At the height of his popularity – about a decade beginning in the early 1970s – Burt Reynolds was a very unusual kind of movie star, an example of a kind of hyper-masculinity tempered with a Cary Grant-like self awareness, a sense of the ridiculousness of his fame. He was macho with a wink; even the famous “Cosmpolitan” foldout was so patently absurd that you couldn’t help but see it as a kind of parody of sexual commodification. Reynolds’ easy-going image eventually became self-defeating; the lazy I’m-just-here-for-a-good-time attitude wore itself thin in a string of lazy we’re-just-doing-this-for-the-money comedies directed by Hal Needham. There were hints, however, that Reynolds was more than just a Hollywood stud going for an easy paycheck. He trseemied to escape his good old boy image in a few romantic comedies, Alan Pakula’s underappreciated “Starting Over” and Blake Edwards’ Truffaut remake “The Man Who Loved Women”. He willingly played against type in Peter Bogdanovich’s brilliant “At Long Last Love” and “Nickelodeon”. He tried his hand at directing, but didn’t seem to have his heart in it (although his comedy “The End” is an underrated triumph). The financial and critical failure of those films seemed to set him back squarely on the path of the “Cannonball Run”, but by the early 80s, the sheer laziness of Reynolds-Needham collaborations like “Stroker Ace” were being rejected by audiences. He fell by the wayside, and his comeback in “Boogie Nights”, while welcome, never quite amounted to much. His laid back self-deprecating persona is sorely missed.
Released less than two years after Susan Sontag’s much discussed essay – or for another perspective, just four months after the debut of the “Batman” tv series, Joseph Losey’s odd but amusing “Modesty Blaise” may be the first camp movie. Such things are hard to pin down amid the whirlwind of cultural forces in play simultaneously – pop art, the Bond Films, the New Wave – but Losey’s film wins its camp attitude by (very) loosely taking note of the pop zeitgeist while not really seeming to care about it very much. Based on a popular and , at the time very new, British comic strip, “Modesty” doesn’t exactly embrace its source: for its dark-haired and distinctly British heroine, Losey cast the blond-haired and heavily-accented Italian actress Monica Vitti.
For much of the first hour, “Modesty Blaise” is played as a very broad European spy thriller, pushed to excess by the addition of murderous mimes, jump-cut costume changes, grotesque puppets and comic sheikhs. It’s only when Modesty turns up at the apartment of a fellow agent and former lover that the film begins to reveal its anti-realist hand. Scanning the room, Modesty finds hidden under a cushion a comic book bearing her image on the cover. The the ex-lover returns and a misunderstanding between fellow agents leads to weapons being drawn, Vitti ducks behind a plant and re-emerges is the dark-beehived archeress in skin-fitting tights seen in the comics. Only then does her companion recognize her true identity. (To further reveal the film’s distance from its print source, neither agents can figure out exactly how her form-fitting outfit comes off).
Equally indifferent to the plot – something involving stolen jewels – is the film’s eccentric villain Gabriel (a blonde-wigged Dirk Bogarde) who lives in an op-art decorated island citadel, hatches evil schemes with his accountant and is clearly coded as stylishly gay, even though one major scene hinges on his lust for Modesty. Vitti, Bogarde and, as Modesty’s sidekick Willie, Terence Stamp, bounce energetically through a series of adventure movie confrontations but remain aloof from the plot itself. They’re posing in their hero(ine) and villain roles but only just enough to keep a distant eye of the spies-and-thieves narrative in case they’re needed. Modesty and Willie even take a breather to perform a duet before roving on to wherever the story takes them.
It is useful to recall that Losey had worked and studied with Brecht, soit’s probably not much of a stretch to consider “Modesty Blaise” a sort of wry critique of the excesses of the Bond-era spy film, told in bright colors and exaggerated compositions. There’s a sense that Losey is letting his cast simply try on the conventions of the genre, giving the film its camp element . Depending on the viewers tolerance of its cool, dry attitude, it’s an uneven, unkempt but frequently fun disruption of the stuffy Euro-spy model.