One has to wonder after enduring two hours of this mess whether its audience of 1966 was in on the joke or whether it was only the movie that thought all its mod design, dreadfully long scenes that went nowhere and dialogue that rarely made any sense were the pinnacle of mid-sixties cool.
Based on the comic strip no one has ever read, Modesty Blaise is a thief of exceptional talent who is recruited by the British government to find out who is trying to steal some diamonds that are being sent to some fictional Arabian nation.
Despite selecting Modesty for the job, the government has its reservations and so fails to tell her the real location of the diamonds, instead giving her some snow job about them being transported by plane when in fact they are going by boat. They do this in spite of the fact that she was a world class thief and has told them that they have to be straight up with her or she will steal the diamonds for herself.
But would she have really? In one of many scenes that goes on too long and isn’t remotely amusing, it turns out that she and the Sheik of the country the diamonds are going to are such old pals that he refers to her as his son. That’s freaking hilarious because she’s a woman! And sons are usually boys!
The film also show the Sheik’s relatives and compatriots in his London headquarters enamored with all the products of western culture, surrounding themselves with boxes of stuff including pinball machines, cameras, and scooters. That’s funny because Arabs are a primitive people who are easily impressed with the white man’s shiny beads!
Modesty hits Amsterdam since the diamonds are supposed to be leaving by plane from there, but as she takes a scenic tour of the canals by water transport, she catches on that the diamonds will in fact be aboard the cargo ship, Tyboria.
Her friend Willie provides an assist with a mine and the rest of her time in Amsterdam passes like a bad case of the DTs, with various characters appearing and milling around at various apartments and bars. Willie in particular doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing as he’s hanging out at magic shows in an effort to collect information about something.
Somewhere during all this we are finally introduced to the only character who is even momentarily entertaining. He is, as he refers to himself later in the film, “the villain of the piece” and his name is Gabriel. He appears to be another world class thief who inhabits an island hideaway and more imporantly, wears a world class silly silver wig.
There are moments with Gabriel where he manages to be quite good at playing off the Bondian stereotype of the melodramatic villain and provides the movie’s only fleeting smiles, but so often they overdo it and we’re left with Gabriel merely looking like he’s straining to be weird.
Gabriel invites Modesty over for lunch which she accepts. He promptly takes her prisoner and also manages to get Willie as well. Gabriel then explains his big plan to steal the diamonds. He is going to make Willie go on the mission and it will involve some underwater gizmo that will cut a hole in the bottom of the boat and Willie will slip into the ship’s cargo area, steal the diamonds and slip back out.
Why Gabriel needed either one of these two is never explained. The plan didn’t take any special skill, so what was the point of involving Modesty and Willie? Maybe the superfluous flourishes to his scheme were all a part of the mocking of the generic spy movie villain. Or maybe it makes perfect sense in a movie where the good guys are captured after having lunch with the bad guys.
Once the diamonds are stolen, Gabriel provides a key to aid Modesty’s escape. It comes on a key chain with the word “perhaps” written on it – a response to her earlier question to Gabriel after he says that because he’s the bad guy he has to condemn them to death and she asks something like,”but I’m the heroine so don’t I escape?” Just keep reminding yourself that it took two guys to come up with the story and an additional guy to write the screenplay.
The Sheik comes to Modesty’s aid and a long, drawn-out clash between the Sheik’s forces and Gabriel doesn’t even put an end to this fiasco, because once that’s done, we have to go back to the Sheik’s kingdom to see Willie and Modesty enjoying their victory and to see Gabriel getting rescued by his financial advisor.
An awful exercise in self-conscious excess, this bloated pile of failed jokes and concepts doesn’t even get the whole “it dates badly” pass that some movies of the period might rate, mainly because it’s hard to believe that audiences seeing it in 1966 actually found it entertaining.
Aside from the horrid story and the lazy way the film was put together, Monica Vitti isn’t particularly memorable as Modesty. Even more forgettable is the character of Modesty Blaise herself. Sure, she karate chops a few guys, but the character doesn’t do anything except get into trouble through her own stupidity and only gets out of it with help from all her male friends.
The fact we didn’t see another Modesty Blaise film until a failed pilot in 1982 goes to show that the old gal probably needs to stay a retired world class thief and quit stealing audiences’ time and money.
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