Movie: Modesty Blaise (1966)

Nathan Rabin used to write a great recurring piece in the AV Club called My Year of Flops.  In this, he would present his musings on various unloved films from all eras of cinema.  He would end each piece with the decision as to whether it was a failure, fiasco or secret success.  With that in mind, I would like to declare 1966’s Modesty Blaise fails so hard it becomes a strange kind of success.

This movie wasn’t well-received in its time. It doesn’t even have a cult following today, even when no-budget movies from the 1990’s shot on a camcorder seem to have found an audience. 

That surprises me, as this seems to foretell Austin Powers.  Despite being made in the era parodied by those films, Blaise seems to be one step ahead of those and parodies itself.  It is a work in the vein of The Avengers, though I will concede it is nowhere near as good as that classic British television show.

For one thing, The Avengers had the legendary Diana Rigg, who always made us aware she was in on the jokes.  This movie, on the other hand, stars Antonioni muse Monica Vitti, who is horribly miscast.  Looking glamorous was easy for her, but she looks hopelessly lost here.

It couldn’t have helped that she spoke very little English.  Perhaps because of this, she doesn’t talk much.  That doesn’t, however, explain why she often seems to make expressions at random, frequently without apparent relation to other characters’ lines or even the scene at hand.  The resulting effect is she looks slightly insane.

Something I’m sure didn’t help the movie’s chances at the box office is it is based on a popular comic of the time.  In a weird touch, those books exist in the world of the movie, which would be like James Bond going to see a James Bond flick in one of the James Bond films. 

I haven’t seen the original print material, but the impression I get is it was like Aeon Flux by way of The Avengers.  Vitti doesn’t really channel the spirit of either of those. Even weirder is how her character doesn’t do much of anything that warrants all the high praise various characters shower upon her.

Although he doesn’t get much screen time in it, this is really Dirk Bogarde’s film.  As the villain, he is having a complete blast.  Wearing a silver wig and usually twirling a parasol, he is camp defined as he masterminds his diabolical schemes from a Mediterranean villa where the walls are painted in various nightmarish op art patterns.  He frets over turning the children of his potential victims into orphans, yet gleefully initiates his murderous plans just the same.  “Why can’t they all be bachelors?!”  A recurring gag I particularly enjoyed is how he repeatedly is about to eat something and then doesn’t. It makes for an intriguing quirk.

Clive Revill, as his second-in-command, seems to appreciate the opportunity to eat the foods Bogarde won’t.  His character is always preoccupied with the costs Bogarde incurs, which reminded me of the accountant in Fury Road.  The actor also plays Sheik Abu Tahir, who had adopted Modesty as his most favored son, which is…a thing.

Also clearly having a good time is Rossella Falk as Mrs. Fothergill, the most dangerous person in Bogarde’s organization.  He brings her fresh victims to torment.  Even his right-hand man finds her creepy: “Have you ever wondered about Mr. Fothergill?”  Bogarde’s chipper response: “I am Mr. Fothergill.”  Her eventual demise will be very darkly humorous, and his reaction to it is weird and distinctly memorable.

Unfortunately for co-lead Terence Stamp, he fares almost as poorly as Vitti.  Playing Willie, her partner-in-crime, you can see him trying hard to do something with the role, but he isn’t well-served by the script.  There’s even a deeply horrible duet between he and Vitti where they lament the fact they never partnered up in the carnal sense. 

But that is the worst aspect of an otherwise solid soundtrack, even if it is overwhelmingly variations of the great theme song sung by Jonathan and David.  Beware: this tune is a nuclear-grade earworm.  At least it is done in a different style each time it appears, to match the tone of the scene it accompanies.

I am finding it frustrating to explain exactly why I like this movie.  There’s one bit I want to single out which may help convey what I find appealing about it.  Vitti and Stamp need to take care of a guard.  He removes his belt and it turns out, once she puts a string on it, it can be made into a bow.  As we look over her shoulder, she uses this to arc an arrow through the air to…nowhere near her target.  And yet, that man, without cutting away, suddenly has an arrow in his gut, regardless.

That moment comes unexpected the first time one sees Modesty Blaise.  And yet I still laughed at it the two additional times I have watched it.  This is a strange animal, one that seems determined to keep the viewer at arm’s length.  Somehow, I still find much that interests me here, even if it most of that material is highly unconventional.  I only hope others will give this oddball, off-putting film a chance.

Dir: Joseph Losey

Starring Monica Vitti, Dirk Bogarde, Terence Stamp, Clive Revill

Watched on Kino Lorber blu-ray