Modesty Blaise was pretty much a female James Bond, but using her many talents to financially criminal ends. The character started out in a daily comic strip in a London evening newspaper in 1962, but soon gained international popularity. It was lavishly adapted as a comedy action film in 1966.
I really wish it was good and I even re-watch it, thinking I must have been wrong before, but it always disappoints. It fits into two sub-genres of '60s movies I really enjoy. The first, lightweight comedy spy flicks – the ones Austin Powers movies reference – like Our Man Flint or Casino Royale (1967) and secondly, comic strip adaptations. Back then, they were a more varied bunch than the endless Marvel Comics franchises twe’re choking on at the moment – like Batman (1966), Barbarella (1968), or Danger: Diabolik.
Unfortunately, Modesty Blaise is the least watchable in both camps, despite having enough talent to have made it the best of the bunch. With the acclaimed Joseph Losey directing, one would expect something daring and gritty. The Servant, King and Country, and Accident (all also starring Dirk Bogarde) are all heralded British films critics agree are the work of an auteur. But they forget to mention Losey’s disastrous lapses in the same era, Modesty Blaise and Boom! (often called Elizabeth Taylor’s worst movie).
The cast is high calibre and game for a laugh. Monica Vitti as Modesty uncannily looks the part of the comic strip heroine, and is also devastatingly glamorous and a natural comedy actress to boot, despite performing for the first time in English. She'd previously only starred in Italian films, including the highbrow L'Avventura (1961) for director Michelangelo Antonioni. Modesty's sidekick, Willie, is played by Terence Stamp, also at his sultry sexiest in the late sixties. Dirk Bogarde almost manages to rein in his campiest ever performance, as blond arch-villain Gabriel. Clive Revill has a dual role as a bookkeeping henchman and an Arab sheik.
To digress for a second – it’s sad when talented actors are hot one moment and then dropped the next. For instance, Clive Revill was great in comedies, often playing Russians, and could hold his own as a lead (The Legend of Hell House) but disappeared from cinema to do occasional American TV parts, where he still does high-profile voiceover work in animation. I guess his turn as the voice of the Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back changed his career.
Michael Craig, too, here playing an MP being twisted around Modesty’s little finger, was a familiar face in '60s movies. He led the castaways in Mysterious Island (1960), but his film career was buried alive with Vault of Horror (1973), and he’s been working on stage and TV ever since.