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.
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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