Modesty Blaise (1966 film)

Modesty Blaise is a 1966 British comedy spy-fi film directed by Joseph Losey. It was loosely based upon the popular comic strip Modesty Blaise by Peter O'Donnell, who co-wrote the original story upon which Evan Jones based his screenplay. The film's music composed by Johnny Dankworth and the theme song, Modesty, sung by David and Jonathan. Modesty Blaise stars Italian actress Monica Vitti, Terence Stamp, Dirk Bogarde, Harry Andrews, Michael Craig and Clive Revill. It is Monica Vitti's first English-speaking role.

Modesty Blaise
Original film poster by Bob Peak
Directed byJoseph Losey
Produced byJoseph Janni
Screenplay byEvan Jones
Story byPeter O'Donnell
Stanley Dubens
Based onModesty Blaise
by Peter O'Donnell
Jim Holdaway
StarringMonica Vitti
Terence Stamp
Dirk Bogarde
Harry Andrews
Clive Revill
Michael Craig
Music byJohnny Dankworth
CinematographyJack Hildyard
Edited byReginald Beck
Modesty Blaise Ltd.
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
  • May 1966 (1966-05)
Running time
119 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Budget£1 million[1]
Box office$2.2 million (est. US/ Canada rentals)[2]


British Secret Service chief Sir Gerald Tarrant (Harry Andrews) recruits former criminal mastermind Modesty Blaise (Monica Vitti) to protect a shipment of diamonds en route to a Middle Eastern sheik, Abu Tahir (Clive Revill). The shipment has also attracted Gabriel (Dirk Bogarde), the head of a criminal organization that includes his henchman McWhirter (Clive Revill) and Mrs. Fothergill (Rossella Falk). Modesty believes that Gabriel, who maintains a compound in the Mediterranean, is dead, but he reveals himself to her.

In Amsterdam, Modesty reunites with her former lover, secret agent Paul Hagen (Michael Craig), while her partner, Willie Garvin (Terence Stamp), is reunited with an old flame, Nicole (Tina Aumont), who may have information on Gabriel. Nicole is killed by assassins working for Gabriel, who are in turn killed by Modesty and Willie. Modesty and Willie set themselves up as live bait to draw Gabriel out, but find themselves pursued by Tarrant and Hagen. Gabriel captures Modesty and forces Willie to help steal the diamonds.

Held prisoner on Gabriel's island, Modesty and Willie escape, killing Mrs. Fothergill. Thanks to a radio signal from Modesty, Abu Tahir's forces invade the island and capture Gabriel. Modesty gives the shipment of diamonds to Abu Tahir and, as her reward, asks for and receives the diamonds.



In 1965 Mim Scala of the Scala Browne Agency saw O'Donnell's strip and acquired the film rights to the character. Scala had the idea of casting Barbara Steele as Modesty with Michael Caine as Willie, but he sold the rights to produce the film to Joseph Janni, who had Monica Vitti and Joseph Losey as his clients.[3]

Modesty Blaise was released at the height of two cinematic trends: The popularity of James Bond had spawned a number of similarly themed films, and many of these films, rather than being serious spy adventures, were instead created as parodies of Bond and his genre. Director Joseph Losey and the screenwriters chose to follow the latter approach, by making Modesty Blaise a campy, sometimes surrealistic comedy-adventure.

O'Donnell's original screenplay went through a large number of rewrites by other people, and he often later complained that the finished movie retained only one line of his original dialogue. O'Donnell states this in some of his introductions to reprints of his comic strip by Titan Books. As a result, although the basic plotline and characters are based on the comic strip, such as Willie killing a thug in an alley, many changes were made. Some are cosmetic—Vitti appears as a blonde for most of the film (except for one sequence in which she actually dresses up like a real-life version of the comic strip character). Likewise, Stamp initially appears in a blond wig and subsequently reverts to his natural dark hair colour. Other changes are more profound. For example, as the film progresses Willie and Modesty fall in love and decide to get married (proclaiming same during a sudden musical production number that erupts during a lull); this breaks a cardinal rule O'Donnell set out when he created the characters: they would never have a romantic relationship (the writer stayed true to this edict to the end of the comic strip in 2001).

Modesty Blaise includes a metafictional element during one sequence where Blaise, while visiting a friend's apartment, comes across several newspapers with the Modesty Blaise comic strip which are shown in close-up (artist Jim Holdaway's work is prominently shown as is Peter O'Donnell's name). Supporters of the film suggest this indicates that the 1966 film is not intended to take place in the same "universe" as the comic strip.

Prior to the release of the film, O'Donnell novelised his version of the screenplay as a novel entitled Modesty Blaise. This book was a critical and sales success, resulting in O'Donnell alternating between writing novels and writing the comic strip for the next 30 years. O'Donnell's version of the screenplay was also used as the basis for a late-1990s Modesty Blaise graphic novel published by DC Comics.

Box Office

According to Fox records, the film needed to earn $5,800,000 in rentals to break even and made $4,825,000, meaning it made a loss.[4]

Critical reception

Modesty Blaise was a moderate success at the time of its original release,[5] Bosley Crowther, writing in The New York Times, characterised the film as "a weird film, all right. Maybe, if the whole thing were on a par with some of its flashier and wittier moments, or were up to its pictorial design, which is dazzling, it might be applauded as a first-rate satiric job." The only redeeming features, Crowther said were, "The scenery, a few op-art settings and a gay, non-chalant musical score are indeed, about the only consistently amusing things about this whacky color film."[5]

Modesty Blaise was entered into the 1966 Cannes Film Festival.[6]

Two more serious attempts at adapting the comic strip for the screen occurred in 1982 with a Modesty Blaise starring Ann Turkel as Blaise, and again in 2003 with My Name Is Modesty, a prequel starring Alexandra Staden and omitting the Willie Garvin character entirely.



  1. Walker 1974, p. 302.
  2. "Big Rental Pictures of 1966." Variety, 4 January 1967, p. 8.
  3. Scala 2009, pp. 75–76.
  4. Silverman, Stephen M (1988). The Fox that got away : the last days of the Zanuck dynasty at Twentieth Century-Fox. L. Stuart. p. 325.
  5. Crowther, Bosley. "Modesty Blaise (1966); Screen: Gaudy 'Modesty Blaise,' girl secret agent: Monica Vitti co-stars with Dirk Bogarde, imported Farrago has flashes of humor," The New York Times, 11 August 1966.
  6. "Modesty Blaise." Festival de Cannes. Retrieved: 8 March 2009.


  • Scala, Mim. Diary of a Teddy Boy: A Memoir of the Long Sixties. Surrey, UK: Goblin Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-95614-970-1.
  • Walker, Alexander. Hollywood UK: The British Film Industry in the Sixties. London: Stein and Day, 1994. ISBN 978-0-8128-1549-8.
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