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“We must try to be more conspicuous!”
– Monica Vitti,  Modesty Blaise

A typical scene in Modesty Blaise (Joseph Losey, 1966) takes place in a hip Amsterdam nightspot. A darkly epicene illusionist (Aldo Silvan) folds a white linen napkin and transforms it into a fluttering white dove. He turns the dove into a white walking stick, while his two assistants – one blonde (Scilla Gabel) and one dark (Tina Aumont) – wander about the club and crack eggs into the drinks and over the heads of the patrons. The illusionist promises to show the crowd “the most amazing of tricks.” But we never do see what the pay-off is or if, indeed, there is a pay-off at all. Soon we move out of the club and off to the next photogenically Mod location. The egg theme continues, in another guise, when the camp gay villain (Dirk Bogarde) insists that he can tell – at a single glance – if the egg he has been served for breakfast has been fertilised or not.

To put it more simply, Modesty Blaise is one of those films where a whirlwind of decorative and stylistic excess subsumes any impulse towards narrative of any sort. Earlier examples might be A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle, 1935) or The Tales of Hoffmann (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1951); a later one, perhaps, would be Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola, 1992). These films are so deliciously overblown and overstuffed that they literally leave no room for a plot. The story in Modesty Blaise is some flimsy nonsense about a cache of diamonds being shipped to some Middle Eastern potentate – and the assorted criminal types who are out to steal them. It matters not at all if the jewels actually get to where they are going. The only scenes that flat-out do not work are the ones in which a couple of gents in Savile Row suits (Michael Craig and Harry Andrews) crop up and make vain efforts to explain what is going on.

So what does matter? One moment of utmost importance occurs when our heroine (Monica Vitti) – once a master criminal, now a sort of female James Bond – walks along a canal in Amsterdam in a bright canary yellow mini-dress. She passes in front of a billboard in clashing shades of red and blue. The whole image is reflected in the canal and churned up by the ripples from a passing boat into an Abstract Expressionist swirl of primary colours. Later on she meets the white suited, blonde-wigged villain for lunch on board his yacht. Modesty too is a vision in white, swathed in a ruffled white chiffon cape that might have been stolen off an extra in Giulietta degli spiriti/Juliet of the Spirits (Federico Fellini, 1965). Her wrists are encased in gold bracelets that suggest some Space Age suit of armour. Her hair is piled high atop her head in a mountain of gold curls. The villain – ever fastidious – says he would prefer her hair in another style. She smiles at him graciously and her hair changes style in the very next shot.

In so doing, Modesty Blaise is reinventing our idea of what a modern-day hero is or might be. Her very existence seems like a response to the lament – expressed, most eloquently, by Gore Vidal in Myra Breckinridge – about the lack of any plausible heroes in our post-nuclear but pre-apocalyptic age. “At best, there is James Bond,” says Myra, “and he invariably ends up tied to a slab of marble with a blowtorch aimed at his crotch.”1 The one and only plausible answer to that is to spawn a new breed of hero, one whose heroism does not in any way depend upon the possession of a set of male genitals. In a way that anticipates the transgender Myra by two years (Vidal published his novel in 1968) the heroine of Modesty Blaise transcends our most basic assumptions about sex and gender. Blending the body of a Botticelli Venus with the face of a sculpture by Brâncuşi, she embodies both flamboyant femininity and macho derring-do. It seems only natural that an Arab sheik (Clive Revill) should refer to Modesty as “my son.”

In the final scene, the sheik parades with her proudly through his remote desert encampment. She is draped in the dazzling white robes of an Arab youth, a fetching but more convincingly masculine echo of Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962) or Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik (George Melford, 1921). At the same time, we see her soon-to-be husband – played by a roguish and girlishly pretty Terence Stamp – being stripped naked and bathed in fresh goat’s milk by a group of women shrouded from head to foot in black burqas. She is the groom, he is the bride and all is as it should be. The villain, stripped of both his dignity and his wig, lies staked out beneath a roasting desert sun. Forlornly he cries out to the heavens: “Champagne! Champagne!” But he seems most unlikely to get it, even at the absurdly lavish wedding that is due to take place.

To watch or to write seriously about a film like Modesty Blaise is to ingest, in its most heady and concentrated form, the living essence of Camp as it was defined in the 60s by Susan Sontag. “The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious” writes Sontag. “More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to ‘the serious.’ One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.”2 One of the greatest and most radical film artists of that decade, Joseph Losey lavishes no less of his brilliance on Modesty Blaise than he does on the Marxist class analyses of The Servant (1963) or Accident (1967) or the anti-war polemic of King and Country (1964). Constructing a new sensibility or a new style is as serious a business as any. Various eggs – or plots or genres – may get broken to smithereens in the process. We watch and hold our breath to see what will come out of them.

Modesty Blaise (1966 UK 119 mins)

Prod. Co: 20th Century Fox Prod: Joseph Janni Dir: Joseph Losey Scr: Evan Jones, Harold Pinter (uncredited) based on the comic strip by Peter O’Donnell Phot: Jack Hildyard Mus: Johnny Dankworth Ed: Reginald Beck 

Cast: Monica Vitti, Terence Stamp, Dirk Bogarde, Clive Revill, Michael Craig, Harry Andrews, Rossella Falk, Alexander Knox, Scilla Gabel, Tina Aumont

Endnotes

  1. Gore Vidal, Myra Breckinridge & Myron, Grafton Books, London, 1989, pp. 35-35.
  2. Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp’” in Against Interpretation, Vintage, London, 1994, p.288.

About The Author

David Melville teaches Film Studies and Literature at the University of Edinburgh. He is currently working on a book on Cinema and Queer Spectatorship.

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