Probably inspired by the success of the James Bond movies as well as the Avengers TV show, the 1960s were astonishingly rife with secret agent movies. The year 1966, for example, saw Our Man Flint and the rather excellent Bond parody Casino Royale – and Modesty Blaise, too. These movies, whether made by the British or the Americans, helped make the sixties look fantastic. They were all expensive, lushly directed, opulently luxurious and outrageously fashionable. More often than not they were very humorous, featuring heroic men and feistily delectable women, and sometimes the result was good, other times less so.
Unfortunately, despite its not inconsiderable eye candy, Modesty Blaise is one of the less good ones. And it’s not just because of the mime.
The narrative of the movie is patchy to say the least, but let me see if I can get the fluttering plot to stand still for a moment. Modesty Blaise used to be a thief, but went (relatively) straight and ended up employed by British intelligence. In the movie, which is a spoof of the secret agent genre, she is asked by the bumbling fools in the Secret Service and the government to, apparently, protect some diamonds that the British are handing over as a gift to a sheik in return for oil concessions. They suspect that the criminal mastermind Gabriel is trying to steal them. First, however, Modesty must find out where the diamonds are, because… I dunno, the Secret Service doesn’t trust her with the information? Your guess is as good as mine.
From then on the movie descends into an endless sequence of rambling sketches many of which are embarrassingly unfunny (or, alternatively, too cunning to be understood), bordering on the unendurable. Clearly, there is some kind of comedic vision at work here, possibly attempting to make the movie “comicky”, but it works in vain futility. True to form, the overwrought soundtrack, too, is frequently unendurably awful. The otherwise excellent Terence Stamp plays Modesty’s sidekick, Willie Garvin, sporting a very exaggerated British working class accent, which is comical indeed, but, I fear, not in the intended way. His silly laughter, always sounding when we don’t actually see his face, succeeds only in being grating.
Of course, they don’t go after the diamonds straight away. First they have rendezvous (plural) with old lovers, and take a canal ride, and change clothes and hair colors a lot. For no good reason, everything except the climax takes place in Amsterdam. With Monica Vitti’s thick Italian accent, and Dutch place names repeatedly referenced, it doesn’t do the muddled story any favors that the DVD is without subtitles.
Gentleman villain Gabriel (Dirk Bogarde) hams it up on his Mediterranean island, having an ego so huge that he has to drink out of huge cups and glasses. As Modesty discovers where the diamonds are (they are on a boat, which is strangely headed in the direction of Gabriel’s island), she apparently teams up with Gabriel to steal them. Only, after having done so in a rather unclear scene (where a crate is planted on the boat – apparently it was an identical crate to the one with the diamonds in it, which they must have taken with them), Gabriel throws Modesty and Willie into each their own jail cell. Under protracted circumstances they escape, and send for the Secret Service via radio signal. The whole thing doesn’t make a lick o’ sense.
It is a movie that, at 115 minutes, outlasts its welcome by quite a bit. The cool black spandex outfit that Modesty wears in the comic strips barely puts in an appearance. There is one short scene in which, like a superhero, she appears to an old lover in the snazzy black costume. Blink to miss it. Other than this she runs around in pretty abominable orange and pink dresses (when not wearing a yellow raincoat or a white nightie) and doesn’t do much that would make anybody recognize the character as Modesty Blaise. Thus, the movie can rightly be said to have almost nothing beyond the name in common with the comic strip character. Nor does it necessarily need to, but it does need to work on its own terms, and it doesn’t. It is a failed experiment in senseless stylism. What were they thinking?
DVD extras: None. There is only the feature film and scene selections.
Modesty Blaise is released on DVD 20th September.
Director: Joseph Losey
Cast: Monica Vitti, Terence Stamp, Dirk Bogarde, Rossella Falk, and others
Runtime: 115 min.
Country: United Kingdom