Humor is supposed to be a great leveler, but it is also among the most potentially divisive of predilections. While anything can be funny, generally our responses are very contingent and personal. In the mid-sixties romp Modesty Blaise, the notoriously humorless Joseph Losey at least seems to think he is making something funny, and if you are attuned to his sensibility (I fear I am), there is much to enjoy. I suspect, however, that for every viewer who laughs at the ludicrous excess there are probably two or three who are bewildered, even offended by it.
Based on the comic book character, Modesty is one of those ’60s episodic crime adventures that combine blatant artifice, contrived scenarios and larger-than-life antagonists. Monica Vitti is the indefatigable heroine, temporarily seconded from a life of high crime to help the British secret service deliver a load of diamonds to an Arab potentate. The arch villain of the piece is Gabriel (Dirk Bogarde), whose flaming performance sets the bizarre tone, taking every opportunity to play up the story’s most ridiculous and twisted implausibilities with equally baroque results.
For example, the villainess Mrs. Fothergill (Rosella Falk) is a repulsive dominatrix well dispatched, but when she is hung and her body unexpectedly rises in the air behind Gabriel as he spins out his nefarious fantasies, is it funny? Or what about his reaction when he’s told that a minor character (named Borg) has drowned? Looking at the seafood prepared for his breakfast, Gabriel asks “How can I eat lobster when the lobsters are eating Borg?” Neither the perversity of the former nor the delicious camp of the latter seem likely to please anyone expecting light frivolity or, alternatively, the rapid forward movement of an adventure film.
That such queasily loaded material was considered potentially popular can partly be attributed to when the film was made. A cross between the sleek violence of the Connery Bond epics and the experiments going on in the 1960s art film world, it was not a modest production. Several big names make it more than experimental doodling. In addition to Vitti, at the peak of her fame and Bogarde, who worked frequently with Losey, such familiar faces as Terence Stamp, Harry Andrews and Alexander Knox also padded the payroll. Nor is it modest technically, with outlandish Op Art sets, multiple locations and a change of wardrobe for Vitti in virtually every sequence. In short, even if you hate it, Modesty Blaise has to be recognized as a polished, glossy effort.
Yet, for all the shiny surfaces, it is easy to think much of what goes on is more ugly than fun. If Modesty Blaise feels almost like a private joke, maybe that is because Losey just did not know how to deliver on the expectations raised by the intermittent flashes of perverse wit.