Modesty Blaise

Director: Joseph Losey
Monica Vitti, Terence Stamp, Dirk Bogarde

With my hobby having to do with writing about unknown movies, you might wonder from time to time whether I have ever had the urge to write about other things. Well, right now I am content with writing movie reviews. However, in the past I certainly had the desire to write other kind of works. It probably comes as no surprise that when I was growing up, I had the desire to move to Hollywood and become a successful screenwriter. But as I grew older and learned more about the business, my desire diminished greatly. One reason was that while I had the desire to write original movie stories, I learned that more often than not a producer gets an idea for a movie and then assigns a screenwriter to write it. And even if you manage to put some original ideas during such a scripting assignment, more likely than not your finished script will be heavily rewritten by other screenwriters. But there are other potential pitfalls I could see if I were to become a screenwriter. One such problem would be if I were to be assigned to adapt a novel. When I was a kid, I once read a novel aimed at youths that I thought was one of the funniest books I had ever read. Still do, as a matter of fact. I dreamed about the book becoming a movie, with me writing the screenplay. But as I imagined doing so, all sorts of problems came up. The novel had the advantage that it could explain what was going in the minds of the various characters throughout the story, so you could understand the characters' motivations and actions more. But in a movie, that is very hard to do. I realized that the characters in the movie would be judged by the audience by their actions alone, and with just that angle available, the characters became obnoxious. So it's probably a good thing that the novel to date has not been filmed.

Of course, there are other problems a screenwriter has to face when adapting a novel. For example, usually stuff has to be cut out to give the movie an acceptable running time, and such cuts can take out important plot points or character development. I would hate to be a screenwriter adapting a novel. As it turns out, there are other kinds of adaptations I would hate to be assigned by a producer. In the British industry, there have been a number of film adaptations of radio scripts across the decades, and a common complaint I have heard about many of these movies is that they are essentially "illustrated radio". In other words, dry and actionless stories without the crutch of the imagination of an audience to fill in the blanks. Another kind of film adaptation I'd hate to do would be to script a movie based on a video game. As you probably know, just about all such movies that have done so have ended up being terrible, with the screenwriters seemingly unable to come up with strong characters and stories with the framework that is forced upon them. But the kind of screen adaptation that I would most to focus on are adaptations of comics. Certainly, there have been a number of successes (critical and financial) with that over the years, from the Blondie movies of the 1940s to the modern day superhero movies based on DC and Marvel comic books. And screenwriters who are assigned to write these movies do have advantages, like a wealth of past stories and characters from the actual comics to get material from.

Still, despite such things like the immense material available for a long and established comic, that doesn't mean that the screenwriters or filmmakers will be able to get it right. Several years ago I watched the notorious Brooke Shields movie Brenda Starr. It was indeed a Modesty Blaiseterrible movie, the biggest problem being that the script and the direction seemed to be mocking the characters (not just Brenda Starr) and the story itself. And the original comic strip was pretty serious in tone, if I recall correctly. Which leads to the movie I am reviewing here - Modesty Blaise - another movie based on a serious comic concerning a strong and independent woman. I have to confess that I have never read the original Modesty Blaise comics, and knew next to nothing about what they concerned when sitting down to watch this film adaptation. Did I feel that I could watch the movie and judge it on its own merits instead of comparing it to something else? First, the plot of the movie. The character of Modesty Blaise, a former criminal who now assists the British government, is played in this movie by Italian actress Monica Vitti. Modesty's loyal sidekick in her various adventures, Willie Garvin, is played by Terence Stamp (Superman II). Modesty's and Willie's contact with the British Secret Service is one Sir Gerald Tarrant (Harry Andrews, Hawk The Slayer). Early into the movie, Gerald contacts Modesty with a request. There is a large shipment of diamonds headed to a sheik in the Middle East that is threatened to be intercepted and stolen by a master criminal by the name of Gabriel (Bogarde, A Bridge Too Far). Actually, the Secret Service has hired Modesty to be more or less a decoy. What they don't know, however, is that Modesty is wise to their plans, and with the help of her friend Willie, Modesty decides to thwart the robbery scheme herself.

My mention of the Brenda Starr movie in the previous paragraph made me realize something about movies based on comics - at least when it comes to my tastes. I prefer movies based on comics that treat their source material with respect and accuracy. For example, I can't stand any of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies (except for the 2007 computer animated one, which was so-so), because they are pretty juvenile and jokey in tone when the original comic books (some of which I've read) were pretty serious and adult in tone. My research before watching Modesty Blaise revealed to me that it was much lighter in tone than the original comic strip. That concerned me somewhat, but I went ahead and watched the movie all the same. But before I get into the humorous side of the movie, I want to talk about something more pleasant. Modesty Blaise is a pretty good looking enterprise. While it didn't have the budget of the James Bond movies coming out around the same time, the filmmakers all the same got quite a bit out of what money they had. For starters, they were able to shoot the movie in several countries. England, of course, but also Italy and the Netherlands. And in these countries, director Joseph Losey (Boom!) managed to find some unique locations - often shot with some unique camera angles - to make the outdoor backdrops look unlike those found in other movies. The interiors are also very well accomplished. While they are not at a gargantuan scale, they are often decorated with eye-catching features, like psychedelic patterns on walls. Other accomplishments despite the somewhat modest budget range from getting a gigantic yacht and shooting all over and around it, to some underwater photography involving skin divers manouvering a large submarine-like device in order to break through the hull of a ship.

So when it comes to the look of the movie, it manages to stand up fairly well to the James Bond movies it is in part trying to ape. However, in other aspects, the movie doesn't do nearly as well. One thing that you expect in an espionage movie - spoof or not - is some good action, and Modesty Blaise pretty much completely fails in this aspect. The main problem with the action is that there is shockingly very little of it to be found in the entire 119 minutes of the movie. If you don't count the few seconds of wrestling Modesty does in a Rotterdam apartment suite around the thirty minute mark, the first real action sequence (a foot chase capped by a knife fight) comes about twenty-five minutes later - and it doesn't last that much longer than the wrestling sequence. These two scenes, along with the little more action that's to be found, aren't the least bit exciting. This may in part be due to the fact that the action tries to be funny as well as exciting, but director Losey seems clueless as to how to properly balance both. For that matter, when the movie tries to be strictly funny, Losey also fails. Much of the humor can be best summed up with the scene when Modesty comes across a Modesty Blaise comic book. This touch alone suggests that the filmmakers had a sneery attitude towards their source, and didn't feel that the source deserved its own cinematic world without a reminder to the audience that it was false. Even if comic moments like that one did not exist in the movie, the remaining humor would still be extremely lame. The humor is more strange than funny in nature, like one scene where the villain and his henchmen have captured a mime and try to interrogate him. You can guess how that goes. Oh, I suppose it could have been funny, but everyone involved in front of and behind the camera in this scene seem more intent to get the audience scratching their puzzled heads instead of tickling their funny bones. And don't get me started on the movie's two out of the blue musical numbers.

When I think about it some more, I think a big reason why the humor in Modesty Blaise does not work is due to the script. Certainly, the actual humor in the script is lame, but I think that the surrounding material is to blame for that. One big problem is that there simply isn't enough story. In the first half hour of the movie, there is almost no progression in the story. It picks up a little after that point, but not by much - there's a lot of padding going on here. Just as bad is the fact that the screenplay seems to assume that its audience already knows all about the Modesty and Willie characters, since they are both introduced abruptly with very little information about their backgrounds. Gabriel, the movie's villain, isn't fleshed out that much more; he implies that he's had dealings with Modesty before, but we never learn about any of these dealings. With the three main characters of the movie so weakly written, it should come as no surprise that the cast doesn't seem to know how to play their roles. The direction they seemingly got from Losey was to, "Play it cool". However, the three main players are so cool and casual, they instead come across as being utterly bored in these roles, and they drip with the same feeling of contempt coming from the filmmakers that I mentioned earlier. Supporting player Harry Andrews, however, seems to have not listened to Losey, since he puts a genuine spark in his limited scenes and gives the best performance in the movie. It's not enough to save the movie, alas, and Modesty Blaise ends up being yet another lame example of the spy spoof genre that existed during the late 1960s. Jump ahead a few decades and rewatch the first Austin Powers movie instead.

(Posted December 16, 2019)

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See also: For Your Height Only, 99 And 44/100% Dead, Running Delilah