Saturday, March 26, 2011

MODESTY OR TRAVESTY? The 1966 cult film MODESTY BLAISE is something most viewers either love or hate. There seems to be no middle ground where this film is concerned. Released at the height of the swinging sixties, director Joseph Losey's adaptation of Peter O'Donnell's popular comic strip has really very little to do with its source material. This seems to be a major bone of contention with Modesty Blaise fans who have been known to refer to the film as "Travesty Blaise". Equally fervent are the film's cheerleaders who find the wacky 60's pop art style makes MODESTY BLAISE a camp comedy classic.
Femme Fatale Modesty Blaise (Antonioni muse Monica Vitti) is brought in by the British government to help them foil a diamond theft. Along the way are a series of spy-type situations involving Bond-villain-like Gabriel (a silver-wigged Dirk Bogarde). That's basically it. You see, there IS a plot. But that is only an excuse to set the movie in motion. Any thought of a literal translation of O'Donnell's strip should be quashed immediately when we see Modesty change her hair colour and wardrobe in the blink of an eye. Literally. Snap your fingers and she goes from blonde to brunette. We're not dealing with reality here; this is a surreal exercise in go-go-checked, day-glo pop art from deep in the heart of the groovy sixties. Yes, there is a deliberate surreal quality to the film which cannot be ignored. The clothes, the decor, the furniture, the gosh-darn lamps -- the film looks truly wonderful (in a nice, crisp print like the one I screened) as an over-the-top depiction of 60's ginchiness. The acting (for the most part) is funny because it's played straight without a knowing wink at the audience; the possible exception being Vitti herself who sometimes has her tongue jammed a little too far in her cheek. Dirk Bogarde is an absolute joy as the effete master criminal Gabriel -- he even tells Modesty at one point that he is the "villain of the piece" in a voice that fairly purrs -- and the film is worth watching for him alone if for nothing else. But there is plenty more to watch. Clive Revill has a dual role as Gabriel's accountant-like odd sidekick McWhirter (which Revill plays very straight) and Modesty Blaise's adopted sheikh father Abu Tahir (which he plays very broadly). Modesty's partner in crime Willie Garvin is quite nicely played by a bronzed Terence Stamp who never asks anyone to kneel before him once. Reliable Harry Andrews as British gov functionary Tarrant sends Modesty on her mission while Rossella Falk plays the psychopathic Mrs. Fothergill. The late Johnny Dankworth provides the suitably swinging Eurospy spoof music and Jack Hildyard lenses the film beautifully; some of the psychedelic interior sets can actually be tasted if you lick the TV screen. Tastes like candy, you dig?
Circumstances were such that I was forced to watch the film in two sittings: half one day and the other half the next. I must admit that the film annoyed me when I sat down to watch the first half. However, the next day when I took up the film again in the middle I quite enjoyed it. There can be no greater warning to the casual viewer that it will probably depend on your mindset at the exact moment when you sit down to watch it whether or not you will enjoy the film. If I had watched the entire film when I started it, I probably would be telling you now I hated it. However, if I had watched the whole film from start to finish the second day, I'd probably be raving about it. Suffice it to say that, as things now stand, I quite enjoyed it in a cotton candy kinda way. As ever, I am the square peg in the round hole because, unlike most I neither love nor hate the film. I enjoyed it fairly well while in a certain frame of mind but that's about as far as I'd go. The direction by Losey could've been better; another director would've made the film probably a more satisfying experience. Monica Vitti (who I love) seems like perfect casting in the role and she looks marvelous; however her "superspy" skills leave a lot to be desired. As a formidable femme fatale, Vitti's Modesty Blaise is rather hopeless having nary an action scene with very little evidence of fighting skills or weaponry prowess. She also seems to cower a lot while Willie Garvin gets her out of some scrapes. Not the capable heroine we are expecting. Perhaps it was the time period OR the multiple attempts at a screenplay OR the failings of the director OR most probably all three. However, none of this really matters since the original Modesty Blaise concept is only the bare bones skeleton on which to hang a sixties camp romp. MODESTY BLAISE is simply a movie which could not have been made a few years before OR a few years after 1966. Before that year, the style and concepts of the film would've been incomprehensible and by the late sixties the film would've been impossibly innocent and naive. As such, MODESTY BLAISE is a slight but valuable glimpse at a brief moment in time.

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