One of the United Kingdom's top agents has been on assignment abroad in Amsterdam, but has suffered a rather major mishap when he was obliterated in an explosion, only his battered hat surviving. The powers that be in London decide there is only one person to continue that mission, and she will have to be brought in from the outside: international jewel thief Modesty Blaise (Monica Vitti) who has no qualms about working for whoever pays her the highest amount. With fifty million in diamonds at stake, which could end up in her possession if she plays her cards right, she accepts the offer and sets about investigating who is behind the criminal goings-on. Could it be evil mastermind Gabriel (Dirk Bogarde)?
Scriptwriter Evan Jones adapted the pulp fiction heroine's outlandish adventures for the screen, though original comic strip author Peter O'Donnell had a hand in it, and who did they choose to direct it? Richard Lester? Mario Bava? Ken Russell? No, Joseph Losey, of course! Here we see Losey mixing the wacky irreverence of Accident and the pop art pastiche of The Servant... erm, well, no, not really, indeed there were many even at the time wondering why a heavyweight filmmaker like Losey had been given this assignment, never mind why he had accepted it. Modesty Blaise carried a cool, devil may care attitude that begins to look like general apathy as it wears on with the plot hardly seeming to matter as one kitschy set piece follows another, with casual cruelty and tongue in cheek humour carrying most of the action.
Dirk Bogarde's wry, effete performance was the real highlight: silver-haired Gabriel must be the laziest master criminal ever, spending most of his time lounging around in the sun, eating rich food and drinking exotic cocktails. In fact, the incidentals are what keep you watching, because the story isn't really worth following as it came across as nobody involved - aside from O'Donnell - was particularly bothered about sustaining it, leaving the sense of showing up at a posh party only to be ignored for the whole evening as the others were more caught up in their own selfish desires. Occasionally something would break through this fug of self-satisfaction, but it was usually either an extremely arch joke or a bit of business flirting with sexual sadism as strong as they could get away with in 1966.
As ever with the sixties spy movies, James Bond loomed large, and though this was essentially spoofing the genre it was the Fleming superspy and all his trappings that Modesty Blaise owed the biggest debt to, it didn't matter that this was a female agent we were dealing with, the tropes remained the same. So that meant Bond-style weapons ranging from an umbrella gun to a laser-firing missile which brings down a plane, which could pass muster in a sincere outing, only then there's the goldfish in Gabriel's drink, the silent mime (Joe Melia) who is kidnapped and gagged in spite of there being no way he would say anything anyway (dedicated to his art to the last, this chap), the ingenious way Modesty's radio equipment is hidden about sidekick Willie Garvin's person (Terence Stamp's blue eyes were rarely more piercing), and the way her hair continually changes colour, at times in the space of one scene.
All of this was so much of a put-on that it prompted musings that this wasn't worth any kind of genuine appreciation when there was no-one on the screen or behind the camera remotely interested in delivering anything but cold camp: there were even a couple of instances of Vitti and Stamp breaking into song, which will make you glad this film wasn't a musical. The overall impression is one of a bunch of grown-ups playing at being spies and not being particularly bothered if you're not having as much fun as they are, which was likely why this flopped and there was no subsequent run of Modesty movies, after all they had exhausted the possibilities of the character by about the half hour mark in this effort, never mind sustaining it to the end. And yet, there was a callousness here that constantly promised to turn the experience into something more intriguing than it managed, though any tension was too often scuppered by Modesty never seeming as if she would ever be in any real peril. One good thing: Johnny Dankworth's catchy theme was rather fine.
Cerebral, at times pretentious, American director, from the theatre. His American career (The Boy with Green Hair, a remake of M, The Prowler) was short-lived due to the Hollywood anti-Communist blacklist, and Losey escaped to Britain.