In one of the ugliest movies I’ve seen, Quentin Tarantino’s onanistic Pulp Fiction (1994), a two-bit hooligan named Vincent Vega (John Travolta, lame, making a comeback) reads a book by Peter O’Donnell, a novelization based on a popular British comic strip of O’Donnell’s. My eyes haven’t lit on a single frame of the strip, but the film of Modesty Blaise that Joseph Losey directed from Evan Jones’s script (after O’Donnell’s own attempt at an adaptation didn’t pan out) is a sensational piece of work. A spy spoof, but for a more discerning audience than the more recent and loutish Austin Powers films, Modesty Blaise revolves around a former thief, an international woman of mystery, who is (ostensibly) engaged by the British government to foil a diamond heist—an icon of “girl power” in anticipation of post-modernism. In addition to being a spoof, the film is a satire of mod pretensions and the “swinging sixties.” The result refreshes one’s whole opinion of Losey.
It’s so much the case that Losey is one of the three or four best British filmmakers, and perhaps the very best, that a reminder may be in order. Joseph Walton Losey heralded from La Crosse, Wisconsin. He studied medicine at Dartmouth and English literature at Harvard. He loved the theater and eventually, on the Continent, found a mentor in Bertolt Brecht. (Losey also made a film about Charles Laughton’s stage production of Brecht’s Galileo in 1947. In 1973, he made a film of the play.) Back in the U.S., nearing forty, he began making small American films that mattered, among them The Boy with Green Hair (1948), The Lawless (1950) and The Prowler (1951), the first of which addresses the topic of bigotry metaphorically, and the second of which lands on Californian earth for a portrayal of racial discrimination against “wetbacks”—Mexican-American farm workers. One could hardly miss that Losey’s political sympathies were with the American Left. Enter the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), before which, in 1951, screenwriter Leo Townsend named Losey and Losey’s wife, Louise, as Communists. Called before the committee, Losey fled to England. Back home, he was blacklisted. In 1954, under one of several pseudonyms meant to fool American distributors, Losey began a professional association with Dirk Bogarde. A swooningly moody, jazz-accompanied melodrama, the film was The Sleeping Tiger. A matinee idol with serious ambition, Bogarde, a perfectly dreadful actor for everyone else, impresses in Losey films—The Servant (1963), King and Country (1964), Accident (1967), all of which take on the British class system. Bogarde shines again, as Modesty’s chief criminal nemesis, Gabriel Fothergill, in Modesty Blaise, as does another, good actor long identified with Losey (he also was in The Sleeping Tiger), unexpectedly hilarious playing the British cabinet minister who enlists Modesty’s services: Alexander Knox—the man who played Woodrow Wilson (Wilson, Henry King, 1944). Losey is most celebrated for his collaborations with playwright-scenarist Harold Pinter: The Servant, Accident—for me, their greatest piece—and, from L. P. Hartley’s novel, The Go-Between (1971), which took the top prize at Cannes. Another favorite Losey film of mine, from France, is Monsieur Klein (1976), about an exploiter of Jews during World War II (Alain Delon, in a stunning performance) who himself ends up being mistaken for a Jew—a film indebted to Orson Welles’s The Trial (1962), from Kafka. Losey died in London in 1984.
Modesty Blaise is a kind of film that one doesn’t expect from Losey: an exhilarating entertainment. On the other hand, the film is no mere diversion; its reflections on a time and place and on veins of popular culture give it tremendous value, as does its scintillating feminism. Losey once famously remarked the following: “Film is a dog: the head is commerce, the tail is art. And only rarely does the tail wag the dog.” With Modesty Blaise, the tail wags the dog.
The plot is minimal. The destination of the diamonds is an Arab sheikh, and while Modesty and her partner, Willie Garvin, commit their all to the diamonds’ reaching this destination (the sheikh and Modesty, it turns out, are old friends), the two must contend with two sets of “bad guys”—one, the Fothergills, Mr. and Mrs., and the British Secret Service, who in fact are using Modesty as a decoy in the diamond transaction. Once the Fothergills capture Modesty and Willie, Gabriel sets out to woo Modesty to his side, with the promise of dispatching his wife if Modesty will similarly dispose of Willie. Modesty will have none of this, and in the end she makes good on her promise to deliver the bounty of jewels to the sheikh, whose prisoner, Gabriel, arms and legs stretched out and bound in the sand, utters from a parched throat a deliciously comic plea: “Champagne! Champagne!”
Its discontinuity makes the film’s plot somewhat hard to follow. This is deliberate. This is also part of the film’s fun except for those literalists in the audience who torture themselves by trying to keep the narrative plain and clear. The proof that Losey & Company don’t put much store in plot here is the fact that the film’s two principal events, had there been a conventionally developed plot, the confiscation of the jewels in both directions, aren’t even shown. The film can also be maddening for those unable to cope with an “action flick” in which the “action” is mostly missing. Modesty Blaise is active and lively, but whatever “action” is wedded to plot or narrative drive is either sketchily indicated or falls by the wayside. The hommages to Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de souffle (1959) and Pierrot le fou (1965)—as in the latter, the girl is apt to break into song on a dime—are one of many ways that Losey crafts his film to oppose conventionality of many kinds.
Modesty Blaise, after all, is based on a comic strip. In effect, it’s the first major film since Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) where the form of the film is indebted to comic strips. Although they discuss their pasts, the characters really don’t seem to have pasts, or past relations amongst themselves. They seem to be inhabiting their frames in the happening-present. Their clearly defined identities also seem shallow. Gabriel tells Modesty, “I’m the villain of the piece, and I condemn you to death.” Modesty counters: “But I’m the heroine. Don’t I get away?” Gabriel: “Perhaps.”
Really, the fear of death doesn’t exist in the film’s universe. Rather than life and death, what’s at stake is confinement and freedom, that is, not getting away versus getting away. A number of characters die, but those deaths don’t weigh in as they might in a different kind of film. While watching Modesty Blaise, we are constantly reminded that what we’re watching isn’t “real.” We are encouraged to interpret “death” as someone’s entrapment—someone’s failure to elude or escape from whoever wants to kill her or him.
Confinement versus freedom has a particular application to the central character. Modesty Blaise feels confined and, indeed, ends up (for a while) Gabriel’s captive; what she lives for is freedom and the power that she feels goes along with it. What is “confining” her in general is the reduced freedom and power, and in some instances no freedom or power, to which she feels that society—any society with which she is familiar—consigns females. When a former lover (who in fact, pertaining to the jewels, is backstabbing her) praises her “woman’s intuition” on a matter, Modesty feels sufficiently annoyed to start throwing and breaking things in his apartment. This reaction of hers intensifies when he adds, “Stop acting like a bloody female.” The sheikh, who comes from a culture that oppresses females to an even more extraordinary degree, has the antidote for his normal disrespect for women when it comes to his honored Modesty. He refers to her as his “son.” (Those who don’t “get” what this film is really about are going to be confused by a lot of things that come down in it.)
How do we separate décor from mise-en-scène? Simply, décor is attractive only, but mise-en-scène is purposeful, that is to say, thematically relevant. The key to entering Modesty Blaise is a particular feature of the (brilliant) mise-en-scène: circular things. Among them—I cannot begin to be exhaustive in this—are the following: globular light fixtures, eggs and egg yolks, concentric circular floor design, circular openings of all kinds, balls, umbrella tops, apples, drink glasses whose circularity is emphasized by their being oversized, wheels on a gold-plated model locomotive, the model locomotive, eye-like framings of Modesty, gun barrels, men’s hats, a circular mirror, a birdcage inhabited by mock birds, the opening of a volcano, a cooking pot, scoops of ice cream in an oversized cone, a highway turnaround, cars turning and turning around, Gabriel’s binoculars, etc. Ah, let me add to the list those luscious closeups of Modesty’s brown eyes.
What’s the purpose of all this roundness in the frames? There are, I think, three relevant aspects to it. One, these circular things are yonic symbols, displaced vaginas that resonate, alas, in two contradictory directions: female power—but such power in a fantasy world; male prerogatives subordinating females, triggering the fantasy and the wish fulfillment. (Many of the things—glasses, umbrellas, a ball, etc.—literally appear in men’s hands.) The circle is also a symbol of fulfillment, completion, perfection. Since Modesty’s “fulfillment” occurs in a comic strip-world, not the real one, however, it, too, ironically reflects on a lack of fulfillment that women experience in the real world. Modesty Blaise, in this sense, is their wish fulfillment as well as her own. In the context that the film provides, the circle is, finally, also suggestive of confinement and imprisonment. Sometimes the thing entrapped is round; sometimes the space or device of entrapment is round. A memorable example of the first is the head of a kidnapped mime whose neck breaks between the vise-like legs of Mrs. Fothergill. A stunning example of the latter is the room aboard his cargo ship to which Gabriel confines Modesty. The wallpaper is an endless repetition of a simple geometric pattern (two-toned triangles). In the middle of the quarters is the circular thing in question: a red-painted corkscrew staircase, which Modesty mounts, finding a way out of the room, but no escape; for this room leads, through the ceiling trap door, to Gabriel’s resting quarters, and he awaits her with his proposition of their teaming up. (Modesty finds a truer way to escape and turn tables on Gabriel.) The profusion of round, circular and globular things in the universe of Modesty Blaise, therefore, generally returns us to Modesty and the state of femaledom that she represents. This is even the case with the mime, whose muteness suggests the “voicelessness” that Modesty feels behind her numerous wisecracks and displays of all-too-fantastic power.
Indeed, Modesty Blaise—whose very name, closing on a pun, projects the real and the fantastic components of her female status—everywhere skirts a line implying the collision of the fantastic and the real. For instance, Modesty possesses the power to change at will her hair color, makeup, clothes and accessories. The occurrences are charming (and, like much else in the film, Alice in Wonderlandish), and the inserted frames that indicate the transformations add to the film’s discontinuous nature, the style of the film. But this isn’t that great an exercise of power; it’s illusory, because it always leaves Modesty equally vulnerable under the changed appearance. It’s magic (there’s a lot of magic in this film, including a magic show), but it doesn’t amount to anything real or significant. Then there is the case of Modesty the Warrior Princess. (Willie, incidentally, refers to Modesty as “Princess” throughout.) In a knife fight in the streets, she is Willie’s partner and agile equal; but in another scene, where she brawls with a former lover intent on killing her, the mise-en-scène—the furniture in the man’s apartment over which the brawl occurs—represents the realistic forces arrayed against Modesty’s displays of prowess and power. Losey eschews giving the actress playing Modesty a stunt double, and the result emphasizes the effort it takes for Modesty to hold her own in the battle, let alone prevail. Later, in a war of words, in which she responds by calling him a psychopath, Gabriel delivers what he obviously regards as the most derisive epithet that he can hurl at Modesty: suffragette. It’s the kind of moment that irradiates an entire movie by clarifying the movie’s thematic disposition. The word suffragette identifies the fantastic Modesty with the real political efforts of women to achieve society’s recognition of their equality. Consider the film, then, a modest allegory in which the motive of Gabriel’s villainy is to keep Modesty Blaise, and the image of female power that she represents, squarely (or roundly) confined to the fantastic realm. At the same time, by presenting this image, the film’s motive is the opposite: to inspire actual people—those in the audience—to continue the struggle for the recognition of female equality. Despite its escapist garb, Modesty Blaise, like all of Losey’s films, is a political one.
Certainly this helps explain the heart-rousing quality that the film develops, not to mention its unexpected poignancy. Moreover, it brings complexity to the film’s major battle, the hand-to-hand combat between Modesty Blaise and Mrs. Fothergill. An exchange between the two, when Modesty is Gabriel’s prisoner, sets the scene. As she is often shown doing (for she is perpetually lying in wait), Modesty is reclining in bed. Mrs. Fothergill notes the tattoo that embellishes almost the entirety of one of Immodesty’s bare legs, including the thigh. With a fleeting sigh of complicity, Mrs. Fothergill—it’s now that the patriarchal pun of Gabriel’s last name fully weighs in—speaks: “Ah, Scorpio.” Modesty, matching tight smile for tight smile, replies, “I have a sting in my tail.” So does Mrs. Fothergill, another image of compensated-for vulnerability; she is, in effect, a dark projection of Modesty’s light. Mrs. Fothergill is powerful, like Modesty—but her power is at her husband’s behest. She is the female who becomes powerful by extending the male, who—at least this is so in Gabriel’s case—keeps her on an invisible short leash. Her battle with Modesty, therefore, when it comes, is sorely ironic. For once, we feel, Mrs. Fothergill is coming into her own, apart from Gabriel, but she is sufficiently tied to the structures of ideas that he represents that she fails to see in Modesty someone she ought to befriend, not battle. Their contest is for hope, then—the hope that female power, unlike so often, implicitly, male power, can function for good in the world.
One of the world’s greatest actresses and most beautiful women (and a person also blessed with an exceptionally high IQ), Monica Vitti plays Modesty. In its way, her performance here is every bit as superb as her legendary ones for Michelangelo Antonioni. Losey might have used a lesser actress and achieved some facsimile of the net result by moving this lesser actress through his mise-en-scène; but Vitti is sensitive and alert to the full range of possibilities in her role, and she expresses these in the identical balance that the filmmaker’s thematic intent pursues. She grounds her terrific icon of girl power in the humanity of the real woman that Modesty Blaise desires to become—and she is hilariously funny to boot. Hers is the finest acting by a film comedienne in nearly twenty years—since Marlene Dietrich’s in Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair (1948). One can carp about this or that (Vitti is Italian, while the original Modesty is from the Balkans), but this is a fabulous performance.
Terence Stamp plays Willie Garvin. While he musters a nice cackle, Stamp is deadwood. Rosella Falk, with whose work I’m unfamiliar, is a dandy Mrs. Fothergill, however.
The color cinematographer is Jack Hildyard (Summertime, 1955; The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957; The Sundowners, 1960).
Apart from everything else, Modesty Blaise is gorgeous.
And intoxicating. (“Champagne! Champagne!”)
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Tags: Joseph Losey