Movie Review – Modesty Blaise (1966)

Director :  Joseph Losey
Year Of Release :  1966
Principal Cast :  Monica Vitti, Terence Stamp, Dirk Bogarde, Harry Andrews, Michael Craig, Clive Revill, Alexander Knox, Rosella Falk, Scilla Gabel, Michael Chow, Joe Melia, Saro Urzi.
Approx Running Time :   120 Minutes
Synopsis:  A spy spoof in the 60s tradition featuring the comic book heroine Modesty Blaise set in the Italian Mediterranean.


Astonishingly incomprehensible twaddle: that’s the best thing I can say about Modesty Blaise’s 1966 cinematic outing, the obvious result of too many drugs and not enough common sense. Regarded today as a “camp classic”, the film has the hallmarks of mid-60’s garish style, and weird, surreal characters and plotting, but it offers neither charm not any sense of enjoyment. Coming at the height of the spy-thriller genre, with James Bond leading the charge, Modesty leaps from the comic strip bearing her name and into the technicolour vibrancy of the silver screen, although comes crashing to earth with a disappointing thud.

Plot synopsis courtesy Wikipedia: British Secret Service chief Sir Gerald Tarrant (Harry Andrews) recruits spy Modesty Blaise (Monica Vitti) to protect a shipment of diamonds to a Middle Eastern sheikh, Abu Tahir (Clive Revill). The shipment has also attracted Gabriel (Dirk Bogarde), the head of a diamond theft ring that includes his henchman McWhirter (Clive Revill) and Mrs. Fothergill (Rossella Falk). Modesty thinks that Gabriel, who maintains a compound in the Mediterranean, has died, but he reveals himself to her. In Amsterdam, Modesty reunites with her former lover, secret agent Paul Hagen (Michael Craig), while her partner, Willie Garvin (Terence Stamp), is reunited with an old flame, Nicole (Tina Aumont).

There’s a lot of things to love in Modesty Blaise. Watching Terence Stamp sing, however, is not one of those things. I actually struggled with this one, trying to wrap my head around whether it was some kind of parody (I suspect it is) or an outright comedy, or some bizarre drug-fuelled imaginative fever dream of a producer flush with cash and looking for a tax write off. As such, the “plot” – and I use the term extremely loosely – involves Monica Vitti’s Modesty and Terence Stamp’s virile accomplice Willie Garvin (“We’ve looked over your Willie….” one character says early in the film – bwaa haa haaa I guess) traipsing about Holland trying to thwart the plans of Harry Andrews’ duplicitous Gerald Tarrant, while Dirk Bogarde inexplicably remains isolated on his secret Mediterranean island hideaway, in much the same manner you’d expect of Mike Myers’ Doctor Evil.

Come to think of it, Modesty Blaise appears superficially the exact film template of Austin Powers’ millennial resurgence, complete with flamboyant henchmen, evocative locales and a hint of danger amidst what appears to be intemperate dalliances with hideous fashion. One half expected Foxy Cleopatra to burst out of hiding at some point and exclaim “Shu-gah!” at the top of her voice. I’m not quite sure kind of heroine Blaise is supposed to be, because she neither behaves like a spy nor involves herself in any real espionage activities other than to change costumes almost every scene and spend an inordinate amount of time fluttering her eyelashes for the camera.

If you asked me to explain the plot, I’d barely register a coherent sentence. I’ve literally no idea what the point of this film is actually about, despite some silly MacGuffin about diamonds involving Bogarde’s campy arch villain. The film strives to give us worthy set-pieces of some note, such as chases, explosions, and dastardly villainous hideouts and secret lairs, but instead of pulling it off, Joseph Losey’s anaemic direction results in a film bereft of scale or “cinematic-ness” to a degree it all feels cheap and skimped on. Losey can’t summon much excitement here, as his cast loll about a plethora of wood-panelled sets (filmed in Shepperton Studios, England) pretending to be enthused about… whatever it is that’s going on.

Poor Monica Vitti’s Blaise is a bastion of anti-sexual charm, a negative space of allure and a preposterously lustful following of male admirers. Vitti no doubt has her fans, but as Blaise, she’s hardly a leading lady. Bogarde is terrific in his lisping, flamboyant manner as Gabriel, while fantastic character actor Harry Andrews provides the film with one of the few shining lights performance-wise within this movie. Clive Revill, a man more famous for being the former Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back before George Lucas replaced him with Ian McDiarmid in 1997, pulls double duty as a short-lived sheikh, as well as one of Gabriel’s underlings with a weird accent. And despite Terence Stamp receiving second billing, he’s hardly in the film enough to twist any interest – he does spend a great deal of time shirtless, and using one of the worst accents imaginable (eh, guv’na?) so there’s that.

Ostensibly a spy spoof, Modesty Blaise is neither amusing, interesting beyond its chic 60’s-era aesthetic, or compelling as a form of cinema. Its story is baffling, nonsensical and indifferent, and the characters by-and-large are oxygen thieves offering zero contribution to whatever the hell is supposed to be going on. I guess one could sit and marvel of the audacity of filmmakers to find this movie credible by any stretch, but I’ll be assed if I’ll be among them. If you squint you could mark it as a film in similar vein to the Austin Powers franchise, but that’d be really stretching things. Modesty Blaise is a garish, inviolate waste of celluloid and I, for one, can’t imagine how the character endured popularity beyond this mess.

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