At one point In ‘White Heat’, his popular history of the nineteen sixties, during a discussion of the British cinema of the period, historian Dominic Sandbrook quotes an unnamed critic from the Monthly Film Bulletin, thus: ‘If a social historian were faced with the task of citing the film most representative of the age, “Modesty Blaise” would be a strong candidate!’ It’s not hard to see why. A hugely expensive British made production, backed by 20th Century Fox and released at the height of the international craze for all things ‘Swinging London’, the film positively revels in every fashionable cliché of the day: elaborate but gaudy Pop Art production design adorns near every scene like the most lavish and colourful gift wrapping imaginable; bright, ultra-hip, geometric ‘Op Art’ patterning informs everything from the décor in the arch villain’s Mediterranean-based lair to the long list of improbably stylish and hugely flamboyant coulter fashions the heroine manages to change in and out of at roughly five minute intervals throughout the film’s two hours; bowler hats, double-decker buses, Mod target symbols and mini-skirts are in predictable abundance in the opening London-set sequences (although the film then quickly switches to more exotic, expensive locations of course, as befits every self-respecting ‘60s spy-fi caper); everything is shot meticulously by director Joseph Losey and cinematographer Jack HIldyard to look like a dazzling primary coloured comic book; and a general air of camp frivolity combined with a determined whimsy informs the performances of the film’s two painfully hip superstars -- the (at the time) coolest cockney Mod on earth, Terrence Stamp, and his Über-glamorous Italian co-lead, Monica Vitti. In an cultural atmosphere where James Bond was enjoying greater popularity than ever after the release of “Thunderball”, and where “The Avengers” (the closest parallel to the intentions at work behind “Modesty Blaise” even down to jazzman Johnny Dankworth being commissioned to write the theme music) was still one of the top rated shows on British TV -- and soon to switch to glorious psychedelic colour itself -- it might be thought that this opulent exercise in ironic, post-modern frivolity, with its backdrop of sleek, attractively dressed surfaces, would have been greeted with joyful hails of hosannas and massive box-office returns – but this turned out not to be the case.
By 1966, such studied celebration of modernist playfulness, couched in its giddy displays of fashion conscious affluence and excessive consumption, was already beginning to look hackneyed and old hat – something to bring in tourists, rather than a genuine cultural cutting edge. Part of the problem was down to the fact that the swinging scene was already past its peak, the truly ‘hip’ audiences already moving on to the looser bohemianism that came to be known by the flower power, or ‘hippie, label. Also, it had become more than apparent that the cool, modernist, space-age Britain of Tomorrow once promised by Harold Wilson’s Labour government was beginning to dissolve into an economic meltdown, fuelled by rushed ‘austerity’ budgets fitfully implemented to stave off a devaluation crisis that ended up coming anyway: hardly the kind of climate best suited to the success of the knowing, ultra-arch, take-nothing-too-seriously, spy-fi fantasy razzmatazz “Modesty Blaise” was offering up. To make matters worse, the love affair between American money and British cinema was on the verge of collapse and “Modesty Blaise” probably counts as one of the last glossy hymns to such largesse. Reality finally seemed to be catching up with the beleaguered country at large, and such a film -- with its meandering, nonsensical plot and permanently ironic stance on everything -- simply came across as aloof and clinical despite all the colour and glamour and the quirky retro-futurist window dressing applied to its flimsy whimsical capering. Even the relationship between the golden couple of Swinging London at the time, the film’s impossibly handsome male star Terrance Stamp and his girlfriend, the model Jean Shrimpton, was on the verge of disintegrating. 1966 was also the year the BBC attempted to launch its own post-modern, super-fashionable rival to “The Avengers”, “Adam Adamant Lives!” -- but with nowhere near the same level of success. Once again, it was seen as having somewhat missed the peak of the ‘60s zeitgeist. When “Modesty Blaise” was presented at the Cannes film festival that same year, it was greeted with a chorus of boos and a set of critical notices that could hardly be considered complimentary.
But for viewers of today, looking at it, in some cases, for the first time, and often with nostalgia for exactly the kind of cultural ‘60s ephemera the film best represents, it’s something of a different story -- at least to some extent. There is a great deal to love about this almost defiantly superficial, candy-coloured extravaganza of expensively produced fluff. Those sets are indeed magnificent examples of the Op Art meets psychedelic look, each and every scene seems packed with a variety of colourful, artfully arranged detail -- from the décor to the furnishings to the exotic fashions – every frame composed with the precision of a piece of artwork from the very comic book on which the film was originally based. Indeed, more than anything, the film comes across -- in attitude and appearance and subtext -- more as an actual item of Pop Art itself than simply a film that happens to have been influenced by the art and design trends of the decade. It would almost seem to be more at home being displayed in some trendy bohemian art gallery than in a theatre. One of the criticisms at the time was that the film appeared to have next to nothing whatsoever to do with the character Modesty Blaise, as she originally appeared in Peter O’Donnell’s newspaper strip. The film instead gives the impression of being an ironic Pop Art experience that just happens to have the comic character’ Modesty Blaise’ as its theme -- when, in actual fact, it could just as well have been about anything at all! Monica Vitti certainly appeared to be a curious choice as the title character; ultra-glamorous though she Is, her honey blonde curls, thick Italian accent and elegant, sometimes outrageously camp fashions don’t lend themselves to helping her look anything like the character she’s meant to be playing. At one point in the film, she stumbles into the luxurious apartment of a British spy she’s meant to be leasing with, and is seen actually leafing through a Modesty Blaise comic book, featuring the character as she regularly appeared in the strip cartoon -- with dark hair, tight black cat suit and bow and arrow; only then does she (rather miraculously) change in an instant into the visual representation of the comic book character she is meant to be -- and even then, it’s only for the purposes of a joke involving her male spy partner being unable to work out how she gets the cat suit on and off, since it appears to have no zips or fasteners anywhere in sight! In the cultural milieu of the time, Vitti was better known for her critically acclaimed work with the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, while her male lead Terrence Stamp only occasionally made any films at all, but was outrageously famous and admired nevertheless. Their casting gives a good indication of the true sensibility busily at work in the film; it is meant to be seen to be stylish, arty, self-referential and glamorous, and with a hint of satire at the expense of the whole spy genre, then popularly represented by the James Bond franchise.
The somewhat glib, self-referential, meta-fictional stance of the film, alongside its colourful fashions and hip designs, is the main element that also connects it to the successful TV shows of the period, like “The Avengers” and “The Prisoner”. The difference is that, in the case of both of the above programmes in particular, they were able to combine their contemporary modernist vibe with the equally popular taste for Victorian and Edwardian era nostalgia: for all their irony and their display of futuristic tropes, they also frequently played host to comforting traditional signifiers such as English village greens, or vintage cars. The wit and post-modernism of these shows displayed itself not just in surface colour and camp frivolity (although they had plenty of that) but in imaginative and engaging storylines which were often extremely inventive and unpredictable. Most of all, “the Avengers” in particular, had a central relationship in Stead and Mrs Peel which, as unrealistic as these characters might have been, had a genuine warmth to it that came through on screen. “Modesty Blaise” on the other hand, is much too busy maintaining its raised eyebrow and sense of detached cool to bother about such trifles as ‘plot ‘or ‘story’, let alone that we should actually care about, or even engage with in any way, any of its deliberately one-dimensional characters; it takes precisely the same ultra-modernist line with regard to narrative and genre as it does to its visual appearance, which ends up meaning that, for all its visual allure, there’s a chilly empty void at its core. And trying to follow what passes for the plot is rendered near impossible by the fact that it appears to be juggling about half-a-dozen of them at once during its first hour.
Only in the final fifty minutes does it settle down into what could have made for a half-decent, if decadently expensive-looking, TV episode. The first half of the film plays like a series of elaborately designed and choreographed sequences in which jewel thief-turned-freelance spy Modesty Blaise (Monica Vitti) is called upon by the British establishment (a cabinet room-full of various army top brass and civil servants, headed by bowler-hatted manipulator Sir Gerald Tarrant [Harry Andrews]) to help them secretly deliver millions of pounds worth of diamonds to an Arab Sheik, in return for some generous oil concessions for the UK. They are already aware that a ruthless but effete criminal mastermind, known only by his first name Gabriel (Dirk Bogarde), is planning on intercepting the diamonds, after the murder of the British Government’s best spy; so thinking that it’s best to use a thief to catch a thief, they employ the services of Modesty and her immaculately dressed cockney sidekick Willie Garvin (Terrence Stamp) to foil Gabriel’s plot. However, Modesty is really just a diversionary foil in a more complicated plan by the British authorities, and when she learns that she has been played Modesty decides that the diamonds might make suitable compensation! So Tarrant on behalf of the British Government, and Gabriel and Modesty & Willie on behalf of themselves, all are individually vying for the haul -- until Gabriel decides to force Willie to work for him by kidnapping and threatening to kill Modesty.
This somewhat simplified synopsis fails to capture the lackadaisical and whimsical manner by which the story progresses. With its irritatingly catchy theme tune invariably playing throughout, a series of comic vignettes follow one and other in close succession, wedded together, somewhat unconvincingly, by a voice-over commentary from Tarrant and one of his civil service minions -- who act as a sort of all-seeing Greek Chorus, commentating on (and in most instances attempting to explain) the plot as it goes along. Costumes changes frequently occur mid-scene – on one occasion with a jump cut -- without ever raising comment; Vitti and Stamp are perfectly liable to burst into song (accompanied by full orchestral backing) in, for instance, the middle of a gun battle; and the villains attempt to dispose of our heroine using an unwieldy piece of modern art they find hanging in one of her associates' apartment when a simple bullet would have probably been quicker. The action shifts from London to Amsterdam to somewhere in the Mediterranean, where Gabriel has his base of operations in a cliff-top monastery decorated in a psychedelic array of geometric patterns. Bogarde, as the rather relaxed arch villain of the piece, is in many ways a saving grace in terms of supplying the movie with a little heart. It’s ironic that the completely amoral bad guy should be the most likable character in the film, but his relaxed, unflappable approach to all situations does become endearing and Bogarde is happy to camp up his performance to the max. Gabriel leaves all the nasty stuff to his psychotic female companion Mrs Fothergill (Rossella Falk- Argento fans will know her from “Sleepless” as Laura de Fabritiis ) -- who throws people from the top of a cliff for fun -- and his penny-pinching Scots accountant, McWhirter (Clive Revile – who also plays the Shiek Abu Tahir), still querying how much ammo the gang are wasting mid-shoot-out!
Flamboyant, surreal, camp and playfully outlandish, “Modesty Blaise” is at once highly attractive to look at while also at times painfully opaque in the execution of what would seem a fairly unoriginal diamond heist plot. Lovers of ‘60s pop culture should love it to bits nonetheless, and it certainly gets better with repeat viewings -- mainly because there is so much going visually that It’s impossible to take it all in the first time. The new UK DVD release by Second Sight offers a reasonably strong print which, while not exactly being of high definition reference quality, does give a fairly pleasing reproduction of the film’s bold colour palette. However, there are no extras whatsoever – not even a trailer.