From Strip to Screen – Modesty Blaise (1966)

Modesty Blaise is a satire that falls into the spy genre and is based upon the successful comic strip by Peter O’Donnell and Jim Holdaway, released to theatres in 1966. While not a bad movie per se, it did have its moments every now and then yet it was so far removed from the source material that O’Donnell disavowed it with the only thing essentially remaining true about it all is the name and sex of the main character. Suffice it to say, the man did not enjoy it, but the film does have its fans and part of that reason is its star, Monica Vitti, already famous by this point in time and ready to try her hand at an English-language picture.

For any movie that looks to spoof something and no matter what kind of movie it might be, spy thriller or not, for it to succeed with the audience, one simply has to like them. A person has to enjoy when the film does not take itself seriously and makes as much fun of itself and the genre it finds itself in. Such is the case with Modesty Blaise and numerous other films just like it, Deadlier Than the Male and In Like Flint just to name two. The movie also has to be funny and if that humour is missing, falls flat or is dated in any way, it can put the audience off and that sadly, is what happens here which is a bit of a shame, especially considering the cast which includes Terrence Stamp among their number. There are times when this film feels like an old British variety show with a lot of physical humour that might have generated some laughs once upon a time, but has since lost its charm. When it comes to the serious bits and those moments when some action is called for, the film picks up and manages to capture one’s interest for a time, but when it resorts back to the slapstick, it tests the patience a little. Even worse, the movie feels overlong because of all those witty asides and two hours feels more like three because of it.

The brightest spot in the entire film is Vitti, who is not only beautiful to look at, but she has a natural charisma that the camera loves, has actual talent and she does a good job in the role of the super-spy. One of the main complaints that people had with the end product would be Vitti’s hair colour, which as blond for most of the picture at her insistence. A minor quibble to be sure, but it mattered because Blaise was a brunette and it would be another strike against the movie for veering away from the source material. The rest of the cast was amiable enough in their roles and they did a decent enough job, but it was Vitti who would steal the show and was if nothing else, a smart bit of casting on the filmmaker’s part.

As for the movie itself, it looked good with some strong choreography from Jack Hildyard and the score which accompanied it kept things moving even when they seemed to come to a standstill. Director Joseph Losey supposedly had a few problems on the set, namely with Vitti, but the end product would speak for itself and turn out to be perhaps no the best of the spy spoofs to ever be released, but a memorable one for those that actually watched it. If Losey had simply decided to take things in a more serious direction or perhaps stick far more closely to what O’Donnell had first put to paper, the film might have turned out far better than it was. Come the end of the film, seeing Vitti in her various outfits and wigs, outwitting everyone left and right and lighting up the film as she did is enjoyable but the movie ultimately lacks and whatever positives are to be found are outweighed by the negatives.

2.5 out of 5

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