Here's the scenario: a friend tells you about a woman he knows who is beautiful, charming and shares your interests, but underscores the fact that you will not like her when you get a chance to meet her. You wonder: how could I not like her, love her at first sight, even? Then you meet the Lady In Question, and while she is in fact beautiful, charming, and shares your interests, she's also vapid beyond the capacity of words to express and has a form of ADD or perhaps Tourette's that causes her to break off in mid-conversation to spew garbled nonsense at you, making the Herculean effort of dealing with her nonsense far outweigh her positive attributes.
The film adaptation of "Modesty Blaise" is just like that."Modesty Blaise." I will cop to an almost-complete ignorance of the Blaise novels and comics, but that type of ignorance has enhanced my enjoyment of other movies of the period (for more info on the O'Donnell comics and novels, check out the amazing web archive atModesty Blaise Ltd. for hours of adventure-story fun). I'd read Curt Purcell's recent musings on the Modesty Blaise novels, and should've been red-flagged by his sinister allusions to the film. I always want to back an underdog, though, and so I sought out the film for what I hoped was a fluffy bit of fun. Baron XIII has told me that the only thing worse than a drone job where you can totally turn off your brain and coast is a job where you have to pay just enough attention to what you're doing that you get a little headachey, and "Modesty Blaise" never let me click the OFF switch in my brain that allows me to coast on a cloud of nonsense-fun.
All the pieces are in play here for a splashy bit of comic book-inspired fun, but there's just too much going on for this movie's good and no one aspect of it is given enough time to gel. Perhaps the biggest hindrance to the film's success is the fact that the script attempts to cram in too many plot elements into a two-hour run time, leading to confusion and ultimately frustration. I confess--I stopped trying to follow the plot close to the one-hour mark and just let the imagery wash over me. In addition to the vexingly complex plot, there are too many experimental elements in the film that are too inconsistently used (meta touches like the repeated appearance of the Modesty Blaise comic books are employed), and it's difficult to puzzle out whether this is a zany comedy or a musical or an adventure story. The overall effect is like watching the "Batman" teevee series while on heavy psychedelics. It doesn't help matters that the insanely-gorgeous Monica Vitti, who plays Modesty, is... not-so-insanely-great at speaking English and sometimes seems to be speaking her lines phonetically.
The Blaise character is pretty damn cool, make no mistake, but it seems as if she's just too complicated for a single film. There's a nagging In Medias Res feel to the entire proceedings, like we were plunked down midway through a sequel and are racing to catch up to the storyline.
There's some sunshine in all these clouds, though, and particularly during the first hour of the film, I found myself enjoying certain aspects of what I was seeing on screen. There's some entertainingly of-its-time texture, like the astrological imagery (Modesty is a Scorpio, and at one point is shown to have her sign tattooed large-scale on her thigh) and the mid-Sixties haute couture (more about THAT later). Also, the characters are all really nifty--to the point where I felt they deserved a stronger film. Modesty's partner in crime (or not-crime, depending on where you slap your eyeballs) Willie Garvin is played with rakish glee by Terence Stamp (whose cheekbones have never been swoonier) as he loves and leaves a series of delectable Eurobabes. Dirk Bogarde brings acres of class to his portrayal of arch-nemesis Gabriel (a BAD super-criminal, not to be confused with allegedly-benign super-criminal Modesty). I'm starting to think that villainous screen legends should all wear white wigs at least once, cos Bogarde's Gabriel can *work* the white 'do much like Vincent Price's Roderick Usher. Gabriel's partner Miss Fothergill (Rossella Falk) is a loyal servant as well as a mistress of hand-to-hand combat, and the two make a formidable pair indeed. It also fills me with enormous glee that Gabriel's team of henchmen is disguised as a stage magician and his supporting crew.
Violently elbowing out all its human co-stars for on-screen supremacy, the wardrobe of this film reigns as the diva of the day. Modesty has dozens of costume changes--sometimes in the same scene, and at least once accomplished via jump-cut--that place her in everything from a brunette beehive and a black catsuit to flowing Grecian goddess minis that wouldn't look out of place on the streets of Soho today. Bonus points for Monica Vitti in sheik-drag that nears Rosalba Neri in a fez level hottness (yes, internet--you are privvy to one of my Special Needs: drag kings in the garb of the Exotic Orient).
The set design is equally impressive, employing gorgeous locations with eye-popping interiors. Gabriel's lair is a sun-drenched Mediterranean island mansion with dizzying op-art wall coverings, and a significant portion of the film takes place in Amsterdam, which is portrayed as a bohemian wonderland. Repeated visual motifs include dangerous-looking modern art, mannequin torsos, and geometric patterns.
This all just looks SO GREAT on paper, I'm drooling all over again, and still really-really wanting this movie to be awesome. I could even start to overlook the comedic incidental sound effects (slide whistle ahoy!), but by the time Terence Stamp and Monica Vitti warble a pop song to one another it's just... over for me. I was punched out long before the quite-literal arrival of the cavalry at the climax of the film that would leave anyone still invested in the story groaning in despair.
By far the best sequence is a chase takes place during a carnival in Amsterdam, using marvelous vintage calliopes and their music as well as a genuinely creepy warehouse whose exterior is covered in decaying dolls. Style is the focus here, valued over substance to such a degree that its shamelessness gels for about ten delicious minutes. Modesty employs one of Amsterdam's famous brothel windows to hide in plain sight when her quick-change routine comes in handy. One villain is quite literally colorful--a thug with an elaborate facial tattoo--and the almost playful way in which Modesty and Willie battle with the goons strikes just the right notes.
It's just a crying shame that there aren't more moments like this over the course of the film.