Modesty Blaise is a movie that most people don’t seem to have a good word for. Be that as it may, I absolutely adored it. This 1966 film, somewhat surprisingly directed by Joseph Losey, is based on the popular comic strip character (at least popular at the time, I have no idea if the comic strip is still remembered). It’s one of those vaguely psychedelic 60s spy spoofs. At the time there was a rash of movies satirising the James Bond spy caper genre. The problem with trying to send up the Bond movies (I mean the real Bond movies, the ones made in the 60s) is that you can’t because they’re already doing that themselves; they’re so tongue-in-cheek already that any attempt at satire inevitably falls flat. To succeed, such a movie has to offer more than the standard spy spoof ingredients of outlandish plots and silly gadgets. Modesty Blaise offers quite a bit more. It offers stupendous visual style, a trippy and outrageously colourful Pop art/comic book concoction that succeeds by virtue of its own excess. It’s the Ken Russell approach – if you’re afraid you may have gone too far over the top, go a bit further. It also offers wonderful larger-than-life acting performances that scale the highest heights of High Camp. Dirk Bogarde is Gabriel, the diabolical criminal mastermind of the piece, but he’s a diabolical criminal mastermind who dislikes having to hurt people. Of course being a diabolical criminal mastermind he has to hurt people sometimes (it’s rather expected of one) but he always feels their pain. It’s Bogarde’s most extravagant comic performance, and he’s a delight. Terence Stamp is quite bizarre as Modesty’s partner in crime Willie Garvin, a kind of working-class international playboy type, like a slum kid who’s suddenly made it rich through football or crime but remains a loveable ragamuffin at heart. He should be an extremely annoying character but Stamp gets away with it through sheer nerve. Monica Vitti is weird and exotic in the title role, playing it all with insane amounts of glamour and managing to be both very sexy and oddly innocent. She and Terence Stamp periodically break into song, which adds a whole extra layer of surrealism to the proceedings. Harry Andrews and Michael Craig provide solid support, their performances in keeping with the bizarreness of the rest of the film. Rossella Falk is Gabriel’s psychopathic killer henchwoman Mrs Fothergill and steals every scene she’s in.
Most of the criticism of the movie is accurate, but misses the point. Losey was a strange choice to direct such a film, but his slightly European art-film sensibility works the movie’s advantage, giving it a rather avant-garde kind of feel. Combining that with a comic strip spy spoof is something that could only have worked in the 1960s, but it does work. Losey also has a keen sense of the absurd, and the movie’s existential absurdism is another ingredient in its success. I think it’s probably fair to say that you have to love the 1960s in order to appreciate this movie, and you probably need a certain familiarity with the 60s as well. If you’re expecting a straightforward comic romp you may be disappointed - Modesty Blaise is actually closer in feel to Antonioni’s Blow-Up or Godard’s Band of Outsiders than it is to Carry on Spying or the Austin Powers movies. It’s a strange brew, but I found it delightfully intoxicating.