Vintage Pulp May 5 2022
MODESTY TO A FAULT
Twentieth Century Fox chooses goofs over thrills for Blaise adaptation.


After writing about the first four Modesty Blaise novels over the last few years we figured it was time to talk about Twentieth Century Fox's cinematic pass at character. You see a brilliant poster for the movie adaptation above by Bob Peak, who seems to be reminding people that Robert McGinnis wasn't the only painter capable of working in this style. Two more versions of the poster appear below, and you can another example of his work here.

We'd heard for years that Modesty Blaise is a terrible movie, but it isn't—lightweight might be a better description. It's based on the debut novel, and while author Peter O'Donnell plays it straight apart from the affable relationship between Blaise and her partner Willie Garvin, here in the movie Blaise has a space age apartment, a sentient computer, a huge lobster tattoo on her thigh, an adoptive father, and a referential theme song. The villain, meanwhile, drinks goldfish water, wears a chauffeur's cap, and uses a Japanese pai pai fan. At a couple of points Blaise and Garvin burst into song together. All these touches must have baffled fans of the book, and indeed the additions are pointless in our opinion, but that's cinema. Filmmakers are not transcribers—they're translators, and if you know anything about translation you know it's not done literally.

The main question is whether star Monica Vitti does the legendary main character justice. It was a lot to ask, after Modesty became popular thanks to three years of popular daily comic strips followed by a well received novel. We think she manages fine with the material she's given, but there's the rub. While the screenplay follows the basic thread of the novel, the flow is clunky and the dialogue is cluttered with non-sequitur asides and attempts to be cute that make Vitti resemble Emma Peel from The Avengers rather than the lethal woman O'Donnell created. In terms of the actual story, Modesty is tasked with stopping a master criminal from stealing a cache of diamonds meant for her father (we know, we know—she's an orphan in the books, and it defines her character). She's had dealings with this quirky crook before and would like to settle matters between them permanently. That means traveling from London to Amsterdam to his rocky stronghold on Sicily for a final showdown—in good pumps and a diaphanous haute couture a-line dress.

The action, which is central to the books and written with deadly seriousness, is mostly played for laughs. We mean even to the extent of villains crashing into each other to the accompaniment of circus music. We think this is probably the movie's only unforgivable sin. O'Donnell took pride in his action sequences, underpinning them with ingenious forethought by Blaise and Garvin and violent precision in execution. All the humor and cuteness would have been fine if the movie had thrilled where it most needed to, but no such luck. So in the end what you get is a cutesy spy caper of a type that was all too commonplace during the 1960s, but even goofier than most. We think the movie should have been something fresh and surprising, and in ways that go beyond its glossy high fashion aesthetic. Unfortunately, the final result is no better than watchable, though it becomes progressively more enjoyable the more booze that's ingested. Hit the liquor store before screening it and you'll find out for yourself. Modesty Blaise premiered in London today in 1966.
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History Rewind
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
February 02
1969—Boris Karloff Dies
After a long battle with arthritis and emphysema, English born actor Boris Karloff, who was best known for his film portrayals of Frankenstein's monster and the Mummy, contracts pneumonia and dies at King Edward VII Hospital, Midhurst, Sussex, England.
February 01
1920—Royal Canadian Mounted Police Forms
In Canada, The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, aka Gendarmerie royale du Canada, begins operations when the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, founded 1873, and the Dominion Police, founded 1868, merge. The force, colloquially known as Mounties, is one of the most recognized law enforcement groups of its kind in the world.
1968—Image of Vietnam Execution Shown in U.S.
The execution of Viet Cong officer Nguyen Van Lem by South Vietnamese National Police Chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan is videotaped and photographed by Eddie Adams. This image showed Van Lem being shot in the head, and helped build American public opposition to the Vietnam War.
January 31
1928—Soviets Exile Leon Trotsky
Leon Trotsky, a Bolshevik revolutionary, Marxist theorist, and co-leader of the Russian October Revolution, is exiled to Alma Ata, at the time part of the Soviet Union but now located in Kazakhstan. He is later expelled entirely from the Soviet Union to Turkey, accompanied by his wife Natalia Sedova and his son Lev Sedov.
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