Monday, September 03, 2007

"Modesty Blaise," the movie, or, something from the '60s that really sucked

1966, and Batman was on the air, Fellini had turned surreal, and James Bond was all the rage. Joseph Losey's movie version of Modesty Blaise has affinities with all three, combining the worst of each in a pretentious and weirdly dated period piece.

I'm no expert on the Modesty Blaise comic strip and novels, but I did appreciate the first book's low-key humor, its aching portrayal of Willie Garvin's devotion to and chaste love for Modesty, and its occasional touches of chilling cruelty and cold, nocturnal ambiance. Among other things, these features made the novel, Modesty Blaise, something more than a sex-and-gadgets spy caper.

Losey and screenwriter Evan Jones jettison almost all of that and exaggerate the rest. Where author Peter O'Donnell sharpened the humor by applying it sparingly, mostly in the person of a fastidious but irrepressibly wise-cracking assistant to the villain of the piece, the movie hits us over the head with a ha-ha, hilariously clueless government minister, too. Where O'Donnell gives the villains a Bondian hideout in an isolated monastery, Losey turns the sinister fortress into a cheap, swinging-London-style outtake from Blow-Up, a rather better movie released the same year. (A more accurate comparison, though anachronistic by two years, might be a Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In sketch, but without the humor.)

Plot? Modesty is a mysterious character, a war orphan who has retired from a lucrative criminal career until called in by the British government to foil a diamond robbery. But she pulls some tricks of her own. Forget all that, though. It's probably not the main reason you'd enjoy the novel, and you won't be able to make much of it in the mess of a movie.

Four decades on, the most puzzling aspect of this film is that so many big names and, apparently, an at least adequate budget were involved. Amsterdam's streets and canal houses are gorgeously photographed, and just look at some of the people involved in the movie: Losey as director. Monica Vitti as Modesty. Terence Stamp as Willie Garvin. Dirk Bogarde as the villain Gabriel in a role that one might regard as an amusingly camp deviation from O'Donnell's original if it were in the least amusing.

I can't entirely blame the makers and participants of Modesty Blaise. 1966 was probably a heady time, with producers willing to throw money after this and other hip, glamorously decadent projects. I wonder how long it took all involved to regard the movie as they would a bad hangover.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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