In retrospect, it’s kind of amazing how quickly spy movies became ridiculous in the 1960s. You start the decade with the relatively sane “Dr. No” and “From Russia With Love,” and in the space of a few years you get to “Danger: Diabolik” and “Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.” It’s as if the counterculture looked at the Ian Fleming novels that their dads were reading, saw the silliness that underlay the machismo and violence, and decided to flip it inside out.
One of the shining examples of the genre is the gloriously silly spy-chedelic 1966 spoof “Modesty Blaise,” just released in a new extras-packed edition from Kino Lorber Studio Classics. Take the most hard-to-swallow moment in any James Bond movie, magnify it by a hundred, and put it in a great outfit, and you have “Modesty Blaise.”
Very loosely based on a series of novels, the movie follows the exploits of master thief Modesty Blaise (Italian actress Monica Vitti in her first English-speaking role, and it shows). She’s tasked by the British government with protecting a shipment of diamonds heading to one of their puppet rulers in the Middle East. (“We don’t trust her,” remarks her minder, a big-chinned Brit in a bowler. “We merely use here.” The villainous Gabriel (Dirk Bogarde) has designs on intercepting the diamonds, lazing in the sun in a magnificent lair that mixes pop art and ancient ruins.
But to focus on the plot is to miss the point of “Modesty Blaise” — and also, it’s just about impossible to focus on the plot. A bevy of good-looking characters (including a young Terence Stamp as Modesty’s Cockney sidekick/maybe lover, Willie Garvin) pop in and out of scenes, and Modesty changes sides (and outfits) in literally the blink of an eye. At one point, Willie and Modesty break into song, because why the heck not? Late in the film, Modesty is imprisoned in a cell with optical-illusion wallpaper, a staircase leading to nowhere, and a key with a note (“Perhaps”) on it. She’s become Alice in a Wonderland of spies.
While “Blaise” may seem utterly European, it was actually directed by Joseph Losey, a native of Wisconsin who fled to Europe to escape the Blacklist. This wasn’t his milieu, but he seems to be having a ball, shooting the action from playfully oblique angles and including plenty of visual jokes (watch how Gabriel’s wine glass will grow from shot to shot).
But the odd thing about “Modesty Blaise” is that it’s so light and effervescent that anything dark or violent carries a surprisingly sick charge. When we see a woman stabbed to death in a factory full of wind-up clocks, or a mime strangled by one of Gabriel’s henchmen (silently, of course), it’s jarring against this candy-colored landscape.
And, underneath the playful mayhem, the film sneers at the machinations of politicians and generals, who move Blaise and her crew around like pawns for their own ends. James Bond exists to preserve the order. Modesty, the woman and her film, is an agent of high-fashion chaos, subverting the powerful with a smile and a wave.