Wednesday 7 December 2016

Modesty Blaise

Blaise In Sad Dolls

Modesty Blaise
UK 1966 Directed by Joseph Losey

Kino Lorber/20th Century Fox Dual Blu Ray Zone A

My path first crossed paths with the character called Modesty Blaise when my nan died.

It was the mid 1980s, which means I was in my late-ish teens and really not equipped to be able to handle death. Nobody really close had died on me before and I was very close to my nan, who taught me all the really useful stuff like Gin Rummy, Cribbage and Yahtzee. Consequently, I didn’t do or say much in the way of showing any emotional reaction and, to this day, I tend to experience the few brushes I’ve had with death in a fairly muffled manner.

Still, back to my nan.

On her death, I was asked if I wanted anything to remember her by and I singled out the large reproduction of the John Constable painting The Hay Wain which I always saw hanging on the wall of her flat whenever I was around there. Amongst her things though, hidden away in a box of old paraphernalia which, for all I know, might have belonged to my granddad who had died over a decade before, as much as it did my nan, was an old Pan paperback copy of the Peter O’ Donnell novel The Silver Mistress. Since the cover was quite seductive to a young man expressing healthy sexual appetites, I also asked to have that book and, before you knew it, I was reading one of a series of the best written adventure crime pulps ever produced. It wasn’t just the exciting content, though, which kept me turning the pages rapidly... it was Peter O’ Donnell’s central character Modesty Blaise who kept me enthralled.

Modesty Blaise is nothing, if not a strong female character. Her background is that, after her discovery as a near feral child in a far off land she was taken under the wing of a special mentor from whom she got her name and went on to become the head of the world’s greatest criminal network, literally called The Network... retiring at the age of 30 after making her first million (which was a heck of a lot more money in the 1960s than it sounds even today). The character is vibrant, can kick any man’s backside (and most women’s too), is feminine in nature when she wants to be, doesn’t suffer fools gladly, has amazing common sense and was about as feminist as they come. True, O’Donnell would sometimes have the odd male fantasy thing happening with her character, such as her stripping nude and greasing up her body to give her the advantage in a fight against a particularly deadly opponent so they couldn't easily grab onto her (I’m almost certain the Jason Statham ‘oiled up’ scene in the first of The Transporter movies is an homage to this) or entering a room containing multiple villains topless to take advantage of the few seconds of surprise to disable or kill them all why they were still trying to get over the prospect of a pair of boobs staring them in the face... but these were also very practical moments and in the context of the stories, which are not in any way exploitative, they were choices that always made absolute sense. More than that, though, she is not some 2D cypher standing in for something else. She is always so well written that she is never less than a full blooded, living, breathing, 3D personality who, frankly, anyone would be happy to go and hang out with in a pub.

In the books she is always accompanied by her ‘right arm’, the muscly cockney Willie Garvin, who always refers to her as his ‘Princess’ and who is a specialist with knives... always able to quickly judge distances and know exactly how many turns and half turns a knife will need to twist in the air before finding the soft target of his enemies. Willie and Modesty are gifted with that rare, almost sixth sense of a psychic connection that only lovers and the closest of friends seem to have. They were not nor had they ever been, though, bedroom partners... as they felt that would spoil their unique and special relationship, whether it’s playing golf, going to a nightclub or planning a ‘caper’ together and being the deadliest, most efficient pair of ‘Robin Hood’ style ‘thieves with a code’ in English literature.

The first novel by Peter O’Donnell was partially based on his Modesty Blaise comic strip which ran from 1963 in the Daily Express for almost 40 years non-stop in 99 serialised stories. To say the character was successful would be an understatement. When the film industry came knocking, O’Donnell wrote a script which the various producers and directors proceeded to ignore and change to suit their own take on the strips. I should probably reveal at this point that the eventual movie in 1966, directed by Joseph Losey, which I’ll talk about soon (I promise) is one of the worst adaptations of a character ever committed to screen. If you’re looking for a movie that sums up the character of Modesty Blaise and her supporting cast... this really isn’t it and it’s no wonder O’Donnell didn’t want anyone having the rights ever again after the fiasco which is this movie. This is not to say the movie isn’t without some merit... far from it... but in terms of a version of the source material it’s really like chalk and cheese here but, like I said, I’ll get to it in a minute.

When O’Donnell’s script was turned down, he turned his screenplay into the first Modesty Blaise novel, published about a year before the movie made it onto screens. It’s a bit of a masterwork, as all the books in the series are, and it sold gazillions of copies and was translated into many languages. I believe that, for a long time, the books were outselling Ian Fleming’s James Bond books by a long chalk... which were also, obviously, quite popular at the time. I’ve read all the novels over the years and all I can say is, there are very few writers in that particular genre who can touch them as far as thrills and spills with good solid characters and a trailblazing feminist heroine goes. Absolute masterpieces, all of them and if you’re a writer trying to figure out how to put plots together and put meat onto the bones of your characters, I suspect they’re something of a masterclass in the craft too.

The first novel has a clever character called Tarrant, who would become a friend of the pair and a regular in the series, recruiting Modesty to do a job for the British Secret Service because of her experience in fraternising and dealing with exactly the sort of criminals they will be facing. His lever is that he knows Willie Garvin is in a jail in another part of the world and about to be executed. He has his whereabouts, which is pretty much all Modesty would need to rescue Garvin from his predicament. However, instead of using this information as a bargaining tool, he does what his instincts tell him would be the absolute right thing to do in terms of what he knows of Modesty’s psychological profile. He doesn’t use this information as a bargaining chip at all... instead he gives it to her free of charge, knowing that Modesty’s basic sense of right and wrong will mean she feels in his debt and be only too happy to lend her assistance to this country’s little problem (The Network never got involved in drugs or people trafficking and only went after people who could afford it, if memory serves... adhering to a strict moral code). Alas, this is not how things happen in the movie version...

And so we come to the film. What a shame. At least as an adaptation of the adventures of Modesty and Willie. The movie does have some really nice things about it, or I wouldn’t have seen it multiple times and be reviewing an upgraded Blu Ray edition here but, in all honesty, any fans of O’Donnell’s original characters have good reason to be angry with the director and producers of this one.

Let’s get all the bad stuff out the way first.

Modesty Blaise,
played here by the wonderful Monica Vitti, is portrayed as almost a damsel in distress of a heroine and prone to emotional displays. The opening, pre-credits sequence, which was nicely parodied in a scene in Roman Coppola’s wondrous and criminally ignored movie CQ, where her butler Weng reads her horoscope and her computer goes berzerk, is as totally wrong for the character as anything else which follows. It’s already heartbreaking as a movie for fans of the books. Also, although she is seen in her classic look at one point... black, almost ninja style outfit with her brunette hair tied up in a bun in some of the scenes (she used to hide a specific type of combat weapon in her hair to help pick out key points on an opponents body), the director decides to use this as an element of an elaborate joke about not being able to get out of her clothes for sex and... ahh... the whole thing is just a pathetic misrepresentation. Although this is the classic Modesty look created by the comics, it’s mostly ignored and for most of the film her hair is blonde and hanging down.

The blonde giant of a man that is Willie Garvin is similarly transformed into a puny but quite vibrant, dark haired Terence Stamp. Furthermore, Vitti and Stamp keep bursting into musical numbers where they moan about why they havent got around to sleeping with each other yet. Seriously, this is not what Modesty Blaise is about, people. It’s absolutely painful to relay this stuff here.

Gabriel, the bald villain from the comics, is played by a dapper Dirk Bogarde and throughout the movie he and the rest of the cast are taking pot shots against the kind of person who would read a comic strip. Honestly, he even has a scene where he tells his secretary to dumb down a message because the person receiving it will understand because, “he reads the comic strips”. Seriously, if Losey and the writers were so disdainful of the comic strip as a format in the first place that they feel the need to trash it at every opportunity then why the hell are they being left in charge of a production of, frankly, one of the more interesting British strips in the history of the art form? There are lots of stupid, irritating and frankly enraging things like this going on in here which completely destroy any attempt of a credible adaptation and... gah... I just don’t like dwelling on it.

What I will say, though, is that it seems clear, reading between the frames, from some of the extras on this new Blu Ray from Kino Lorber, that various people associated with the production blame the failure of the movie squarely on the ‘poor acting’ of Monica Vitti? Sorry? What? Although she is not playing the character as she is in the original source material, she is doing a damn fine job in the role, believe me... as is the often silent and smouldering young Terence Stamp... and the failure of the film really shouldn’t be blamed on the lead actors in this case. Rather on a badly written script which just doesn’t get the characters and their unique dynamic, as far as I’m concerned. Anyone has to look at Vitti’s performance in, say, Antonioni’s Red Desert (reviewed here) to see just how great an actor she was (and just how wasted in countries other than Italy).

Okay, despite how awful a version of Modesty Blaise this film is, there’s also some good stuff and this is the reason why I watch it every six to ten years.

Firstly, it is a product of its time. This film does some strange stuff and it firmly dates it as a typical sixties movie. You could never mistake this as being from any other decade and so, as a celluloid timepiece of its era, it’s an invaluable movie. The sets and art design, with bright op art, distorted checkered interiors (much like the shirts I used to buy in Carnaby Street in the 1980s) are absolutely amazing and stupid details like Dirk Bogarde’s ever expanding drinking glasses, in one occasion with a goldfish swimming inside it, are just typical of the swinging era that produced this flick.

This crazy artistic sensibility also extends to the editing which is infuriating, at some moments where, for instance, Gabriel says he prefers Modesty’s hair colour as brunette and so the camera jump cuts to the hair miraculously turning dark brown on top of her head... it not only breaks the reality of the scene but it looks quite ridiculous, even if it is done with a lot of humour.

However, another example of this editing style is in the way the director decides to ignore the rules of time. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t personally believe in time as a linear concept myself but this is something you do need to sort out visually for most films to appear credible. However, Losey does some nice things with it. For instance, in a scene where Gabriel arrives by boat and walks up the beach and into his castle, a monk goes to play a tune on the organ, welcoming him home. However, since the various shots of Bogarde at different angles of approach show him to be impossibly jump progressed from one place to another in a short amount of time, we can only assume that the music being played is both diegetic when we cut to the monk and non-diegietic when the camera is with Bogarde. So the director is cutting through time by changing the way the editing works within the film. But hang on, since more time must have elapsed for Bogarde’s return than we are shown, then how come the tune finishes diegetically within the same time frame as he arrives in the same room as the organist? This makes no sense whatsoever as Losey totally screws around with time but, to be honest, it very much is an element of the film (this isn’t the only example) which again makes it a perfect showcase of the rule breaking, care free 1960s era of movie making.

And finally, coupled with this, we have one of the greatest motion picture scores ever set to a movie. I remember it took me about 6 or 7 years to find an old vinyl copy of the original 1966 soundtrack recording and it was extremely expensive for somebody who had to use more than one pay packet of his College Saturday job to pay for it... but it was worth it. Johnny Dankworth did the jazzy score and it’s just amazing stuff... with a strong theme for Modesty herself which is first heard in a stupendous song over the opening credits. Later manifestations of this tune as leitmotif include a wonderful fairground organ scene where the music on the pipes suddenly transforms into a fairground style rendition of the Modesty Blaise theme... just brilliant stuff and, even if you don’t watch the movie (it’s not one I can, in all conscience, recommend), I would urge you to seek out the CD from the Harkit label in England (which also has a couple of bonus tracks not on the original vinyl release) because it’s a perfect example of a swinging sixties score... wonderful music.

And that’s me done on this fun to watch (if you can divorce yourself from the terrible limpness of the adaptation) but, ultimately, terrible travesty of a movie. If you’re a fan of Modesty Blaise then this film is certainly not for you. If, however, you don’t know the character and want to look at a really interesting movie time piece then... yeah, you might want to take a look at this one somewhere down the line.

Modesty Blaise was attempted twice more in the world of the moving image. I’ve never been able to source a copy of the Modesty Blaise pilot film which was shown on TV in the 1980s with Ann Turkel in the role but I’ve heard it’s as much a dreadful distortion of the source material as this was. The Quentin Tarantino produced My Name Is Modesty could have been a good movie but it suffers from being set before the events that take place in O’Donnell’s first story... instead dealing with the character’s back story and therefore falling sadly short in terms of the actual iconic elements which make that character what she is. She is a Modesty somewhat unfamiliar to fans of the books and strips and, therefore, this movie doesn’t score any points either, it’s sad to say.

The original strips and novels both concluded in slightly different ways. When Peter O’ Donnell retired and the strip stopped, the last few frames made it clear that Modesty and Willie were also going to have a bit of a rest and were retiring. However, in his last book, published sixteen years before his death, Modesty and Willie have quite a different exit. The book, Cobra Trap, is a series of short stories, each one set in different periods/eras of Modesty’s life. And there’s a big spoiler right here for anyone who’s not read the last story... in the last story, Modesty is hiding the fact that she is dying of incurable cancer. In the final pages of the book, Modesty and Willie sacrifice themselves to buy time for their friends by single handedly delaying what amounts to a small army. They are both killed charging the enemy but both find themselves leaving their bodies and running together towards some kind of afterlife. A much more final ending to the series and a very fitting, if heartbreaking one, for fans of one of the longest running British heroines spanning many decades. If only the 1966 movie had been a straight adaptation of O’ Donnell’s beautiful books and strips but, alas, it was not to be.


  1. I was ill-prepared for Cobra Trap's ending, although I had a bad feeling about that book, knowing it's the last. I made the mistake of reading it during a lengthy salon appointment and had to ask where the bathroom was so I could have a good cry. No fictional deaths have hit harder. Was taking a trip down memory lane and google led me here. Thanks, Stranger!

  2. Hello there.

    Thanks very much for reading and especially for taking the time to leave a comment here.

    That's a nice story. It's funny how I've found that the older one gets, the more likely it is that the memory of a fictional moment - book, film, TV - will sometimes hijack you emotionally when you're out and about in a public place and leave you vulnerable. However, those moments are something to celebrate too... I think.

    Again, thanks so much for reading and commenting.