When I chose to watch the spy spoof Modesty Blaise for my 1966 film project, I did so simply to see the gorgeous Italian actress Monica Vitti in her first of only two English-language roles. Vitti had made an impact on my cinematic journey with performances in a handful of Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni dramas, such as La Notte and Red Desert. After such stark, emotional dramas, Modesty Blaise was an opportunity for Vitti to perform light comedy.
Modesty Blaise originated as a British comic strip created by author Peter O'Donnell in 1963. The strip followed the title character, a resourceful young woman with a criminal past, working as a rather effective and sought-after spy. In the film adaptation, co-starring Dirk Bogarde and Terence Stamp (both top British stars of the time), Vitti's Blaise is employed by the British Secret Service to protect a shipment of diamonds. She and her partner, Stamp, must outwit Bogarde's leader of a diamond theft ring.
At the time of the film's release in Summer 1966, audiences around the world were obsessed with the James Bond franchise, with the latest in the series, Thunderball, among the highest grossing films of 1965. The Bond influence could be seen in movie theaters as well as on television with the rise in popularity of such programs as The Man from UNCLE, The Avengers, and Get Smart. Filmmakers were quick to up the ante by producing a string of films that similarly capitalized on the growing spy craze.
Surely, the 1967 comedy Casino Royale would become the genre's apotheosis, though it was 1966 when the newly minted film genre of 'spy spoof' or 'spy-fi' (spy fiction), reached its apex. Columbia Pictures released The Silencers, starring Dean Martin as American spy Matt Helm, while 20th Century Fox had Our Man Flint, declaring James Coburn's Derek Flint an American James Bond. Both of these films, along with Modesty Blaise and others, feature a heightened, tongue-in-check, often outlandish, sense of humor complete with a mod style inspired by the current 1960s subculture.
What stands out with Modesty Blaise in the spy spoof genre is clearly the novelty of having a female spy protagonist. The spy gadgets (an umbrella gun!), exotic locales (Amsterdam, the Mediterranean, etc), and action-packed thrills (Modesty gets caught up in a knife fight) are all there, but instead of a womanizing, martini-drinking, tuxedo-rocking Sean Connery-type, we have the alluring, expressive Vitti. Not since Greta Garbo's Mata Hari has a female spy been so perfectly portrayed onscreen. 35 years before Jennifer Garner's Sydney Bristow was kicking ass and changing wigs on TV's Alias, Vitti's Modesty Blaise was globe-trotting and double-crossing like no other.