inappropriate?" 1 A comedy without laughs, that has no control over its tone, Modesty Starts like a James Bond film and crumbles into rather boring scenes punctuated by pitiful jokes and impenetrable in-jokes.
First, the cinematic crimes:
Not funny. You truly can't tell if Modesty Blaise is trying to make fun of the Spy genre, because it's mostly played straight. In 1966, with TV's Batman and other spoofy shows growing like kudzu all over the culture, Harry Andrew's umbrella that shoots bullets and doubles as a radio has a negative impact, as if we tuned in for something cooler than The Ipcress File, and were greeted with sub- Get Smart jokes. In a nicely-shot chase at the Doll House in Amsterdam, the music suddenly takes a turn into Keystone Kops mode, while the baddies crash into each other as if this were a Three Stooges movie. That's the point where audiences decide to tune out; they've put up with some amusing but pointless Arabs-in-London humor, and a lot of travelog-y timewasting in Amsterdam, and for what? In the same groove, Willie and Modesty set off brightly-colored smoke bombs in two cars so they can escape from their own employers on a twisting mountain road. The cartoony effect clashes with the basically realistic tone we're hoping the film will stick to; the colored smoke worked much better when borrowed by Mario Bava for the next year's Danger: Diabolik, a film with a consistent comicbook surface.
A lack of clarity. A rather perfunctory opening introduces several baddies in an Amsterdam alley - a mime who's always in character, a criminal who's also a magician. Very interesting, if Modesty's adventure were to continue to take place on some odd plane of fantasy, but it doesn't. Things remain fairly realistic. The mime Crevier's murder is weird and perverse, but like all the rest of the characters, we don't know enough to care about him. We pay a lot of attention to irrelevant details, yet the picture pays off nowhere except the visual level. The plot is hard to follow, mainly because of the proliferation of half-explained characters (Michael Craig's Paul, particularly - is he the 'David' that Modesty claims to be engaged to?). That's why I've fully annotated the Synopsis above - just to prove to myself that the movie indeed followed a plot, any plot.
Likewise, Modesty herself is an unknown quantity. She's billed as the greatest this and the greatest that, but we never see evidence of her doing anything particularly special. She's got attitude, but she's ambushed, trussed up, and kidnapped twice. She has this infuriating ability to change clothes and hairstyles instantaneously, that totally rips the fabric of the film. It's not explained as a 'real' thing she's doing, yet the movie doesn't promote any way to interpret it as a some kind of abstract comment on the genre, or the character. It just happens, can't be explained, and anyone who objects is showing their non-hipness.
Modesty Blaise is a number of styles that never add up. London is sleek hotels and slippery looking cars; Amsterdam is dirty streets, sunny canals and skullduggery in the dark. Gabriel's island is a balmy resort-like place with strange (but not very interesting) characters roaming about. The great musical score does a number of nice variations on the main theme, after a striking title sequence amid some modern architecture that hints that the film will attempt some daring new forms. But when the final showdown comes, it alternates between bombast and a gloppy love song, that's sung by Willie and Modesty in Jeanette McDonald/Nelson Eddy mold.
Part of the confusion may have been budgetary, but it's more likely Losey got lost in a story with an unfinished script that lacked purpose or theme. Losey says the film was very expensive at 3 million, but the comedy attack on Gabriel's island, with silly and pointless jokes like horses appearing out of nowhere and a bunch of Arabs holding a flag like the Iwo Jima monument, looks like it was shot in an afternoon. The secondary henchwoman played by Scilla Gabel faces off against Modesty like John Ireland against Montgomery Clift in Red River, only to disappear from the film, as if the later island scenes were shot before her role in the story had been conceived. Besides the credited writers, Losey says there were earlier scripts by authors Sidney Gilliat and Suso Checci D'Amico, but that his frequent collaborator Evan Jones did most of the final work - much of it during shooting. Evan Jones started with Losey's These Are The Damned, an incredibly powerful Hammer science fiction film, and continued on three more of his films; after Modesty Blaise he wrote the superior Harry Palmer picture, Funeral in Berlin. 2 Here, the accent is on character weirdness and other bits of business, but basic structural flaws and glaring omissions - no explanation of who Modesty is, no satisfying conclusion - do the picture in.
Is Modesty Blaise some kind of ultra-hip film that people just don't get? Sadly, no. Losey said that he just wanted it to be fun, but everything about the show cries out importance, and then doesn't back it up. Most SuperSpy movies parody the genre in smug, self-congratulatory ways that can be lowbrow fun when the gags are good; Modesty Blaise doesn't seem to understand what SuperSpy mania is all about. Included in Fox's Austin Powers inspired roundup of Spy romps, this one is really going to lay an egg ... Austin Powers may be broad and empty, but it knows exactly what genre conventions it's sending up with its crude jokes.
Using the handy English subtitles to nail dialogue I'd missed on countless other viewings, Savant scoured Modesty Blaise for substance. There's a lot to like in the film, once you give up on any of it making sense, and in fairness, here's a gallery of delights:
Monica Vitti is woefully miscast as anything like a real Blaise, but she's charming just the same, knows how to project glamour like a movie star (except in the worst of the Mod outfits). But she also seems too Italian, too soft. Her accent is too thick, and she doesn't seem particularly coordinated, let alone a master of the martial arts. The pre-title sequence is a lot like the one in Barbarella, but starts off the picture with a particularly flat joke, when her computer spits out a bunch of punchcards, yuk yuk.
Terence Stamp is terrific. He's sexy, intelligent-looking, and seems the kind of guy who can go on an underwater combat mission at a moment's notice. He also sounds good singing the dippy songs, in contrast to Vitti. One believes every scene he's in, as opposed to many with Monica Vitti that just sit there.
Dirk Bogarde's openly ambiguous archvillain Gabriel is wonderful. He overplays his role as if following a self-parody direction nobody else is privvy to. "I'm the villain of the piece" he tells Vitti, and always refers to their situation in the third person, as if making it all up as he goes along - not necessarily to win, but to maintain proper archvillain style. He fusses and agonizes over the fate of the jet pilots he's going to shoot down, prissing over the tragedy that's a nagging byproduct of earning ill-gotten loot. News comes in that the airmen have all survived, and he's ecstatic, like a little boy who's gotten a special treat. When it's time to launch the undersea hull-drilling sub (which would be elaborated on in Tomorrow Never Dies), everyone is low-key, even dour. Gabriel shouts out a loud "Go!" overplayed ten times as big as it should be, as if launching a crime like a host launches a party. It's one of the few times that the parodic element works.
The mostly wasted character actors keep our attention. Rossella Falk, from Otto e mezzo and The Legend of Lylah Claire, is wonderful as the petulant, kill-crazy sadist, who Gabriel claims is his wife. She's always toting around a boy toy or torturing the hired help. She makes great faces at Modesty when they first meet, and her showdown with the heroine is the film's only really satisfactory action gag, getting a reaction from Dirk Bogarde that's better than anything Nathan Lane came up with in The Birdcage.
Luscious Tina Marquand (aka Tina Aumont) is the daugher of Christian Marquand and the legendary Maria Montez. She can be seen in titles as weirdly diverse as Texas Across the River and Jean Rollin's Les Deux orphelines vampires (1997). Skeletal Scilla Gabel has a number of fun moments until she just suddenly isn't in the film any more - you may already have seen her in Tarzan's Greatest Adventure, Robert Aldrich's The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the mysterious Mill of the Stone Women. Another Losey regular, the avuncular Alexander Knox, is seen too little and heard too much. Usually a stiff wicket, he's positively animated in his opening scenes. Then he's used only in voiceover to help out with annoying exposition: "What's Modesty Blaise doing in Amsterdam?"
This Minor Spy movie, Major curiosity is an adequate DVD from Fox, with a transfer that is somewhat disappointing compared to the eyepopping job done on the Flint movies. The picture is grainy and the colors a bit flat. The thin yellow main titles never seem to stabilize, and jump around radically. Perhaps there were original elements in England that weren't sourced. The sound is also a bit thin, especially the main title music. The dialogue is clear - it's mostly the accents and the frequent use of bits of foreign tongues that make one think one's missing something.
In all fairness, the television prints and 16mm copies Savant's seen of Modesty Blaise looked terrible, all except for the recent FXm cable letterboxed version, which I don't recall having the wiggly title problem this DVD has. On a smaller monitor (this one was 65") none of these flaws are as prominent - the titles are small and difficult to read, it must be said.
The only extras are trailers for the other SuperSpy Movies in Fox's summer promotion. The artwork for Modesty is the ugliest of the bunch, with a very distorted Monica Vitti on the cover. The copy doesn't offer any clues to interpreting the film, except to make sure we know there's 'swinging, psychedelic wall patterns' and that the whole affair is 'campy.' Dirk Bogarde's Gabriel character definitely fulfills the original definition of 'camp', but not much else in Modesty Blaise knows what it is.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Modesty Blaise rates:
1. This info is direct from Tom Milne's excellent Cinema World
Series book, Losey on Losey, Doubleday NYC 1968
2. These are the Damned shares with this film the sculptor
Frink - the
tortured, atom-blasted figures made by Viveca Lindfors in the earlier show, are replaced by more
healthy-looking but similarly-styled Angels on the ramparts of Gabriel's domain.