Joseph Losey didn’t normally make trendy, lighthearted genre films, and in this SuperSpy epic we find out why — the impressive production and great music don’t compensate for a lack of pace and dynamism, not to mention a narrow sense of humor. Yet it’s a lounge classic, and a perverse favorite of spy movie fans.
KL Studio Classics
1966 / Color / 1:66 widescreen / 119 min. / Street Date August 23, 2016 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Monica Vitti, Terence Stamp, Dirk Bogarde, Harry Andrews, Michael Craig, Clive Revill, Alexander Knox, Rossella Falk, Scilla Gabel, Tina Marquand
Cinematography Jack Hildyard
Production Designer Richard MacDonald, Jack Shampan
Film Editor Reginald Beck
Original Music John Dankworth
Written by Evan Jones from a novel by Peter O’Donnell and
a comic strip by Jim Holdaway
Produced by Joseph Janni
Directed by Joseph Losey
When I first reviewed a DVD of Modesty Blaise fourteen years ago, I called it an interesting mess. So it’s amusing that one of Kino’s interviews is with the film’s writer, who speaking rather slowly, beats around the bush a bit and then finally says, “It’s a mess.” It doesn’t really matter, for Joseph Losey’s campy, spoofy SuperSpy film has always been fascinating, if only to figure out what does and doesn’t work in it, and what might have been done to make it better. One of director Losey’s most expensive and atypical films, it’s a complicated, confusing, and sometimes tiresome collection of SuperSpy situations and characters. It never finds a satisfying tone, although some aspects of its production are superb. The movie looks terrific in still photos, but its moves are clumsy.
The storyline of Modesty Blaise is so submerged that I’m spelling it all out here, as a spoiler:
Intelligence circles are abuzz with sly schemes. Sir Gerald Tarrant (Harry Andrews) and a British Minister (Alexander Knox) wish to send a bribe of millions of pounds’ worth of diamonds to one Sheik Abu Tahir (Clive Revill), but are also aware that an unknown master thief wants to steal them. They hire another thief, Modesty Blaise (Monica Vitti), a master of disguise famous for killing and/or seducing her male opposition. Modesty takes the job with the warning that the Minister and Tarrant must not withhold information, in which case she’ll steal the jewels herself. Modesty already knows Abu Tahir: he raised her in the desert and taught her how to fight. She goes to Amsterdam, where a previous agent was dynamited to death, and connects with her oft-time partner, superb agent and cockney ladies’ man Willie Garvin (Terence Stamp). Together they make contact with the killers of Tarrant’s previous agent — nightclub magician Pacco (Aldo Silvain) and his two assistants, the lovely Nicole (Tina Marquand) and the intense Melina (Scilla Gabel). Garvin beds Nicole to get information, while Modesty works backwards, invading the apartment of Paul (Michael Craig), one of Tarrant’s lieutenants. There she learns that her employers have already lied to her: the diamonds are not being routed by air, but by ship. She declares herself a free agent. Willie and Tarrant rescue Paul and Modesty from Pacco’s thugs, but Nicole is murdered for consorting with Willie. As she dies she tells Modesty one word: Gabriel.
The effete master criminal Gabriel (Dirk Bogarde) has faked his own death. His headquarters is 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 a second 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 spouse Mrs. Fothergill (Rossella Falk) on him. She strangles the painted-face clown for fun, with her knees. Gabriel shoots down the decoy diamond jet with a laser-tipped rocket. He determines which boat the diamonds are really on and prepares a special submarine / drilling machine that can bore into the ship’s hold while it is moving. Flying south, Willie and Modesty enjoy a drive and escape a brief capture by Tarrant and Paul. Finally contacting Gabriel, Modesty must 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 back the diamonds. Just when it looks as if they’re trapped, Abu Tahir shows up. His army of bedouin fighters rout Gabriel’s men, while Willie and Modesty sing a love duet.
Joseph Losey is a director that fans either love, or have no tolerance for whatsoever. He was just getting up some steam in America with the socially critical The Lawless, The Prowler and a remake of “M” when the blacklist sent him running to England. There he slowly worked his way back up to prominence, sometimes 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 his best pictures among the most brilliant ever made, with complex characterizations expressed through compositions, blocking, and attention to details of character.
Losey’s detractor’s say Baloney, that for each watchable film there are five stinkers. A well-known animator friend used to tease, “Oh, it’s another Joseph Lousy movie.”.) And Losey can lean toward overstatement and high-art pretention. Some 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 1960s. A light comedy SuperSpy thriller without aspirations to deeper meaning, it was a highly anticipated title. 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?” The real question was, “Why did you bother doing subject matter for which you were totally inappropriate?” A comedy without many laughs, with little 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. Yet it remains a glossy bonbon of a spy picture, graced with terrific production values and bouncy music that captures the giddy escapism of the SuperSpy craze. Gabriel’s dark glasses are ridiculously useless, and a gag is made of a goldfish swimming in his wine glass. But over his shoulder on the battlements of the monastery is a sculpture by Elizabeth Frink, very much like the tortured figures that are meant to be Viveca Lindfors’ work in Losey’s These Are The Damned.
Let’s examine the top two cinematic indictments:
Not funny. One 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 Andrews’ radio-umbrella that shoots bullets fell flat, as if we had 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, and 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 follow. The colored smoke worked much better when borrowed by Mario Bava for the next year’s Danger: Diabolik, a film with a consistent comic book surface.
A lack of clarity. A rather perfunctory opening introduces several baddies in an Amsterdam alley — a mime who is always in character, a criminal who’s also a magician. They might be interesting, if Modesty’s adventure played out on some odd plane of fantasy, but things remain fairly realistic. The mime Crevier’s murder is weird and perverse, but we don’t know enough to care about him. The picture pays off only at the visual and musical levels. The plot is hard to follow, mainly because of the proliferation of half-explained characters, Michael Craig’s Paul in particular. 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 follows 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. Most telling of all is Monica Vitti’s inadequacy as an action figure. Admittedly there were precious few chop-socky action femmes in play in 1966, but both Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg from the TV show Avengers had already set the pattern — and high fashion had already addressed designs that pictured women as superheroes. Monica Vitti is inept in all her action scenes, whether holding an archery bow or facing off with Rossella Falk. She’s not particularly coordinated, let alone a master of the martial arts. In action, she ‘swings the bat like a girl.’ That’s a fatal charge against an actress hired to play a female James Bond. Vitti has the face and wears the clothes beautifully, but she’s seriously miscast.
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 modern architecture hinting 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 fashion. The effort to mock these cultural targets is pitiful — TV’s Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties has a better grasp of retro spoofery.
Part of the confusion may have been budgetary, but it’s more likely that Losey got lost in a sketchy script that lacked purpose or theme. Losey says the film was very expensive at three million, yet the comedy attack on Gabriel’s island looks like it was shot in an afternoon. The silly and pointless jokes give us horses that appear out of nowhere and a bunch of Arabs that hold a flag like the Iwo Jima monument.
Much better is Scilla Gabel’s marvelous secondary hench-woman, who faces off against Modesty aboard Gabriel’s yacht, in a competition like John Ireland vs. Montgomery Clift in Red River. But the fetching Ms. Gabel disappears from the film, as if the later island scenes had been filmed before her role in the story had been conceived. Besides the credited writers, Losey says that earlier scripts were 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 These Are The Damned, a powerful Hammer science fiction film, and continued on three more Losey films. After Modesty Blaise Jones scripted the superior Harry Palmer picture, Funeral in Berlin. But basic structural flaws and glaring omissions — no real 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 Follow through. 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.
Savant scoured Modesty Blaise for hidden substance. There’s a lot to like in the film, once you give up on any of it making sense. In fairness, here’s a gallery of delights:
The miscast Monica Vitti does know how to project glamour like a movie star. But she also seems too Italian, too soft. The pre-title sequence is a lot like the opening of Barbarella, but with the particularly flat joke of her computer spitting 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 some with Monica Vitti that just sit there.
Dirk Bogarde’s openly ambiguous archvillain Gabriel is wonderful. He overplays as if following a self-parody direction nobody else is privvy to. He proudly tells Vitti, “I’m the villain of the piece,” and often refers to himself in the third person. To Gabriel, maintaining proper archvillain decorum is almost as important as winning. 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 cribbed for Tomorrow Never Dies) the mood is straight, low-key, even dour. Gabriel’s shouted “Go!” is ten times as big as it should be, as if launching a crime caper should be like a game show host announcing a special prize. It’s one of the few times that the parodic element makes sense.
The mostly wasted character actors include some great faces. Rossella Falk from Otto e mezzo and The Legend of Lylah Claire, is wonderful as the petulant, kill-crazy sadist Mrs. Fothergill, who Gabriel claims is his wife. Fothergill is forever toting around a boy toy or torturing the hired help. She makes great faces at Modesty when they first meet. Their showdown is the film’s one satisfactory action gag. It gets 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, Knox is 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?“
Research source: Tom Milne’s excellent Cinema World Series book Losey on Losey, Doubleday NYC 1968
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Modesty Blaise corrects the weaknesses of the old Fox DVD from 2002 — colors are strong, the image is stable, and the audio is free of distortion. The encoding may have been digitally enhanced to a degree — in the first scene I saw evidence of edge enhancement. Fans of the picture are going to love it — when the main title pops up, all those thin yellow lines against the blue sky look great.
The extras include three interviews. Elderly screenwriter Evan Jones talks slowly but remembers some good details about the movie. Art Director Norman Dorme’s short piece is more succinct but says less. First assistant director Gavrik Losey talks at length about his father, offering a few good observations. The audio commentary is by David Del Valle and Armand Mastroianni, a film and TV director.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Fair, but Good if you’re a 100% retro SuperSpy freak like Savant.
Supplements: Three interviews (see above), commentary with David Del Valle and Armand Mastroianni, Image gallery, Trailer gallery
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 27, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson