Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Modesty Blaise (1966)

Parodies are surprisingly difficult to pull off.  For one thing, they require an understanding of whatever it is that they seek to parody, be it an individual, a specific character or film, or even entire genre.  Arguably, the best parodies are those made by people actually love what they are parodying.  Adaptations from one medium to another are equally difficult - should it be as literal as possible, how 'respectful' to its source should the adaptation be, should it be faithful in 'spirit' rather than to the letter?   Modesty Blaise tries, and fails, to be both of these things: it purports to be based on the popular Peter O'Donnell comic strip while at the same time being a parody of the early Bond movies and, by extension, the whole sixties spy film craze.  The problem with this approach, of course, is that the comic strip was, in no way, a parody of Bond.  While the strip's original commission for the Daily Mail in 1963 doubtless owed something to the success of the previous year's Dr No film adaptation, it had been conceived by O'Donnell many years previously, his original concept pre-dating the first of Ian Fleming's novels.

In deciding to make the film some kind of parody, the makers had to jettison just about everything that made the comic strip distinctive and popular.  The title character is no longer the capable and multi-talented woman of action of the strip, but instead a fashionable clothes-horse who seems overly reliant upon others to get her out of difficult situations.  Twice in major set pieces, including during her climactic fight with the main villainess, she has to be rescued by side kick Willie Garvin, for instance.  In fact, throughout the course of the film she seems actually to do very little, more often reacting to events than being proactive.  Her influence on the way the plot unfolds seems quite negligible.  Rather than getting involved in the action, the Modesty Blaise of the film seems more interested in sporting a variety of chic outfits and hair styles.  The film also alters her relationship with Garvin, suggesting, in the latter third of the film, that it might yet be come more than the purely platonic friendship of the strip. 

But if the film doesn't appear to understand its source material, it equally doesn't seem to understand the spy movie genre it seeks to parody.  Sure, there are lots of gadgets even more ludicrous and outrageous than those in the Bond films, while the heroine's constant costume changes reflect the styles sported by the various Bond girls.  There is also an eccentric mega-villain with a a world-spanning crime organisation, an island hideout and an intricate plot to hijack a consignment of diamonds and the whole thing climaxes with an Arab Sheik and his men riding to the rescue in the manner of the US Army in Goldfinger or US Navy in Thunderball.  But while similar elements might be found in the average Bond movie (or any of their imitators), they aren't what the Bond films were about.  The Bond movies of the sixties were, in part, post-Imperial fantasies of Britain still being able to 'punch above its weight' in world affairs, and equal measure an attempt to reassert 'masculine values' in a changing world.  As well as gender politics, they are also about social class, wealth and consumerism, (Bond, for instance, has sufficient 'class' to be a guest atM's club, but not be considered for membership, while most of the villains have wealth - demonstrated by their possession of expensive consumer goods - but would never be considered 'socially acceptable' in the 'right' circles.  It is notable that in Moonraker, (the novel rather than the film),Sir Hugo Drax is initially given away by his propensity for cheating at cards - something a 'gentleman' would never do -while in On Her Majesty's Secret Service Blofeld seeks legitimacy through his claim to a title).

None of these things are reflected in Modesty Blaise, with the parody elements working on only the most superficial level.  But, once again,  the biggest flaw lies with the portrayal of the titular character.  Surely key to parodying a series of films (and indeed a whole genre) about a male chauvinist spy who regularly subjugates women, would be to present us with a hugely capable female lead who effectively puts such macho stereotypes in their place, (which, in effect, is what the source material does)?  Instead, Modesty is reduced to the level of a Bond girl, looking pretty and stylish, while being regularly imperiled and rescued by male characters.  Ultimately, the film's main idea of parody seems to be to try an subvert audience expectations with regard to the genre.  It presents an action-adventure film with little action - much is promised, with sequences seemingly building up to major set pieces, which then fail to materialise.  What action there is passes off in the most perfunctory manner, with the whole climactic sequence being undermined by Blaise and Garvin bursting into a musical number as they make what looks like it might be their last stand against the villains.

This apparently deliberate subversion of spy movie conventions is compounded by putting Joseph Losey in the director's chair.  Losey was essentially an art house director with no real feel for genre movies: he seems as ill at ease here as he had when in charge of Hammer's science fiction horror The Damned a couple of years earlier.  He has no sense of pace, with the film moving far too slowly to build up any sense of excitement or expectation and clearly has little or no interest in the action sequences (such as they are).  The main casting is also off, with Monica Vitti doing little to suggest the character of the strip and Terence Stamp's Willie Garvin coming over as a stereotyped cockney geezer character from just about any swinging sixties movie or TV series of the era.  Dirk Bogarde fares better as the the villain, Gabriel, a criminal mastermind with pretensions of culture who baulks at the more unpleasant side of his 'business', agonising over the fact, for instance, that the pilot of a jet he is about to have shot down has a wife and children.  (Though, in the end, this doesn't stop him from giving the order).  This is probably the only part of the subversion of expectations in the film that actually works, with Bogarde's Gabriel perversely seeming the most sympathetic character in the movie.  Clive Revill and Rossella Falk give him excellent support as his two main sidekicks.

But while Modesty Blaise might not be a successful film, it isn't exactly a bad film.  While he might not have had any empathy for the spy genre, Joseph Losey wasn't a bad director and he gives the film a great look, with inventive cinematography and beautifully composed shots, full of interesting camera angles, often literally framing characters by shooting them through windows, apertures, even art works.   Overall, it's production values are excellent, with superb costume and production design and boasts an enjoyable musical score from Johnny Dankworrth.  In the end, though, all of this is in vain, as the film fails as either an adaptation of its source material, or as a broader parody of its genre.  The fault for this lies fairly and squarely with the script.  O'Donnell, who was invited to write the original screen treatment, later complained that only one of his lines of dialogue survived into the finished script.  It is significant that O'Donnell subsequently novelised his original version of the script, which was published as Modesty Blaise a year before the film appeared and became a best-seller and the first of eleven Modesty Blaise novels.  The film, by contrast, turned out to be a huge box office flop,leaving both fans of the comic strip and spy movies frustrated.



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