Tag Archives: Monica Vitti

CAPSULE: MODESTY BLAISE (1966)

DIRECTED BY: Joseph Losey

FEATURING: , , Dirk Bogarde, Clive Revell, Harry Andrews, Rossella Falk, Michael Craig

PLOT:  Master thief Modesty Blaise and her associate, Willy Garvin, are enlisted by the British Government to protect a diamond shipment to a Middle Eastern sheik from a heist ring overseen by Master Criminal Gabriel.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It certainly is strange, even for a comic book film, but in very much the spirit of its time.

COMMENTS: The current craze of adapting comic-book characters for the screen isn’t just a recent phenomenon. It’s only the consistent box-office success that’s relatively new. But, as Modesty Blaise proves, satisfying the preexisting fan base has ALWAYS been the fly in the ointment.

Purist fans of the British “Modesty Blaise” strip (which at the time was more known internationally than in the U.S., and still is) have long complained that the film doesn’t truly represent the source material. Not being familiar with the strip, I’ll leave it to those with more knowledge of the character to make those criticisms. What is evident, from what can be seen onscreen, is that director Losey, previously known for dramas such as The Servant and These Are the Damned, was going POP in the largest way possible.

The photography (by Jack Hilyard) and design (by Richard MacDonald and art director Jack Shampan) take precedence over anything else in the movie. In retrospect, that might not have been an altogether bad thing. The script—by Evan Jones, based on an original story and script by “Modesty” creator Peter O’Donnell and an uncredited pass by Harold Pinter(!)—appears to be a mess, though the flaw may be in its execution.

The 60’s Pop-art fascination with the comics had its basis in camp. Losey’s approach is no different, going for an arch, self-aware tone, most blatantly during a scene where Modesty, while searching a friend’s apartment, comes across her own comic strip. The movie’s Modesty also can change her wardrobe and hair color at the snap of a finger. Camp also explains the (horribly sung) duets she and Willie have at two points in the film, the last during the final confrontation with the bad guys. The camp isn’t quite as broad as what would soon be seen on television’s “Batman” series; Losey’s approach is more intellectual and narrow, as if channeling  directing a comic book spy film.

The main complaint about the film from purists is Monica Vitti, who in no way resembles the character as drawn. For the film, however, she’s more than perfect, bringing with her the ennui from her roles for Antonioni. Terence Stamp does a serviceable job in his role, basically a pretty boy-toy. The supporting cast (Clive Revell, Harry Andrews) is good, but it’s Dirk Bogarde who runs away with the film as the villainous but fey Gabriel, followed closely by Rossella Falk as his sadistic wife (and beard), Mrs. Fothergill.

Modesty Blaise is not an especially good a comic adaptation, or very weird. Barbarella and Danger: Diabolik both hew closer to their sources and go even more over the top. As an example of mid-60’s cinema Pop Art, however, it is good on its own terms.

DVD INFO: In 2002, Fox released a DVD that was fairly decent at the time—widescreen and anamorphic, although there were no extras. This past summer (2016) brought a Blu-ray upgrade from Kino-Lorber. It includes a commentary by film historian David Del Valle and director Armand Mastroianni which is entertaining—although Del Valle mistakenly credits camera operator Gerry Fisher as the DP. Also in the release are featurettes with first assistant director (and Joseph Losey’s son) Gavrik Losey; writer Evan Jones; and assistant art director Norman Doane. An image gallery and a trailer round out the special features.

LIST CANDIDATE: THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY (1974)

Le Fantôme de la Liberté

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: , Adolfo Celi, Michel Piccoli,

PLOT: There isn’t one! Numerous bizarre situations are briefly explored, but none are resolved. It’s the ultimate shaggy dog movie.

Still from The Phantom of Liberty (1974)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Monks behaving badly are randomly exposed to exhibitionist sadomasochism. Two people are somehow the same person. A spider-fixated family find architecture pornographic. The dead make phone-calls from their coffins. People who feel no shame about sitting on lavatories together are embarrassed and disgusted by any mention of eating. Etc., etc., etc…

COMMENTS: As with the other two films (Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire) in Buñuel’s very loose swansong trilogy, Phantom of Liberty gives us a sense of an artist tying up loose ends. In many ways Phantom is one of his most Surrealist movies, as if he was revisiting the glories of his youth one more time. And yet, it should be remembered that, although he is often described as a Surrealist filmmaker, Buñuel formally abandoned Surrealism in 1932, being forced to choose between active membership of the Spanish Communist Party, which regarded Surrealism as a decadent bourgeoise affectation, or belonging to a pretentious club that mucked about with art and pretended it mattered. Or maybe, like most other short-lived Surrealists, he simply couldn’t stand the movement’s awful, awful founder, André Breton. Since Buñuel was a control-freak himself, the latter explanation is perhaps the more probable.

Given his obvious intelligence and love of complex in-jokes and hidden meanings, it’s significant that in an interview recorded around this time, Buñuel says—very perceptively—that Surrealism triumphed on a superficial level, while utterly failing to change the world in any way that truly mattered. (In the same interview, he jokes about making a melodramatic but utterly insincere deathbed conversion to Catholicism just to wind up those of his friends who militated against religion in the most humorless way imaginable). Sure enough, The Phantom Of Liberty uses almost exactly the same dramatic structure as “Monty Python’s Flying Circus“: the ultimate manifestation of unofficial Pop Surrealism. And yet, given the very short difference in time between the creation of Python and this film, and the implausibility of an initially marginal BBC series being sufficiently internationally famous for Buñuel to have already seen it in a language he understood, it has to be assumed that any similarities are purely coincidental.

And similarities there most certainly are! The episode in which a crazed sniper randomly kills numerous people (which was cut from early UK TV broadcasts on grounds of unacceptable nastiness) and then, having been found guilty, is unaccountably released with no consequences at all, and instantly becomes tremendously popular, is almost identical to a Python sketch aired the previous year. Plagiarism? I doubt it. Zeitgeist? Almost certainly. More significantly, the entire film follows the Python ethos of not wasting a good idea just because you can’t think of a punchline. Problem ending the scene? Forget it, and arbitrarily move on to something else!

As more than one critic has observed, Richard Linklater’s 1991 Slacker is remarkable for being the first film (or at any rate, the first film that anyone’s heard of) to use the technique invented by Buñuel 17 years previously. But actually they’re wrong. Richard Linklater shows us vignettes from the lives of various people who are going nowhere, then cuts away to somebody else because if we followed this particular non-story any longer it would become boring. Buñuel gives us glimpses into situations that have no rational explanation whatsoever, and abandons them because any punchline he could possibly provide would be an anticlimax. The title, insofar as it refers to anything, seems to invoke a spirit which pervades the movie without ever being in any way discernible to the characters or the audience—a direct reference to The Exterminating Angel, in which the Angel of Death is supposedly responsible for the inexplicable events without directly manifesting itself at any point in the film. The characters drift into completely random situations, every one of which involves a massive breach of social norms, or laws even more fundamental than that. And nobody notices a thing. The entire film could, if the title is taken literally, be said to document the progress of an invisible and otherwise totally undetectable entity that capriciously drifts around altering the nature of reality for reasons all its own. And that’s the spirit in which it should be viewed. Buñuel’s best film? No. Buñuels weirdest film? Definitely in the top three. Worth watching? Yes! Just don’t expect a satisfying sense of closure.

PS – In recent years certain scenes in this movie have been played out for real in the UK by radical Islamists with no understanding of irony, who used their democratic right to demonstrate to hold demonstrations against democracy. What a pity Buñuel didn’t live to see it! Though maybe he wouldn’t have been all that surprised.

PPS – Are there any other films featuring two Bond villains?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“An uproarious summary of Luis Bunuel’s surrealistic concerns… a crazy, subversively funny film about convention-bound characters who have a hard time dealing with sexuality and freedom.”–Michael Scheinfeld, TV Guide

(This movie was nominated for review by “viqman.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)