The actress Monica Vitti, who has died at the age of 90, was one of the shining stars of post-war Italian cinema, not least for her professional and personal association with the modernist director Michelangelo Antonioni. Together, they made several films in the early Sixties including L’Avventura (The Adventure), L’Eclisse (The Eclipse) and Il Deserto Rosso (Red Desert), which are today regarded as classics of Italian radical filmmaking, all of which dealt with philosophical themes of abstraction and alienation.
It was unsurprising, then, for her English-language debut, Vitti chose to work with the American filmmaker Joseph Losey, who had been blacklisted from his earlier Hollywood career over his former membership of the Communist Party. Losey had moved to Britain in the Fifties and had since won critical plaudits with his Harold Pinter-scripted 1963 adaptation of Robin Maugham’s novel The Servant, which had received a Bafta award for its star Dirk Bogarde’s brilliant performance as the Machiavellian valet Hugo Barrett.
Therefore, a new collaboration between Pinter, Losey, Bogarde and Vitti was enough to thrill even the most jaded of cinephiles. But the result was not entirely what anyone was expecting, including those who were involved in it.
The comic strip writer Peter O’Donnell had built a significant reputation by 1965 as the creator of the character Modesty Blaise, a female superspy in the employment of a shadowy secret agency known only as The Network, aided by her Cockney sidekick (but, crucially, never love interest) Willie Garvin: a character that O’Donnell explicitly based on the then-rising star Michael Caine. The writer suggested that he would like Caine to play Garvin in any film adaptation of the work.
The Modesty Blaise character which first appeared in the Evening Standard, was groundbreaking in several key regards, not least in being a strong-willed and independent woman who was anything but the decorative damsel in distress that the female leads were in the rival James Bond series; as O’Donnell said: “[Modesty] doesn’t just kick people in the head…she’s very tender and vulnerable.”
It was hugely popular with readers, and with critics; the novelist Kingsley Amis, for instance, called it “endlessly fascinating”. It offered a magnificent role for a star, and O’Donnell suggested casting Barbara Steele, “Britain’s first lady of horror”, in the part when he came to sell the film rights, opposite his hoped-for choice of Caine.
He proposed Sidney Gilliat as its director. Gilliat had either written or directed many of British cinema’s greatest comedy-thrillers, including Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, Night Train to Munich and Green for Danger. However, the producer Joseph Janni bought the rights, and after his recent successes with the John Schlesinger films Billy Liar and Darling, decided to aim higher.
Losey was hired to direct, and Vitti and Terence Stamp were cast in the roles of Modesty and Garvin, along with Losey’s regular collaborator Bogarde in the villainous role of Gabriel, a camp criminal mastermind whose nefarious activities are only equalled by a tender squeamishness when it comes to violence.
The Jamaican playwright Evan Jones, who had written Losey’s previous film King and Country, was hired to write the screenplay, which was then rewritten, uncredited, by Pinter; this was something of an in-joke for those in the know, as O’Donnell’s original story contained the dig “Harold Pinter –Blaise thinks he’s great, Garvin thinks he’s a theatrical conman.”
When Losey announced that he was directing the film as a rival to the James Bond series, his appointment was met with surprise from those who saw him as a serious auteur. As the critic Penelope Houston, who would later ridicule Modesty Blaise as “Losey’s paper handkerchief”, put it in Sight and Sound: “Rather less sure of his ground here than a [Jean-Luc] Godard or a [Richard] Lester, Losey throws in a line of dialogue to remind us what we are watching. But then Losey himself is not a man who can easily be envisaged reading the strip cartoons for his own amusement.”
When Losey was asked by a journalist what he thought of the James Bond films, he confessed that he had only watched half of one of them before before losing interest.
Although he had directed film noir thrillers before, the big-budget campery of Modesty Blaise represented an abrupt change of pace from the cool cynicism of The Servant. Like the 007 pictures, its production took place in a suitably globe-trotting list of locations: London, Amsterdam, Naples and, for the supervillain’s island fortress, the isolated Sicilian castle of Sant’Alesso Siculo.
Yet Losey had very little interest in making a conventional spy thriller. He allowed Bogarde free rein to camp up his performance in the most outrageous of fashions. Attired in swishy silk dressing gowns and cashmere roll necks, his wig-wearing villain purrs metatextual lines such as “I’m the villain of the piece… I have to condemn you”, insultingly compares Modesty to a suffragette and, spread-eagled and left to expire of thirst in the desert at the film’s conclusion, wistfully repeats “Champagne… champagne.” As he is rescued by an acolyte, with a view to his return in a never-filmed sequel, Gabriel declares: “My God! I thought you were Mother!”
Bogarde’s supremely unrestrained appearance is at least entertaining, which is more than can be said for the rest of the film. Vitti, intentionally or otherwise, delivers a blank performance that doesn’t test her considerable acting skills in the slightest, but her hesitation in her first English-language role might well have its origins in the presence of Antonioni on set.
He would take her to one side between takes and whisper instructions to her as to how she should play scenes, much to Losey’s chagrin; eventually, the director had to all but ban the interloper from the studios, fearing that Antonioni was giving Vitti guidance that ran entirely counter to his own intentions. Bogarde, meanwhile, loathed working with the star and later suggested in an interview that she was the only actress he had actively objected to starring alongside, describing her as “beastly”.
Nonetheless, it is quite clear that Losey’s interest in Modesty Blaise, as far as it went, was in using the studio’s money and his starry cast to make a piece of colourful contemporary pop art, complete with score by the jazz musician Johnny Dankworth and numerous moments where the characters would break the fourth wall, such as a scene in which Modesty sees herself in the newspaper comic strip that she was featured in, and a random musical number that sees Modesty and Garvin declare their love for one another, much to O’Donnell’s dismay. He later commented: “I think that there’s only one line of mine left in the finished film’ and moaned that ‘it gave me a nosebleed.”
Losey intended the film as a British riposte to the French New Wave, with Vitti, Stamp and Bogarde merely the starry adornments to what his eccentric directorial vision. He completed filming it in 1965 and ensured that its international premiere would be at the Cannes Film Festival the following year, as if to signify that this was a serious picture, from a serious filmmaker, rather than a piece of disposable entertainment like Thunderball, the most recent James Bond film.
It received polite applause and was nominated for the Palme d’Or, but the critical response was considerably less warm than Losey had been used to. The critic Kenneth Tynan dismissed it as displaying “built-in rust” and the influential New York Times writer Bosley Crowther spoke for many when he wrote that Modesty Blaise was “a weird film, all right. Maybe, if the whole thing were on a par with some of its flashier and wittier moments, or were up to its pictorial design, which is dazzling, it might be applauded as a first-rate satiric job… [as it is] the scenery, a few pop-art settings and a gay, nonchalant musical score are indeed, about the only consistently amusing things about this whacky colour film.”
It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, not a commercial success, and Losey soon moved onto a more conventional collaboration with Bogarde and Pinter, the Oxford-set drama Accident. He continued to argue that Modesty Blaise was ahead of its time, and, in 1971, he succeeded in having it re-released in cinemas, thanks to the success of his LP Hartley adaptation The Go Between.
It seems unlikely that audiences who had enjoyed the quiet, literate pleasures of that film would have thrilled to the frenetic stylings of his earlier picture. Vitti would not make another English-language film until An Almost Perfect Affair in 1979, citing her poor English and a dislike of long international flights; it is also likely that the indifferent response to Modesty Blaise had something to do with her reluctance.
Although the film was not a success, and is unlikely to be reassessed as anything other than a minor cult oddity – although Mike Myers had acknowledged it as one of the major influences on Austin Powers – O’Donnell’s stories continue to be popular. Neil Gaiman has written a screenplay based on the novel I, Lucifer and Quentin Tarantino is a long-standing fan of the series, even down to having the character Vincent Vega read a copy of Modesty Blaise in Pulp Fiction on the toilet, shortly before being shot and killed.
But although the likes of Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Lopez have expressed interest in playing Modesty in a potential reboot, Gaiman revealed in 2020: “Unfortunately, due to Peter O’Donnell’s extreme dissatisfaction with the Weinstein bros’ handling of Modesty Blaise, I believe he had a ‘nobody can make a film of Modesty Blaise’ clause in his will.”
So the flawed, often impenetrable but fascinating picture that Losey and co produced is likely to be, for better or for worse, the definitive screen version of the character. The obituaries for Vitti hailed her work with Antonioni and called her “queen of Italian cinema”. Perhaps a few might have mentioned this offbeat, flawed but unique picture, too.