Modesty Blaise


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Modesty Blaise
"When you're watching a film for the wallpaper you know you're in trouble."

In 1963, a new character exploded into the world of comics. Modesty Blaise was a sometime criminal mastermind, sometime secret agent who used martial arts and a variety of unusual weapons, along with her feminine charms, to thwart assorted bizarre villains. Somewhere between Diabolik and James Bond, she seemed like the perfect subject for a big screen adventure. Unfortunately, no film has ever quite captured her distinct appeal. This is the worst attempt.

When adapting a comic, a good place to start is with its writer. Unfortunately, though Peter O'Donnell contributed the initial script for this film, it was edited and amended to the point where he said himself that it was no longer recognisable. What remains reads more like a pastiche of the comics than a true rendering. It isn't really fair to put this down to the comedy angle because the wit of the originals has been lost and the humour here generally falls flat.

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Critically, there is no point in the film at which Modesty shows us why she's so important. She doesn't pull off any daring stunts, she's rubbish (though sometimes successful) at fighting and we never really see her use a weapon. She's not even noticeably more beautiful than the other women around her and unless you have a fetish for bri-nylon then her supposedly spectacular costumes leave something to be desired. Worst, as soon as there's a man around she slips into a secondary role, letting him go into dangerous places first and do most of the active work. The man in question is Willie (Terence Stamp), her loyal ally from the comics and a man with whom she notably had a platonic relationship, but here it's all about romance - the effect is like having Mulder and Scully snog in the first scene, crushing the erotic tension on which much of the story hinges.

The film has two strong points. The first is Dirk Bogarde's sinisterly bewigged villain, played with a knowing but restrained camp. The second is the set design work which, whilst mediocre for much of the film's length, occasionally breaks into surrealist brilliance. Unfortunately Bogarde gets little screen time and when you're watching a film for the wallpaper you know you're in trouble.

On the minus side, the incoherent structure and atrocious dialogue are accompanied by a wacky racist depiction of Modesty's Arab allies, who are treated like cartoon figures, and the beaurocrats in the British government are similarly twee. There's a collection of the sort of gadgets one can imagine Q designing when he was five, and poor direction means we rarely get a satisfying look at them. A complete lack of inventiveness in action scenes means we have to assume Modesty and her friends are immune to bullets rather than skilled at dodging them, which makes it hard to feel any concern. When the film runs out of steam, it breaks out in random musical numbers, yet there's no Happiness Of The Katakuris style sense of delightful absurdity, just a general sense of despair.

Reviewed on: 29 May 2012
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Sometime secret agent, sometime thief Modesty Blaise is set on the trail of stolen diamonds in this comic strip adaptation.
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Director: Joseph Losey

Writer: Evan Jones

Starring: Monica Vitti, Terence Stamp, Dirk Bogarde, Harry Andrews

Year: 1966

Runtime: 119 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


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