Sunday, February 27, 2011

Spy versus spy (Joseph Losey division)

Modesty Blaise (1966)
d. Joseph Losey
Starring: Monica Vitti, Terrence Stamp, Dirk Bogarde, and Clive Revill

If there is one silver lining to wearying but banal illnesses like a cold or the flu, it is the way they justify catching up on one's movie viewing, especially lightweight cinematic confections. I might not be interested in watching Salo right now, but something like Modesty Blaise or a giallo or a minor '40's b-movie is right up my alley.

And Modesty Blaise is good. Not great, but definitely good. From the buzz (or lack of it), I expected to find something like the atrocious 1967 version of Casino Royale. Instead, it could sit comfortably alongside Mario Bava's Danger: Diabolik. Just like Bava's film, MB is a comic book caper that is definitely more style than substance, but that style...

After all, when the beauty of a film's production design and cinematography shines through even in a mediocre pan-and-scan with bad sound, that's an achievement! (The fact that I have to heavily qualify this is not a great sign for Netflix Instant Streaming, I'm afraid, though some of their streaming films are quite high quality).

The plot itself is an over-complex concoction of double-crosses and triple-crosses. Modesty Blaise (Monica Vitti) is a former professional thief hired by the British government (under the leadership of Alexander Knox, who had previously worked for Losey in These Are the Damned) to stop master criminal Gabriel (Dirk Bogarde, having a wonderful time) and his associate McWhirter (Clive Revill) from stealing diamonds meant for a Middle Eastern sheik (also Clive Revill). And Terence Stamp is Modesty's cheeky but deadly partner-in-crime-but-never-in-bed.

Frankly, there is way more attention devoted to the plot than it really deserves. Something like Danger: Diabolik's "Diabolik wants to steal something, the police want to catch him, repeat" probably would have served the film better, as MB flounders a little when we are asked to care about the more satirical elements (like the imperialist cynicism of the British government or the spendthrift ways of the sheik).

But that fault is easily forgivable, as Losey comes up with the most amazing visual techniques, many of which show a level of detail, care and experimentation rarely seen in modern film.

After all, this is a film which, within the first ten minutes, uses the same overlapping sound trick Russ Meyer frequently used in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls to portray the death of a secret agent and the subsequent reception of that information at Whitehall. There's also an amazing sequence where each shot is focused on several different henchmen, with Vitti and Stamp creeping in and out around the edges of the frame, in a way that builds tension, is clever and still easy to follow.

The production design and costuming also deserve special notice. Gabriel's mountainous island hideaway plays as a sunny counterpoint to Viveca Lindfors' house in These Are the Damned. Almost every frame has fun with slightly cheeky mod/psychedelic architecture and design.

This prison cell, pre-equipped with exit, is a great example
(Image courtesy of David Cairns' excellent Shadowplay)

Admire not just the amazing shot composition, but the beauty of the outfit (and Monica Vitti).
They even mine it for a nice bit of comedy, as a beau tries to get her out of it.
(Image courtesy of Flickr)

Seriously, I could fill this post with pictures of just Monica Vitti's costumes and you'd love me forever. But hey, Dirk Bogarde deserves some love too.
I want this outfit. So bad.
(Image courtesy of Culture Shock, which was not as enamored of this film as I was)

I'm sure Losey's style on this film is an acquired taste, and even I have to admit that at times he lacks the deft comic touch. At the end, for example, there are way too many lackadaisacally paced sequences of comedy relief Arabs having pratfalls, though in the final desert scene, the languid, blissed-out tone works quite well.

Also, special attention to the way this film makes excellent use of shooting on location in Amsterdam (a city which I have a slight love-hate relation with), turning the city into a cramped, claustrophobic funhouse.
Just imagine Jacques Brel crooning "Amsterdam" right now.
(Image courtesy of Tenebrous Kate)

So, an imperfect film, one perhaps requiring a slightly addled mind (by drugs or illness or tiredness) to fully enjoy, but equal to Danger: Diabolik and FAAAAR superior to Barbarella. Or the 1967 Casino Royale.*

Modesty Blaise Danger: DiabolikThe Icons of Suspense Collection: Hammer Films (Stop Me Before I Kill! / Cash on Demand / The Snorkel / Maniac / Never Take Candy from a Stranger / These Are the Damned)
*Fun fact: any time anyone mentions the 1967 Casino Royale, it delays the re-release of Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons by another day.**
** Not actually true. But, god, is the 1967 Casino Royale atrocious!