Review – Modesty Blaise (1966)
(heavy emphasis on the MOD in Modesty)
First of all, how could I not see this film? It features two of my favorite actors of the ’60s, Monica Vitti (of Antonioni fame) and Terence Stamp (the attractive young idol of Swinging London and a damn fine actor – see my review of The Limey for one of his more recent works) in the leading roles, has some MODTASTIC architecture, costumes, and sets, a hip score, and action-packed espionage…. so, given the opportunity to see it in full 35mm glory last night, I saw it.
Modesty Blaise (1966, UK, dir. Joseph Losey) Color, 35mm.
Modesty Blaise (Monica Vitti) is a thief and international adventurer with great beauty, intellect, and seduction and fighting skills. She is hired by the British government to stop some diamond plot on the condition that she gets to keep the diamonds if they don’t give her all the details. She enlists her “platonic” sidekick Willie (Terence Stamp) to aid her on this adventure. The plot is a bit hard to follow, but as in the case of Tokyo Drifter, it doesn’t really matter. The attraction of this film lies more in the characters, visuals, and isolated incidents rather than the overall plot, in my opinion.
First of all, I should say that if the subject matter, visuals, or actors don’t intrigue you, this film probably isn’t worth watching, because it’s not all that great a film in many ways. It has the reputation of being a pretty bad film and a bad adaptation of its British comic-book source material. I haven’t read the comics so I can’t say much about that, but I can say that this is definitely a campy niche film.
However, I feel that this film’s bad reputation covers up many of its redeeming qualities, which justify the film’s problems far more than other “bad cult films” such as Sgt. Pepper and Lisztomania (soon to be the subject of some angry reviews, I’m sure). The score is quite fun, the silly moments (whether intentional or not) give the film a fun and playful feel, the art direction is excellent, and some sequences are incredibly well-designed.
Take, for example, one scene in which Modesty and Willie have to meet an informant at a bizarre place in Amsterdam called The Dolls’ House. The scene is brilliantly set up – calliope vendors play their instruments all at once, creating an unsettling sonic carnival as we see the “house” itself, various mutilated dolls nailed to the exterior, and the nervous informant waiting for Modesty and Willie. As she is chased through the maze of calliopes by the villains, the shadows, music, and setting create a terrifying and unsettling ambience that is rather memorable.
Now for the problems. I won’t pretend that this film doesn’t have its share, and they did detract from my overall appreciation somewhat. First of all, Monica Vitti is not what I would call a good English speaker; about half of her lines are completely incomprehensible. The director and Vitti apparently had a lot of trouble getting along while making the film and he just gave up on retakes after a while, I have heard. Vitti fans may be disappointed by her lackluster performance (I know I was), though she 100 percent looks the part. Stamp’s acting is good, but his screen time should have been much longer. He doesn’t even enter into the film till halfway through.
Speaking of which, the plot and pacing need a lot of work. The plot takes far too long to reach development or climax, it is totally confusing in a lot of ways, and tons of insignificant characters show up, leave, and die, especially in the first half of the film. Being unfamiliar with the comic strip (which is probably otherwise a good thing), I also didn’t know a lot about the characters, making things even worse. I think that this film really should have tried to be a character-based rather than plot-based film, given the interesting main characters and their fascinating histories and relationship, but it’s an action-spy film, so it kind of has to be plot-based.
There’s also these weird random continuity glitches – 2 second hairstyle changes and the color of Vitti’s dress changing every 5 minutes towards the end of the film, for example – that don’t make any sense. I would love to say that it’s expressionism or symbolic, but this is NOT an “artsy” film by any means, so I can’t make that excuse. I think if you want to set up a color-changing symbolic dress, you have to have some other artistic devices in this film, or at least a more ambiguous and less Hollywood plot/tone. Sorry, movie, you can’t do that.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Stamp and Vitti are extremely attractive. Though most viewers really want to see them get together, their relationship is supposed to be purely platonic. Yet, in the end, in a totally random, intentionally (?) hilarious musical number, they are singing together about quitting espionage and getting married. And it didn’t seem that platonic at all throughout the film, either – so much for interesting sexual tension. So, please, movie, show us Modesty and Willie having some hot scenes together or make their relationship interestingly platonic. But don’t change your mind in weird random ways. If you are a fan of Terence Stamp (like yours truly), by the way, you’ll like this movie. He has a lot of very hot scenes and his character is to die for. (Apologies for fangirling).
Mod-lovers, take heart – I’m sure you’ll love Modesty’s clothes, Gabriel’s (Dirk Bogarde’s) fab house, some great interiors, and the swingin’ opening theme song.
In short, see it or don’t – it’s a fun campy little romp that is, visually, fab and modtastic, and definitely worth seeing once (especially if you’re into the genre or style). However, it’s not a classic by any means.
to justify – this rating is for me. For the general, non-mod public I’d have to say it’s more along the lines of a 4 or 5…
Availability: R1 DVD