Harold Pinter (uncredited)
by Peter O’Donnell
Modesty Blaise Ltd.
|20th Century Fox
|£1 million or $3 million
|$2.2 million (est. US/ Canada rentals) or $3 million
Modesty Blaise is a 1966 British spy-fi comedy film directed by Joseph Losey, produced by Joseph Janni, and loosely based on the popular comic strip Modesty Blaise by Peter O’Donnell, who co-wrote the original story upon which Evan Jones and Harold Pinter based their screenplay. It stars Monica Vitti as “Modesty”, opposite Terence Stamp as Willie Garvin and Dirk Bogarde as her nemesis Gabriel. The cast also includes Harry Andrews, Michael Craig, Alexander Knox, Rossella Falk, Clive Revill (in a dual role), and Tina Aumont. The film’s music was composed by Johnny Dankworth and the theme song, Modesty, sung by pop duo David and Jonathan. It was Vitti’s first English-speaking role.
The film’s production saw creative clashes between director Losey and Blaise creator O’Donnell over the vision of the final film, Losey wanting to create a “pop art“-inspired spoof of the spy movie craze prevalent at the time, in contrast to the relatively serious and grounded tone of the source material. As a result, the film heavily diverged from O’Donnell’s comics and story outline in many ways, and includes a number of non sequitur elements including avant garde-inspired editing and production design, musical numbers, and deliberate continuity errors.
Modesty Blaise was entered into the Cannes Film Festival, where it was nominated for a Palme d’Or. General critical reception was far more muted, with critics praising the visual style and off-beat tone, but criticizing the divergences from the source material, convoluted plot, and perceived “style over substance” direction. Critical reception continues to be mixed decades after release, but the film has gained a cult following.
After the assassination of one of their agents in Amsterdam, British Secret Service chief Sir Gerald Tarrant recruits former criminal mastermind Modesty Blaise to protect a shipment of diamonds en route to Abu Tahir, the Sheikh of a small Middle Eastern kingdom. The shipment has also attracted Gabriel, the head of a criminal organization that includes his accountant McWhirter and bodyguard Mrs. Fothergill. Modesty believes that Gabriel, who maintains a compound in the Mediterranean, is dead, but he reveals himself to her.
In exchange for an exclusive discount on the kingdom’s oil exports, the British government delivers periodic diamond shipments to the Sheikh. Blaise, who enjoys an ongoing love-hate relationship with law enforcement, is recruited not only for her competence, but because she is the Sheikh’s adopted daughter and thus trusted by him implicitly. Modesty agrees to the arrangement, on the condition that she is given total immunity by the British government and complete freedom to deliver the diamonds how she sees fit.
With Sir Gerald monitoring her from afar, Modesty travels to Amsterdam, where she reunites with her former lover Paul Hagen, a Secret Service agent and aide to Sir Gerald. She calls upon her longtime partner, Willie Garvin, who is reuniting with an old flame, Nicole, who may have information on Gabriel through her employer, an illusionist associated with him. Modesty narrowly survives several attempts on her life by Gabriel’s assassins, whose failure leads to their swift execution by the ruthless Mrs. Fothergill. Modesty continually toys with Hagen, first seducing him before stealing his gun and disappearing.
When Gabriel learns that Nicole is working with Modesty and Willie, he orders her assassinated. The illusionist sends thugs to have her killed, and they succeed when Modesty and Willie fail to intervene in time. Modesty and Willie set themselves up as live bait to draw Gabriel out, but find themselves pursued by Tarrant and a jilted Hagen, being briefly arrested before quickly escaping with the help of some smoke bombs. When Modesty attempts to identify and infiltrate the boat being used by Gabriel for the planned diamond theft, she is lured into a trap and captured. Gabriel reveals his true plan, to use Modesty as leverage to force Willie to steal the diamonds for him.
Willie reluctantly agrees to the arrangement, successfully stealing the diamonds from under Tarrant and Hagen’s noses. He and Modesty are subsequently taken to Gabriel’s island fortress, where they are promptly thrown into prison cells. Gabriel offers Modesty to join forces, but she refuses. Willie and Modesty manage to escape and kill Mrs. Fothergill, and signal their location to the Sheikh’s forces. The Sheikh leads his army to the island, leading to an all-out battle with Gabriel’s forces and ending in his capture and the diamonds reaching their intended owner.
In his desert camp, the Sheikh leaves Gabriel tied up outside to dehydrate. McWhirter suddenly appears in Highland dress to free his employer, though no one seems to notice or care. When the Sheikh asks Modesty what he can do for her, she asks for the diamonds. He responds by laughing boisterously and she seems to go along with it, but suddenly breaks the fourth wall by looking directly at the camera as the film ends in a freeze-frame shot.
- Monica Vitti as Modesty Blaise, a criminal mastermind with a love-hate relationship with the British Secret Service, who occasionally employ her and grant her immunity due to her immense talents.
- Terence Stamp as Willie Garvin, Modesty’s loyal Cockney sidekick with whom she has a “will they or won’t they” relationship that ends in mutual (possibly sarcastic) marriage proposals. Their relationship differs from the source material, where it is purely platonic.
- Dirk Bogarde as Gabriel, another criminal mastermind and Modesty’s equal, defined by camp mannerisms and a sensitivity to violence in spite of his ruthlessness.
- Harry Andrews as Sir Gerald Tarrant, the chief of the British Secret Service who has a begrudging respect for Modesty and acts as her liaison to the government.
- Michael Craig as Paul Hagen, a straight-laced agent of the British Secret Service and former lover of Modesty’s. He is an original character created for the film.
- Clive Revill as McWhirter & Sheik Abu Tahir, the former is Gabriel’s loyal and dogged Scottish accountant, and the latter is the once-deposed ruler of a small Middle Eastern kingdom and the informal foster father of Modesty, whom he calls his ‘son’. The latter character takes the role of Modesty’s mentor “Lob” from the original comics, and is otherwise an original character.
- Alexander Knox as The Minister, an anxious government bureaucrat tasked with protecting the Sheikh’s diamonds, a task is largely unsuited to and leaves to his subordinates.
- Rossella Falk as Mrs. Clara Fothergill (credited as Rosella Falk), Gabriel’s Amazonian bodyguard and chief of security, a psychopath who enjoys killing people to cure her boredom. She is loosely based on the more tough, muscular and thuggish character of the same name in O’Donnell’s source novel.
- Tina Aumont as Nicole (credited as Tina Marquand), Willie’s old flame now working as a magician’s assistant in Amsterdam. She becomes embroiled in her former lover’s schemes due to her employer’s connections to Gabriel. She is an original character created for the film.
- Michael Chow as Weng, Modesty’s loyal Chinese butler.
- Scilla Gabel as Melina
- Joe Melia as Crevier
- Saro Urzì as Basilio
- Oliver MacGreevy as Tattooed Man
- Jon Bluming as Hans
- Roberto Bisacco as Enrico
- John Karlsen as Oleg
- Robin Hunter as Pilot
- Robin Fox as Desmond
- Silvan as the illusionist