Modesty Blaise (1966)

*. In the ’60s spy movies were everywhere. In the midst of Bondmania everyone was jumping on the bandwagon. How do you know this? Well, you could just look at a list of all of the titles. Or you could look at Modesty Blaise. If Joseph Losey is directing a spy spoof with Monica Vitti in her English-language debut then you know that everyone is officially in on the act.
*. Vitti might have worked. In fact, I think she does work. Maybe it’s only her association with Antonioni (who arrived on set with her, putting Losey’s nose out of joint), but I just love to look at her. Call it a “thing.” But Losey? Could you think of a director less suited to this campy, comic-book, totally “mod” material than Joseph Losey?
*. I think it’s clear Losey has no feel for the material at all. Despite Vitti’s presence I found this a hard movie to sit through. It has no energy, and no interest in its story at all. In fact I had a very hard time keeping focus on what was supposed to be happening. Stolen diamonds? Diamonds that were about to be stolen? And who were all these people? They all seemed to know one another but I couldn’t figure out how they were related. It was like being dropped into Avengers: Endgame without having seen any of the previous MCU movies or read any of the comics.

*. Speaking of being related, at one time, meaning around this time, I would have had trouble distinguishing between Dirk Bogarde (Gabriel) and Terence Stamp (Willie). They might have been brothers. Bogarde was actually 17 years older though. That surprised me. In any event, they both seem miscast. Bogarde should be having a lot more fun playing up the gay thief, while Stamp seems positively sullen as Willie. I get the sense this wasn’t a fun set to work on.
*. Harold Pinter helped (?) on the script. Not surprising, as Losey was working a lot with Pinter at the time (he’d written The Servant, Accident, and The Go-Between). But it is surprising, somewhat, that the script is this bad. But then, as I said in my notes on The Quiller Memorandum, just because Pinter was a great playwright doesn’t mean we have to give him a pass for everything he did.
*. What might have been. When rights to the comic were first bought the idea was to have Sidney Gilliat direct, with Barbara Steele playing Modesty and Michael Caine as Willie. Cor! I’d have watched that for a dollar!

*. Women are not treated well in the spy films of this period. As Bruce Eder remarks in his Criterion essay on Charade, that film “occupies a special place among sixties thrillers. In an era of spy films resplendent with macho-driven eroticism (the James Bond series), cynicism (Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer series), or farcical irreverence (Casino Royale; the Flint movies, with Charade costar James Coburn), it was the only successful take on the genre to place a woman at its center.”
*. Well, Modesty Blaise was successful. Not a hit, but it made money. And Modesty is a far stronger female lead than Regina in Charade. As the Girl with the Scorpion Tattoo she’s a kick-ass heroine well ahead of her time. As is Mrs. Fothergill, the sexual psychopath. These are not Bond girls or fembots but true leading ladies.
*. So it’s a movie that gives you a lot to talk about. And something to look at. But it’s a misfire, incoherent and dull. Enjoy the theme song (“She’ll turn your head, though she might use a judo hold . . .”) because it’s pretty much all downhill from there.

7 thoughts on “Modesty Blaise (1966)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    You’re totally on the ball with this one; was very keen to see it, and was completely dispirited by the result. Danger Diabolik! is a far better example of the comic book on -screen; as you say, Losey and Pinter are not the guys for this kind of tongue in cheek action, and the cast are left high and dry.

      1. fragglerocking

        I fell in love with him when he was the priest in The Singer not the Song or whatever it was called. But I was too young to understand why he could never be mine. Would have done if I’d seen him in this!

      2. Alex Good Post author

        Well, there’s Terence. In the ’60s he was considered one of the most beautiful men in the world. Almost got to take over Bond from Connery. But he was always a bit lacking in the charm department.

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