Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Film Review: MODESTY BLAISE (1966, Joseph Losey)

Stars: 1.5 of 5.
Running Time: 119 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Monica Vitti, Terence Stamp, Clive Revill, Dirk Borgarde.
Tag-lines: "Nothing can faze Modesty Blaise, the world's deadliest and most dazzlingly female agent!"
Best one-liner: None.

Joseph Losey, Monica Vitti, Terence Stamp, and Dirk Bogarde collaborating on a candy-colored Bond-ian romp sprinkled with flaming houseboys, outrageous mod fashions, gigantic glasswear, and all manner of vivid campitude- what could POSSIBLY go wrong? Well, I'll tell you.

How could you possibly misuse this setting? Watch the movie and find out.

First, Losey. A director known for alienation and paranoia probably shouldn't have been chosen for a light-hearted spy escapade. And for a first time action/comedy director, I understand there must be an incredible temptation to conclude your film with a chaotic brawl set to something snazzily approximating 'Yakety Sax.' There must be a tremendous urge to have a bunch of 'people of color' show up to comedic effect (i.e., the Native Americans in CASINO ROYALE or the zany Arab in THE PIRATE MOVIE). In MODESTY BLAISE, it's an army of Arabs. Isn't it hilarious how they all showed up at once, out of nowhere, to do pratfalls? Um, not really.

Next, there's Vitti. The muse of Antonioni (for whom she's perfect), she flawlessly portrays existential angst and modern malaise. Unfortunately, she's completely unqualified to appear in scenes meant to elicit laughter (intentional or unintentional).

She comes across as awkward, stilted, and embarrassed- which does not befit a glamorous, globe-trotting secret agent. She simply lacks the comedic chops or sheer presence of Jane Fonda in BARBARELLA, or even Marisa Mell in DIABOLIK.

Then, there's Stamp. One of the finest actors of all time, and they've put the kid gloves on him.

In a muted, sidekicky role, there's really no reason for him to be here. It'd be like making Joan Crawford a Bond girl.

Finally, there's Bogarde, who deliciously sinks his teeth into the swishy role of a purple parasol-twirling mastermind (with a shock of white hair).

Only he emerges unscathed. I don't even have the time (or desire) to further discuss the insufferable pacing, the excruciating runtime, or the humiliatingly out-of-place musical interludes (with unaltered vocals from non-singers Stamp and Vitti). One and a half stars.

-Sean Gill


Anonymous said...

Sadly, you seem to have missed the point completely. All that you cite as flaws are strengths. The film is incredibly stylish, incredibly unique, and incredibly entertaining. I saw it as an impressionable teen in the Midwest and it left an indelible impression. When I finally got my claws on the DVD years later, it didn't disappoint. An amazing oddity.

Michael O'Sullivan said...

I fully agree with the other comment, I simply love MODESTY BLAISE, maybe for all the reasons you hate it. I adore Vitti and Bogarde and Stamp is terrific too, its incredly witty and stylish, being 20 in 1966 when it came out it was the height of mod and hip.

Sean Gill said...

Anon. and Michael,

It's possible that I wasn't in the right mood when I saw it, as is sometimes the case with films of this type. I may have to revisit it someday.

danyulengelke said...

Great review!

We're linking to your article for Joseph Losey Friday at SeminalCinemaOutfit.com

Keep up the good work!

Sean Gill said...


Thanks, glad you enjoyed!