Today is Monica Vitti’s 88th birthday, and I decided to celebrate by watching again the 1966 movie Modesty Blaise, based on Peter O’Donnell’s character of the same name.
Now two things I need to make clear: I always loved Monica Vitti, and I always found the Modesty Blaise movie hard to digest.
And it is weird, because we are talking a film directed by a giant of British cinema, Joseph Losey, and featuring a cast that includes not only Monica Vitti, but also Terence Stamp, Dirk Bogarde, Harry Andrews and Clive Revill. The problems are others. First, much as Monica Vitti’s voice has always been one of her assets, her accent stops very soon being exotic, and turns out to be just irritating (but that’s just me). Much more important, to me, is the general campiness of the set-up. Now the Modesty Blaise comics and novels were never high literature, but the movie does at time try too hard.
But hey, celebration day, so on we go with Modesty Blaise, 1966.
Because as I was checking online for information about that old movie, I stumbled on a 2004 movie in which no less than Quentin Tarantino was involved – My name is Modesty, a Modesty Blaise Adventure.
And so I said to myself – why rewatch an old movie, when I can watch a new one I never saw?
My name is Modesty was directed by Scott Spiegel, that had served in a number of roles behind and in front of the camera with Sam Raimi. He was also the director of From Dusk Till Dawn II. He was also the screenwriter om Evil Dead II, and The Rookie, featuring Clint Eastwood, among many others.
And he is, quite clearly, a master in doing the most with very limited budgets – which brings us to My Name is Modesty, a shoestring production, 78 minutes shot in 18 days in Bucarest so that Miramax could retain the rights on the character. Hack work, but quality hack work.
An adventure movie with very little adventure in it, it does give us Modesty Blaise’s origin story, updating the post-WWII setting to the present, with references to the Balkan war. Most of the movie is told in flashback as Modesty (played by British actress Alexandra Staden, that makes a nice job of being beautiful and subtly menacing) buys time as she’s held prisoner by Miklos, an unusually sympathetic bad guy (Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau).
Limited to one set and very basic outdoor locations, Spiegel makes a great job of keeping things interesting by placing the camera in the right place, and if this is a real no-budget venture that went directly to DVD, it still makes for a good pilot for a series that never was – and it’s a pity it never was.
So yes, this movie is certainly part of the Raiders of the Lost Franchise series.
It is also a nice study of how a character for an adventure series can be built by mixing history and a bit of pulp implausibility.
Low on action and very talky, the movie still manages to provide at least two great scenes, a snappy line of dialog or two, and opens with the scene straight from O’Donnell’s memoir about how he invented the character.
It also features a very brutal and believable fight between a man and a woman, no holds barred – something we do not see often on the screen.
All in all, My name is Modesty is missed opportunity, but still the sort of movie that makes one think about what-might-have-beens.
A series with this level of directorial quality and underlying cynicism would be refreshing, and might have a certain success.
And now I will have to re-watch the old Monica Vitti flick.