Modesty Blaise (1966)NR

CapeTentHalf a tent

From the nether depths of sixties glam-camp comes this British tale that attempts to wed the derring-do of Bond with the cheese value of Barbarella. Only, they decided to make it a comedy. That’s not encouraging news...

But they didn’t try very hard to comedify it. There is very little actual comic material, at least until the ending, when it turns completely silly in a way that the foregoing story didn’t prepare the ground for. That’s just one symptom of the loose, meandering way this film is put together... all kinds of random side characters and incidents that make for (sort of) cool set pieces but don’t fit into the plot in any obvious way. It makes for a somewhat confusing ride. But at least you’re riding in style... some of the time. If you want nifty sixties gadgets and outrageous sixties fashions, this movie will deliver them... occasionally. Overall, the film is not much more a comedy than its cohabitor of the glam superthief ecological niche, Danger: Diabolik, is.

The two movies have lots of similarities. Diabolik is a women’s fantasy of a male super-thief, whereas Modesty is a men’s fantasy of a female super-thief. Each has an opposite-sex sidekick, each employs brightly colored smoke, sports cars, and aqualungs... Diabolik has a round rotating bed, Modesty has a round rotating bedroom.

Just as the comedy is occasional and the sixties glam is occasional, we also have action stuntery and derring-do supplied on an occasional basis. This movie spends a lot more time talking up the mystique and prowess of Modesty Blaise than showing it. This is where Diabolik shows itself to be the superior film: it delivers on the clever superthief action, where Modesty often offers only goofy, mildly amusing timewasting.

Modesty is played by Monica Vitti, who has an awfully thick accent for someone who’s supposed to be a master of disguise. Not that the comic’s disguise gimmick is really used in this movie... they trivialize it into a gag where her clothes or hair change color without access to any cosmetic materials. Vitti has an admirably taut body for someone in her mid thirties, but is not at all the sort of knockout stunner she’s talked up to be by the other characters. Her acting is... rudimentary. Maybe she’s better in her native Italian than in English. The swinging stud male sidekick is not admirably taut; action heroes in those days weren’t expected to spend much time at the gym. Which is ironic given that there’s a character in the movie who’s constantly making their underlings do grueling fitness regimens. The sidekick is Terrence Stamp; he may be more of a real actor than Vitti, but his performance here is all one note.

They show copies of the Modesty Blaise comic book lying around in the world of the movie.

This sounds like I’m making this film out to be a dreary failure, but in fact it rarely fails to be entertaining, from moment to moment. Just don’t ask much of it, and groove on the sixties-ness of it all... plus, more than the other glam-action stuff of the period, this one has got a little streak of acidy visual pretentiousness. Since I absolutely love certain overinflated stoner-arty films such as John Boorman’s Zardoz, or Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, to me this is a plus, mild though it is here in comparison with the real thing.