Back when the postwar monochrome had started to bleed into counter-culture Technicolour, back before VHS, before DVD, before LoveFilm, and Amazon, and TV on demand, back then the high school water-cooler moment, before high school water-coolers, was ‘did you see that film on the telly last night?’ And, with only three channels, the chance was the answer was ‘yes’.
In those days, films stayed on the theatrical circuit for much longer; I’m talking years. I think a film had to be at least six years old before it could be shown on television. Consequently, in the 1970s, when I started to take a more individual interest in television viewing, a host of films came onto television from the 1960s. I was able to enjoy films from the likes of Ken Loach, Richard Lester, Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz, Billy Wilder, Neil Simon, John Boorman, Ken Russell, Sam Peckinpah, Stanley Kubrick, and uncle Don Siegel et al. The BBC used to do ‘film seasons’ on specific directors and, because BBC 2 was a bit arty, there were the joys of foreign language films, the nouvelle vague, and all the glories of European cinema, introducing me to Truffaut, Fellini, Wim Wenders, Chabrol, LeLouch, Antonioni, and Bunuel.
The zeal of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s meant that America’s loss was Europe, and particularly the UK’s, gain, as blacklisted writers and directors came over the Atlantic to find work in an industry less concerned with someone’s politics. Although never officially blacklisted, the director Joseph Losey made the trip to Britain and soon forged a prominent and successful career in the resurgent British film industry. In Annus Mirabilis, Philip Larkin noted that “Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three/ […] /Between the end of the ‘Chatterly’ ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP.”
Teamed with the playwright Harold Pinter, making his first forays into screen-writing, Losey made The Servant (1963), following it with Accident (1967), and The Go-Between (1971). He had already made the curious 1963 blend of social comment and science fiction thriller (These Are) The Damned, but a run of films, such as those with Pinter, and others like Secret Ceremony (1968), and the later The Romantic Englishwoman (1975), seemed to mark him as a director with a particular felicity in expressing the layered angst of class and sexual relationships. He also made the bonkers adaptation of Tennessee Williams (from Williams’ own screenplay) Boom (1968), with Richard Burton as the Angel of Death, and the great Noel Coward as the Witch of Capri. This overwrought drama is a guilty pleasure; Burton has a speech about something, which ends with the word ‘Boom’, the sound of the waves against Liz Taylor’s island fortress retreat, that I memorised in an attempt to perfect my Richard Burton impression. Although the films mentioned are marked by the microscopic scrutiny of sex, class, and gender, Losey also made the sparse blend of running and helicopter-porn that was 1970’s Figures In A Landscape.
In 1966, in the eye of the hurricane of British pop culture, Losey took the reins of Modesty Blaise, a film based upon Peter O’Donnell’s syndicated newspaper comic strip adventuress. It’s taken me a massive cultural digression to get to the meat of this review, and what can I say about this film? Back in school, after its airing on TV, I think I tried to enthuse, but I had been wrong-footed. Science fiction wasn’t such a big deal for me then, I had slipped into the espionage genre, and was reading Fleming, Le Carre, Len Deighton, and Alistair MacLean. Of course, post-Bond, the tendency had been to spoof the genre, as The Man From Uncle, The Avengers, and the Derek Flint films, all sought to offer spy-fi thrills with a knowing aside to meta-fiction.
Modesty Blaise came hot on the Cuban heels of the Beatles’ Help!, and seems to want to instil some of that hip camp tomfoolery to proceedings, while encouraging us to believe there is a plot of sorts. Sadly, the film tumbles between stools; it is neither thrilling nor very funny; but that is not to say it is completely devoid of charm. In order to secure its oil supplies from the Gulf, her majesty’s British government proposes to deposit a fortune in diamonds with friendly Sheikh Abu Tahir. The conundrum is how to get the gems to the Sheikh, while avoiding the attentions of super-criminal Gabriel?
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Well, given that the representatives of HMG meet with the Sheikh in his London hotel early in the film, the answer would appear to have been hand them to him in a box, however that would have severely curtailed the two hours running time. Hiring ex-criminal and international adventuress Modesty Blaise, after their man in Amsterdam has been blown up while on the trail of Gabriel, the British government in the person of their man Sir Gerald Tarrant employ a host of distraction techniques in order to deflect both Modesty and Gabriel’s attentions onto each other and away from the diamonds. Needless to say, no one is fooled and it is better to ignore the plot and enjoy the performances.
Standout turn is long-term Losey collaborator Dirk Bogarde as the blond-wigged Gabriel. Camp as a field full of girl guides, in an op-art monastery island lair, Gabriel agonises over the death of the family-man pilot in the shooting-down of the RAF jet supposedly carrying the diamonds, “Why can’t they ever be single?” Aided by his troubling female henchman Mrs Fothergill (Italian actress Rosella Falk), and his parsimonious aide McWhirter (Clive Revill in a double role; he also plays Abu Tahir), Gabriel seeks either to eliminate Modesty or draw her into an alliance. Harry Andrews plays Modesty’s controller Sir Gerald Tarrant with a fine disregard for the nonsense he has found himself in, and Michael Craig enjoys himself as British spook and Modesty’s love interest, as you would.
Modesty’s sidekick, reformed cockney crook Willie Garvin, is played by the great Terence Stamp, one of the triumvirate of pretty-boy English actors who came to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s, the others being David Hemmings, and Ian McShane. Still busy in major roles to this day, Stamp and McShane kept their looks and good billing while, arguably the prettiest of the three, Hemmings bizarrely blew up to the size of a barn, grew unkempt eyebrows, and ended up with paltry cameos in The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Vinnie Jones’ remake of The Mean Machine, before his untimely death in 2003. Having said that, Hemmings did have a parallel career as a TV director particularly on The A-Team, and Quantum Leap.
The star of Modesty Blaise, in her first English-language role, is Italian actress Monica Vitti (La Notte). What can you say? The camera loves her. Not conventionally beautiful, she is beautiful and flirtatious in this; for her serious acting go to the films she made with Antonioni, in fact if only they could have got him on board for Modesty Blaise, as he was no stranger to the unconventional thriller. O’Donnell wrote a screenplay for the film but it was almost totally abandoned in the rewrites by Losey and his collaborator. O’Donnell claims only one line survived. O’Donnell did have something of the last laugh, as he produced a novelisation of the screenplay, the success of which encouraged him to write a further series of best-selling Modesty novels.
In a couple of instances in the film, O’Donnell and artist Jim Holdaway’s comic-strip appears, and blonde Monica Vitti dons a brunette wig and Modesty’s tight-fitting black clothes, adopting the Modesty persona like a superhero’s secret identity. Willie Garvin and Modesty even have a song, in which they consider the fact that in all their adventures they have never found the time to hop into bed with one another. Such pop sensibility sits uncomfortably at times with the film’s attempts to be an adventure story, as there are deaths by strangulation, by stabbing, and a hanging. If you want to see how to do this sort of thing better watch Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik, made a couple of years later.
Still, despite my considerable reservations, and despite the fact I would not rush to watch this again, I feel it says something about the times, and it does not diminish the stature of O’Donnell’s creation of Modesty Blaise. There have been a couple of more attempts to bring the divine Modesty to the screen, an Americanised TV pilot starring Ann Turkel in 1982, and the Tarantino produced direct-to-DVD My Name Is Modesty in 2003. It seems she may be one of those characters who defy successful adaptation, but arguably Modesty Blaise was a reference point for Lara Croft, although clearly the same proscription applies. I am now waiting for the release of a re-mastered DVD of that other cult phenomenon, fumbled in its cinematic execution, Robert Fuest’s 1973 take on Jerry Cornelius in The Final Programme.