Modesty Blaise (1966): a female Bond misfire?

17 JULY 2023

JBC rating: **

James Bond Connections (1):

  • Featuring actor Michael Chow (Spectre 4 in You Only Live Twice) as Modesty’s manservant Weng.

The 1966 spy movie Modesty Blaise, an adaptation of Peter O’Donnell’s popular British cartoon strip, was an attempt by 20th Century Fox to create a female-led rival to the EON James Bond franchise. O’Donnell’s Modesty was a former international criminal who, with her platonic partner in crime cockney Londoner Willie Garvin, finds occasional employment with British Intelligence, for whose M-like superior Sir Gerald Tarrant they perform special assignments. Given the 007-flavour of the comic strip, it was inevitable Peter O’Donnell’s creation would be filmed following the James Bond fuelled mid-1960s spy mania. Indeed, there is considerable overlap between both worlds, especially in Modesty’s conception. In his reference work Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2017), crime author and historian Mike Ripley explains how Modesty emerged in 1963 as a potential replacement to the popular Daily Express 007 strip after the latter was abruptly cancelled by newspaper owner Lord Beaverbrook, incensed by Ian Fleming’s decision to sell his new 007 short story ‘The Living Daylights’ to rival newspaper the Sunday Times. The Modesty Blaise strip eventually found publication in the then London Evening Standard and quickly grew in popularity.

The mid-60s film production was filled with promise, with a serious art-house director in American Joseph Losey and featuring international stars Monica Vitti (above, left), Terence Stamp and Dirk Bogarde. The movie was an adaptation of a treatment by O’Donnell which he would transform into the first Modesty novel in time for the film’s release. Sadly, and perhaps reflecting the fact they were working before the Modesty character had been fully realised in novel form, the filmmakers erred dramatically by attempting to adapt O’Donnell’s spy fantasy into a surreal spoof of the Bond phenomenon. Unfortunately, the messy results have much in common with the similarly disastrous Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967) released the following year. However, as with the 1967 film, Modesty Blaise retains significant cultural value.

GOING DOWN IN A BLAISE

According to Edith Rohm’s 1994 biography Joseph Losey, writer (and frequent Losey collaborator) writer Evan Jones’ adaptation of O’Donnell’s treatment was essentially for a straight action-adventure movie in the spy fantasy spirit of the comic strip. However, early in production Losey decided to re-write Jones’ work himself as a high camp satire of the spy genre and 1960s culture. While Losey’s ambitions we’re probably doomed by such a radical change so late in the day, he was undoubtedly further thwarted by a chaotic production process. Monica Vitti struggled performing in her first English language film. After she enlisted the help of her then partner Michelangelo Antonioni, Losey faced the awkward position of his star being passed notes on set by another world-famous film director.


The film opens with the UK government enlisting the youthful Modesty Blaise to transport a consignment of diamonds worth £50,000,000 to help shore up the friendly Sheik of an ex-British colony somewhere in the Arab world. Previous attempts having been foiled by an unknown enemy, Sir Gerald tells Modesty he wishes to use her as an outsider and utilise her criminal contacts. Modesty insists on using her right-hand man Willie Garvin, well played by a young and darkly handsome Terence Stamp (above, right). Together they soon realise Sir Gerald, unable to trust them with the real diamonds, simply wishes to use them as decoys. Modesty and Willie decide to continue trying to track down the enemy but in the hope of securing at least some of the diamonds for themselves.

Monica Vitti has some fun as Modesty, particularly during the comedic scenes, including an ingenious escape from assassins in Amsterdam by disguising herself as a window shop prostitute. Later, while boarding Gabriel’s yacht, she eagerly joins a group of youths dancing to a diegetic version of the Modesty theme song. However, the film provides her with few opportunities to impress as a professional spy. Unfortunately, the thin storyline provides the star with limited agency. Also, the action set-pieces are limited by the budget and Vitti is given little opportunity to show much fighting prowess in the never more than competently staged fights. Unlike the action stars of today, it was unusual for many actors in the 1960s to be given much training ahead of filming and Vitti is a pale version of the deadly Modesty featured in other media.

The chief villain is soon revealed as Modesty’s old foe Gabriel Fothegill, expertly played by English star Dirk Bogarde (above) in a performance doing much to hold the film together. Introduced returning to his centre of operations amongst a semi-ruined monastery on an island in the Adriatic Sea, Gabriel is greeted by his staff like a returning demi-God. Sporting a white wig, sinister looking Op-art sunglasses and various silk dressing gowns, Gabriel remains spectacularly camp yet menacing throughout. Remaining a Donald Pleasance-style button pusher for most of the film, his dislike of violence even extends to being visibly squeamish when hearing boiling lobsters scream. Gabriel only gets physically violent at the climax when, following the death of a close companion, he suddenly removes his white wig and desperately hunts for Modesty and Willie.

The film remains highly controversial amongst Modesty Blaise fans due to the fact Modesty and Willie, platonic elsewhere in the series, become lovers halfway through the film. Likewise, the film goes off the rails toward the end with the nadir involving some ill-considered musical numbers. Bursting into song while under attack at the climax, Modesty and Willie’s warbling totally undercuts any tension from the last-minute amphibious assault on Gabriel’s Island. Arguably highbrow director Joseph Losey erred by trying to find deeper meaning in the film beyond a potentially entertaining spy fantasy. While a Terence Young or a Guy Hamilton may not have produced a masterpiece, they would have at the very least produced a solidly entertaining film (something similar to Fathom released the following year). Perhaps this should serve as a warning to the many Bond fans hoping EON will turn to an auteur to direct the next instalment.

ANTICIPATING CASINO ROYALE [1967]

Unfortunately, Modesty Blaise shares several similarities with the disastrous James Bond spoof Casino Royale released the following year. Indeed, both began as attempts to faithfully adapt straight action-adventure source material (with first drafts for the latter written by Ben Hecht, famous for scribing Hitchcock’s Notorious) before unsuccessfully re-thinking this approach to attempt a parody. Both were further impacted by a chaotic production process, with a troublesome lead actor and a repeatedly rewritten screenplay. That Modesty Blaise survived with just one director (as opposed to six for Casino Royale) and the fact Monica Vitti, for all her troubles, didn’t depart mid-production like Peter Sellers would, is probably what elevates this above the 1967 film. Whilst both films remain visually arresting – here production designer Richard McDonald’s often surrealistic, frequently bizarre Op-Art inspired sets fully support Losey’s high camp vision – the lack of a coherent and engaging story has lead to the film never finding a popular audience. However, while the 2006 EON masterpiece would finally give 007 fans a faithful adaptation of a brilliant novel, devotees of Peter O’Donnell’s frequently wonderful Modesty Blaise novels are yet to be gifted a movie worthy of such a great heroine.

As with so many other attempts to create a rival spy move franchise, perhaps one cause for the failure of Modesty Blaise was the lack of an established series of novels from which to base a cinematic adventure. With access to even just a couple of novels fleshing out the characters from the cartoon series, perhaps the filmmakers would have remained faithful to the spirit of the source material. Frustratingly, whereas Ian Fleming arguably wrote four novels before perfecting the 007 blend with From Russia with Love (1956), Peter O’Donnell managed to crystallise the Modesty Blaise formula with just his second book – Sabre Tooth (1966) – a superlative Middle East-set action adventure. Had a film been attempted just a few years later the results might have been very different. As it is, whilst the cinematic Modesty Blaise remains a curious 1960s artefact, the comic strip and the frequently brilliant novels remain a neglected yet potentially fruitful source material for any film producer wanting to create their own (female-led) Bond-style spy franchise. Modesty fans continue to live in hope…

Have you seen Modesty Blaise or read any of Peter O’Donnell’s novels? Please leave a comment or an alternative review below.

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