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DIRECTED BY: Joseph Losey
FEATURING: Monica Vitti, Terence Stamp, 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 Michelangelo Antonioni 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.