Film, Spies, Spy 100 Project

Spy 100, #85: Modesty Blaise

March 21, 2010

Wow.  Okay.  So…Modesty Blaise (1966).  Wow.  Hmm.  This one is…uh…wow.

So these British spies, in order to secure a favorable oil deal with some Arabs, arrange to send them a huge shipment of diamonds.  When their top man is killed, they’re forced to bring in notorious free agent spy Modesty Blaise (Monica Vitti).  Her job…I think…is to protect the diamonds, chiefly from the villainous Gabriel (Dirk Bogarde), who is planning to intercept them.  Blaise brings in her friend, thief Willie Garvin (Terence Stamp), to help her.  They go to Amsterdam, some stuff happens, they seduce some informants, more stuff happens, they go to the Mediterranean, there’s a shipboard heist, and a final confrontation, and two hours later the movie is over.

So, yeah.  Wow.  Modesty Blaise.  Opening the review with a plot summary is probably just the wrong idea.  This one isn’t about the finished meal, it’s about the ingredients.  And the ingredients are actually kind of fun.  Modesty Blaise is campy, technicolor weirdness to the nth degree.  It’s a loopy spy fantasy full of psychedelic cintematography, mod fashions, eye candy, spontaneous musical numbers, outrageous sets and costumes, visual non sequiturs, and gleeful 1960’s-ness.  And the WTF factor is off-the-charts.  I mean, it’s got mimes, calliopes, marionettes, freakish street carnivals…sets are painted like M.C. Escher on acid…Blaise’s outfits and hair color change spontaneously from cut to cut…the humorously affected Bogarde drinks fruity beverages with goldfish swimming in them, and has a ridiculous assortment of pastel sun umbrellas.  It’s the kind of film that Austin Powers was lampooning, even as it’s not taking itself seriously.

But if you’re looking for the ingredients to add up to a nourishing meal, forget about it.  The unique oddness of the film is fun for maybe half an hour, before its relentless incoherence starts to grow tedious.  Its sense of humor is bizarre, and often impenetrable.  It felt a little bit like watching an extended episode of The Monkeesreally extended.  At two hours, it’s way too long to sustain its zany stream-of-conscious momentum.  The climactic battle scene on Gabriel’s remote Mediterranean island overstays its welcome by several cavalry charges.

In the end, I can only think this one made the list for sheer novelty value, or maybe was inserted as a respite from the genre’s steady stream of dark, twisty mindbenders.  But even so, it still seems an odd choice.  If you’re having a party, and there’s alcohol involved, this might be an amusing, drunken conversation piece.  It is fun to look at, after all — for its attractive cast, outrageous look, and beautiful international scenery.  But if you’re looking for a great spy movie, by all means look elsewhere!

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