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Modesty Blaise: Princess of Spy-fi

For those of you who saw my previous post you'll know that the 1966 classic camp film, Modesty Blaise, was shown in the early morning hours on AMC. The film, based on the eponymous character of a long-running British comic strip, is of the so bad it's bad variety. But even so, this relatively obscure movie that inspires a love-it-or-hate-it reaction, as well as the enigmatic Modesty Blaise herself, has influenced subsequent gems of popular culture including the visual style of Austin Powers, the origin story of X-Men's Ororo Munroe, and the ass-kicking women of Kill Bill.

Modesty was a groundbreaking and progressive character that rivaled the other Spy-Fi icons she was so often compared to, but she remains relatively unknown to the American side of the pond and is increasingly distanced from her native audience.

 

 

So in brief, Modesty Blaise debuted in England in 1963 and she appeared in newspaper strips and novels for over 40 years – all written by her creator Peter O'Donnell. She was born out of glamour girl news strips and British espionage stories — but Modesty is neither a nearly-naked ditz, nor, as she has often erroneously been called, a "female Bond." She is one of the great literary characters of the 20th Century.

Modesty Blaise is a survior, a force of nature, an ex-crime boss, and a loyal friend. Her backstory was inspired by a moving encounter O'Donnell had with a young female refugee while he was stationed in Persia during World War II. O'Donnell never forgot her, and it was this girl's brave spirit he channeled into Modesty's fictional past.

Modesty, then, is a refugee from Hungary, whose parents were killed — a tragedy that resulted in amnesia for the homeless child. She traveled alone for over a year until she met a Jewish man in his fifties named Lob at a displaced persons camp. The odd pair adopted each other and traveled the Middle East together. Lob died when Modesty was 17. She buried him in the desert and moved on, once again alone, to the city of Tangiers.

There she worked the roulette table at a casino owned by a man named Henri Louche, who also ran a crime gang. On the night of Louche's murder by a rival gang, a 19-year-old Modesty took over his organization. She rallied Louche's employees and built up the small time gang into a global syndicate called "The Network." But while the underworld was their playground, Modesty had her own sense of morality, which governed their dealings. She made sure The Network never dealt in vice; those who disobeyed this rule through the sale of drugs, women, or children were either delivered to the authorities or their graves.

While in Saigon on Network business, Modesty came across a man named Willie Garvin who became Modesty's right arm in The Network, and her closest companion. "Princess" was what he, and he alone, would always call her.

Modesty and Willie have one of the most unique relationships in popular culture. They're soul mates; inseparable and symbiotic. They trust and know one another completely, but they aren't lovers. They've never indulged in a sexual relationship — never will. The additional fact that they are both sexy as hell, and yet have absolutely no sexual interest in each other makes them fascinating, and progressive, partners.

The pair have been called "criminals with hearts of gold," a description which is only partly true, as when we first meet them, Modesty and Willie are retired from crime (at the age of 26 Modesty decided she had more money than she'd ever need, and where she goes Willie Garvin follows). More accurately, they've always walked a fine line between criminality and heroism — always leaning towards the moral side, if not necessarily the legal one. The deadly duo work hard, taking out dangerous criminals, drug dealers, and diabolical masterminds through a combination of martial arts, money, connection & influence, ingenuity and verve. But they also play hard — a tough caper might be alleviated by a turtle race in the ocean, or perhaps a go-cart ride at dawn. Few have the skills to live so confidently — and the world truly is the oyster of Blaise and Garvin. Though they live lives of leisure they still need adventure every now and then; they crave danger, intrigue, problem-solving, and hand-to-hand combat. Fortunately, as a result of their past dealings, trouble usually finds them.

For those who are interested, Titan Books has been re-releasing the strips in collected format. Several of the novels can still be tracked down too.

The movie (oh, the movie) is available on DVD.

 

 

 

Directed by Joseph Losey, Modesty Blaise was released in 1966 to lukewarm reception. O'Donnell, who'd written the original script, claims it makes his nose bleed just to think of it.

Perhaps this is because rather than remaining true to the script, or even the spirit of the characters, Losey decided to instead create a high-spectacle parody of spy-fi film and television of the era. As if you couldn't glean this yourselves from the trailer! "Priestess of camp! Princess of love!" indeed!

The resulting humor and style was less James Bond and more Our Man Flint — the latter of which was also released in 1966.

The stunningly beautiful Monica Vitti, known for her roles in films directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, played our heroine Modesty.

 

Terence Stamp starred as Willie Garvin (and in a bit of trivia, the comic book physique of Willie was modeled after Stamp's once flat mate, Michael Caine). Dirk Bogarde filled the role of the villain, Gabriel.

Even if one can separate the film from the source material and accept it as its own entity, it's still a bit of a train wreck. Now, usually I can appreciate a train wreck (as readers will no doubt discover throughout the rest of the Summer) but psychedelic op-art, poorly choreographed fight scenes, embarrassingly obvious stunt doubles, abundant and inexplicable costume and wig changes (if also fabulous fashion), and Stamp's cockney-accented duet with Vitti about whether or not they should have slept together (all while she licks an enormous ice cream cone) is much too much proverbial twisted metal.

The possibility of Modesty Blaise as a successful film franchise in film was dead on the tracks.

Though it would have been wonderful to have a female action hero starring in her own series of films, all was not lost. Peter O'Donnell was able to use the story he had done for the original film script for the first in what would become a series of 11 novels and 2 collections of short stories detailing Modesty and Willie's capers, exploits, and adventures—even their demise.

Additionally, since Losey's Modesty Blaise, several prominent creators of popular culture have expressed interest in making a filmic adaptation that would remain truer to its source. Sandman creator Neil Gaiman has glowingly said, "I fell in love with Peter O'Donnell's astonishing heroine, Modesty Blaise, when I was twelve," adding that as he grew up he "also came to admire the craft with which she was brought to the world, the lunatic skills of her creator, and, last of all, I found the comic strips, where she started, and discovered just how much of what I loved about Modesty was there from the beginning...." Gaiman wrote a treatment for the novel, I, Lucifer, and apparently even started actual script work. Luc Besson was rumored to direct the picture.

Quentin Tarantino, a long-time fan of Modesty Blaise (his mom is too!), was rumored to direct the film version of another novel, A Taste For Death — an intense, emotional, improbable, paranormal, and wicked deadly story that would have been a fitting venture for the frenetic auteur—but unfortunately the project has never come to fruition. (Though we can certainly see her attitude and resourcefulness in The Bride, as well as some of the visual style from Losey's film in Kill Bill.)

Tarantino, however, was tangentially involved in a B-movie made for Mirmax in effort to retain the rights to the character. My Name is Modesty (2004) was shot over 18 days in Bucharest, Romania – with no reshoots. It was directed by Tarantino's occasional cohort, Scott Spiegel, and features an original story that O'Donnell was consulted on. It centers on the night Henri Louche is murdered at his casino and how a young Modesty manages to save a group of hostages from similar demise. Alexandra Staten plays a convincing Modesty by conveying the essential characteristics we'd hope to see in a filmic embodiment; compassion, resolve, wile, bravery, and yes, of course, ass-kicking.

 

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So did you catch Modesty Blaise on AMC? Have you seen it before? What, readers, do you think about this woman who is "The female answer to Julius Cesar, Gengis Kahn, and those others who burn cities to save civilization. . . . In love, a blaze of passion. In action, a blaze of fury. In dress, a blaze of elegance. In all things, Modesty."?

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Comments

15 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Can't Wait to See it

I have this tivo'ed, but I am super-excited to see it, even if it is cheese-tastic!

Thank you!

Thank you for such an in-depth blog post! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and am looking forward to your future posts. I would really like to review your book for the Feminist Review. I haven't seen Modesty Blaise, but I netflixed it because of your entry. How would you compare Modesty to Honey West? Your post also reminded me of the first chapter in Anne Billson's BFI book on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She tries to place Buffy within a cinematically historical context by comparing her to '60s feminist icons like Diana Rigg in The Avengers and such.

My Pleasure!

I could go on and on about Modesty Blaise! She's cool, she's capable, she's emotionally complex, smart, talented, resourceful, sophisticated, and gorgeous.

I'd LOVE to have you review the book. It will be published in the US in January and I've yet to find out about review copies but I'll get back to you. (If I don't please remind me. I also have a Facebook Page for book updates.)

Actually, Billson's book on Buffy was how I first heard about Modesty (and Honey, too) and my friend, Roz Kaveney - who has also done work on Buffy - encouraged me to explore her history.

I actually did a short piece for the Noir issue of Bitch on Honey West and I would say that Modesty as a literary character is more interesting than Honey. The Fickling books are good for what they are, but O'Donnell is a much better storyteller. Honey West the television series is better than the Modesty movie, but even though Anne Francis was fabu, sexy-tough, and glamorous the show wasn't very deep. Regardless, she was the first action heroine on American television as the Cathy Gale episodes of The Avengers never aired in the United States and the Emma Peel episodes began airing after Honey West appeared. (Have you read Hardboiled and High Heeled? - Totally recommend it if you are interested in Honey).

I actually had a lot of content on spy-fi women in the book that needed to be cut for space, but you've inspired me to think that I should do a series for my own blog on proto-femininst women of retro-TV!

Jennifer K. Stuller
[email protected]
http://www.ink-stainedamazon.com/

Spy-Fi is Good-Fi

I joined the FB page and added you as a friend! Us feminist film nerds need to stick together.

I like Anne Billson's book, though I don't think I've ever read a book on Buffy that I'm completely happy with. The first chapter is actually my favorite part and I was also introduced to Honey West that way! I didn't know you wrote that piece about Honey West. I'm really looking forward to seeing Modesty Blaise. I'll keep your insights in mind when I watch it. I haven't read Hardboiled and High Heeled yet, but it's on my list. I'm starting to read female detective fiction/feminist pulp by the likes of Vera Caspary and Dorothy B. Hughes. I thoroughly enjoy comparing the books to the movies as I'm a bit of a noir freak.

You should definitely do a series! That would be just too cool. Over the last year or so, I've been trying to get over my TV snobbery in order to find great female characters. I think a series like that would be very beneficial!

Feminist Film Nerds

DO need to stick together! As my cocktail napkins wisely say "Smart Women Crave Good Company." ;-)

I agree that the first chapter of Billson's book was the most interesting. As for critical books on Buffy, perhaps your disappointment comes from the fact that many of them are anthologies? For the most part I quite like Reading the Vampire Slayer, and I also like Lorna Jowett's Sex and the Slayer.

Ah. TV snobbery. I have to tell you that though I grew up with pop culture I also went through a phase where I was quite the snob about low culture vs. high culture. But then I found that if I was to learn anything about humanity, history, and indeed culture, I had to get over my prejudices. And you know what? I've found value and pleasure in a really bad piece of work! In fact, as I argue in my book and elsewhere, some of the most interesting female characters can be found in some of the most problematic film and television.

As for great female characters on television I love Sydney Bristow, Max Guevara, Buffy Summers, Zoe Washburne (and really anything Gina Torres does), Jaime Sommers (the original Bionic Woman), Wonder Woman, Xena & Gabrielle, Olivia Dunham, Veronica Mars, Jane Tennison, Sarah Jane Smith, Alex Drake, Guinan, Cathy Gale, Mrs. Emma Peel, Dana Scully, Rose Tyler, and Donna Noble - you know, just to name a few! ;-) If you're interested, I talk about this a little bit more over here.

Thanks for joining the group page for the book!

BTW - If you enjoy noir and haven't read it yet, I recommend finding some Ms. Tree. I also wrote about her for the Noir issue.

Jennifer K. Stuller
[email protected]
http://www.ink-stainedamazon.com/

YES! I'm a relative newbie

YES! I'm a relative newbie to comics and have been looking for new series to check out. I will definitely get some Modesty Blaise. The stories sound great and the art looks really good too. Thanks Ink-Stained Amazon!

My Work is Done!

FINALLY!

I am so glad that someone finally did a piece about Modesty Blaise in the US. I was first turned on O'Donnell's work when my college roommate showed me the books. (Oddly, she was an intern doing research for Ridley Scott's production team, because he was interested in producing a film) I am so glad that she did because Blaise can have sex without being a whore, she can kickass without being a "bitch" and she can ask for help without being a damsel in distress.

I just wish more women, who like mysteries or spy novels, or just liked strong female characters, would be exposed to her!

Whoa - this looks awesome!

Whoa - this looks awesome! Thanks for sharing this - I just put 10 of the graphic novels on hold at the library.

Great post on Modesty -

Great post on Modesty - thank you!

I have to add for those who are new to Modesty and are about to watch either of the films or read the comics, that the series of novels represent, IMO, Peter O'Donnell's best work. I highly recommend the first novel, Modesty Blaise (penned by POD after his screenplay was changed beyond recognition -- only six of his original lines remained) for a great intro to the characters, and then the second and fourth books in the series, Sabre Tooth and A Taste for Death.
Don't let the 1966 film put you off checking these out!!! Modesty is an incomparable character.

And to the person who's looking for great female characters on TV: have you seen the BBC series Ashes to Ashes? Keely Hawes' character (the lead) is a wonderfuly strong role.

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