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review added: 8/9/02



Modesty Blaise
1966 (2002) - 20th Century Fox

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Modesty Blaise Film Rating: B

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/C+/F

Specs and Features

119 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, single-layered, Amaray keep case packaging, film-themed menu screens, scene access (32 chapters), languages: English (2.0 stereo and mono), French and Spanish (2.0 mono), subtitles: English and Spanish, Closed Captioned

Odds are if you're familiar with Modesty Blaise at all, it's as the book John Travolta's character was reading on the toilet in Pulp Fiction. Modesty's never been as well-known in the U.S. as she is in the U.K., where the character first appeared in a popular comic strip created by Peter O'Donnell in 1963. In the strip, Modesty is a thief, retired from her position as head of the criminal organization known as The Network. But retirement does not seem to suit Modesty Blaise. Together with her partner-in-crime, Willie Garvin, Modesty is constantly drawn into adventures that require her to step into her black skin-tight costume and pick up her bow and arrows once again.

For the movie, Modesty was played by Italian actress Monica Vitti, best known for her work with Michelangelo Antonioni in movies like L'Avventura. Her Majesty's government wants to protect a cache of diamonds secured on board a ship from the albino criminal mastermind known as Gabriel (Dirk Bogarde). Figuring it takes a thief to catch a thief, they recruit Modesty and Willie (Terence Stamp). Modesty agrees but vows that if she catches the government in a lie, she'll steal the diamonds herself. Sure enough, the government is double-crossing Modesty and, true to her word, she becomes a free agent.

Even by '60's standards, Modesty Blaise is one weird movie. I defy anybody to get through this movie without saying, "What in the hell is going on?" at least once. But once you stop trying to follow the plot, you'll find plenty to enjoy. Marvel at the sight of Gabriel's sadistic assistant, Mrs. Fothergill, violently interrogating a double-crossing mime! Thrill to cigarette packets that explode into multi-colored gas! Scratch your head in disbelief as Modesty and Willie sing a duet about their platonic relationship! Modesty Blaise is a psychedelic head-trip of a movie, with funny throw-away gags, wild costumes that Modesty is able to change in the blink of an eye, and mod, colorful sets that will make you think there's something wrong with your TV. Certainly, no right-thinking production designer would come up with the color combos on display here.

As far as I know, Modesty Blaise has never been released on home video before. Not VHS, not laser and certainly not DVD. And while I'm certainly happy to have it, Fox's DVD is certainly a missed opportunity. The video quality is generally strong, with vibrant colors and a fairly decent print. The image is occasionally soft, particularly towards the beginning, but that's forgivable. I did, however, detect more obvious digital artifacting here than in any of Fox's other spy releases. There's a very distracting shimmer whenever there's a busy pattern on screen and, in this movie, that's fairly often. The sound quality is weak, unable to strike much of a balance between dialogue and music. As with Fox's release of Fathom, the mono track is slightly preferable to the tinny and artificial stereo track. The sound problems aren't helped by Vitti's often-impregnable Italian accent (this was her first English-language role). Still, it seems to me that if you have an in-born problem with the audio such as a thick accent, you'd want to take extra care with the mix so that everything is as clear as possible.

Extras are non-existent, unless you consider chapter stops or English and Spanish subtitles to be terrific extras. Fox has not even seen fit to include the four spy trailers that are on the Flint movies and Fathom. Even if the studio didn't want to go through the bother and expense of creating substantial extras like commentaries or a documentary, there are still plenty of things that could have been done. A history of the comic strip, cast and crew bios... hell, even a plot synopsis would help with a movie this convoluted. Modesty Blaise is arguably the best, and certainly the most interesting, of the four features released in this series. It's a real shame that Fox gave it such short shrift.

For all the disc's problems, I'm always pleased when studios dig deep into their vaults to release movies that have been seemingly forgotten for decades. Modesty Blaise is really a buried treasure, bizarre and full of terrific moments, even if the individual parts are greater than the whole. If you're a fan of oddball '60's movies like Candy or Lord Love a Duck, you'll probably dig Modesty Blaise. One final word of warning, though: don't even attempt watching this unless you're prepared to have the theme song stuck in your head for days afterwards. I'm still stuck with it now. "She'll turn your head... though she might use a judo hold... Modesty! Modesty!"

Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com




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