Twentieth Century Fox chooses goofs over thrills for Blaise adaptation.
After writing about the first four Modesty Blaise novels over the last few years we figured it was time to talk about Twentieth Century Fox's cinematic pass at character. You see a brilliant poster for the movie adaptation above by Bob Peak, who seems to be reminding people that Robert McGinnis wasn't the only painter capable of working in this style. Two more versions of the poster appear below, and you can another example of his work here.
We'd heard for years that Modesty Blaise is a terrible movie, but it isn't—lightweight might be a better description. It's based on the debut novel, and while author Peter O'Donnell plays it straight apart from the affable relationship between Blaise and her partner Willie Garvin, here in the movie Blaise has a space age apartment, a sentient computer, a huge lobster tattoo on her thigh, an adoptive father, and a referential theme song. The villain, meanwhile, drinks goldfish water, wears a chauffeur's cap, and uses a Japanese pai pai fan. At a couple of points Blaise and Garvin burst into song together. All these touches must have baffled fans of the book, and indeed the additions are pointless in our opinion, but that's cinema. Filmmakers are not transcribers—they're translators, and if you know anything about translation you know it's not done literally.
The main question is whether star Monica Vitti does the legendary main character justice. It was a lot to ask, after Modesty became popular thanks to three years of popular daily comic strips followed by a well received novel. We think she manages fine with the material she's given, but there's the rub. While the screenplay follows the basic thread of the novel, the flow is clunky and the dialogue is cluttered with non-sequitur asides and attempts to be cute that make Vitti resemble Emma Peel from The Avengers rather than the lethal woman O'Donnell created. In terms of the actual story, Modesty is tasked with stopping a master criminal from stealing a cache of diamonds meant for her father (we know, we know—she's an orphan in the books, and it defines her character). She's had dealings with this quirky crook before and would like to settle matters between them permanently. That means traveling from London to Amsterdam to his rocky stronghold on Sicily for a final showdown—in good pumps and a diaphanous haute couture a-line dress.
The action, which is central to the books and written with deadly seriousness, is mostly played for laughs. We mean even to the extent of villains crashing into each other to the accompaniment of circus music. We think this is probably the movie's only unforgivable sin. O'Donnell took pride in his action sequences, underpinning them with ingenious forethought by Blaise and Garvin and violent precision in execution. All the humor and cuteness would have been fine if the movie had thrilled where it most needed to, but no such luck. So in the end what you get is a cutesy spy caper of a type that was all too commonplace during the 1960s, but even goofier than most. We think the movie should have been something fresh and surprising, and in ways that go beyond its glossy high fashion aesthetic. Unfortunately, the final result is no better than watchable, though it becomes progressively more enjoyable the more booze that's ingested. Hit the liquor store before screening it and you'll find out for yourself. Modesty Blaise premiered in London today in 1966.
Only a king of cover art is fit for a queen of espionage.
We said we'd show you a Brazilian Robert McGinnis cover for a Modesty Blaise novel, and here it is. What a nice piece of art. The English language editions lost their McGinnis fronts with book three of the Blaise series in 1969, but somehow Grupo Editorial Record managed to get his art for A virgem intocada, known in English as The Impossible Virgin, fifth in the series, 1971. Why the U.S. and British editions did not get this art is a mystery. We debated reading this tale and talking about it a bit, but by now you've gotten the gist of Modesty and Co. If not, just check here, here, here, or here.
Also, you see here a clean version of the art. We talked before about how we suspect Editorial Record sometimes used but didn't actually license art for its covers. Notice how the clean art, even at smaller size, has more detail—almost like Record had a McGinnis lithograph they photographed and reprinted? Seems to us that if the company had paid for the art they'd have ended up with a fully detailed cover. Circumstantial evidence—yes. But incriminating. Or maybe the printing process was simply not top level and detail was lost. Still, a nice cover.
Modesty Blaise is mmm mmm good.
A Taste for Death was an entry in Peter O'Donnell's famed Modesty Blaise series, about an international criminal-turned-black ops death dealer. The previous three books featured Robert McGinnis fronts on the paperback editions, which you can see here, here, and here, but by the time this one appeared the paperback industry was shifting toward cheaper art—first photographic covers, and eventually computer graphics. The relentless pursuit of increased profits has cost society a lot, from beautiful urban cinemas to livable wages to entire forested mountaintops. Traditional paperback art isn't that important when measured against all the other losses, but it still represents the extinction of something enriching and fun. A Taste for Death was first published in 1969. This edition came from Fawcett Crest in 1972, with uncredited art which we consider to be the last painting of merit to appear on an English language Modesty Blaise paperback. More McGinnis pieces appeared on foreign editions, and we'll share those later. Also, some of the photo covers in the series are nice, and we may share those too.
The book brings back a villain Blaise and her sidekick Willie Garvin thought they had defeated in installment one, the nasty international jewel thief Gabriel, who this time is teamed up with a gorilla of a man named Simon Delicata in a plot to wrest the ancient and priceless Garamantes jewels from an Algerian archaeological dig. They've kidnapped Garvin's girlfriend Dinah Pilgrim, who can find precious metals and gems using dowsing rods and heightened senses. It's a typically imaginative set-up from O'Donnell, who we mentioned before creates villains fit for a James Bond movie. They're never just bad guys—they're freaks of criminality and terrifying physical specimens. Blaise and Garvin always have their hands full, and that's especially true in A Taste for Death, which features not only the wily Gabriel and the beast Delicata, but a master fencer named Wenczel eager to pincushion the heroes. We suggest you get a taste for Modesty Blaise. As fanciful spy capers go, her adventures usually hit the spot.
The Devil went down to Southeast Asia looking for fortunes to steal.
1969's I, Lucifer is Peter O'Donnell's third Modesty Blaise novel, and it's a series we're going through mainly to highlight the great cover art by Robert McGinnis. He didn't illustrate all the books. In fact, this might be the last, which means we'll probably move on to other authors. But that won't be because the Blaise books aren't good. In fact, for the sexy spy genre they're top notch—exotically located, compellingly plotted, and peopled by wacky Bond-style supervillains. Case in point: the titular character in I, Lucifer is a man suffering from a psychotic delusion that he's Satan. The funny part is he isn't evil. The real evil guy is Seff, the opportunist who launches a global extortion scheme that hinges on faux-Lucifer's participation even though his delusion prevents him having a clue what he's really doing. Lucifer might be the only villain we've encountered in a novel who's a victim.
When Seff's murderous extortion hits too close to home for Modesty, she and sidekick Willie Garvin gear up and eventually end up in the Philippines, where they right some wrongs, explosively. As usual Modesty uses sex to get over on the bad guys, and it's a major part of what readers enjoyed about the series. At one point she ponders whether a colleague thinks she's promiscuous. Well, no, she isn't by 1969 standards. But the joy of literature is she can be unpromiscuous, yet we can be there in the room for every one of her widely spaced encounters. This book is particularly amusing along those lines, as it brings two of Modesty's lovers together to be uncomfortable and/or jealous as they're displaced by a third. But sleaze fans will need to look elsewhere. O'Donnell is subtle—if not poetic—with his sex scenes.
Though the sexual aspects of Modesty Blaise were a major attraction of the novels, we enjoy even more the tactical nature of O'Donnell's action, which is probably an influence from his military service in Iran, Syria, Egypt, Greece and other places. It's also probably why so much of the Blaise series is connected to that region. While the tales are always exotic, this entry is even wilder than usual. How wild? It involves precognition, trained dolphins, Moro mercenaries, and body implants that kill remotely, yet it all works. That's because as always, in the center of the chaos, you have Blaise and Garvin, perfect friends, platonic soulmates, and two armed and extremely deadly halves of a razor sharp fighting machine. Abandon all hope ye who cross them.
When an evil mastermind plans to take a bite out of the Middle East, only Modesty Blaise stands in his way.
Above you see a cover for Peter O'Donnell's Sabre-Tooth, his second Modesty Blaise novel, and as with the first book Modesty Blaise, Fawcett Publications managed to land Robert McGinnis for the cover chores. He chose a scene from the narrative in which Blaise uses “the nailer,” a move in which she walks into a room topless, and in the split seconds gained by shock and awe, proceeds to kill everyone in sight. This could only happen in an erotic style adventure, but instead of keeping things as light as the debut novel, O'Donnell veers in a darker direction. There's still plenty of waxing about his main character's physical beauty and sexual prowess, but in terms of actual plot, he takes things in a radically non-erotic direction, and in so doing attempts to show just how far Blaise will go in her pursuit of justice. We won't say what she does, or whether it's realistic, but we'll hint that if a mainstream writer did it today it would spark an online conflagration the intensity of an Australian wildfire.
One thing O'Donnell does well is villains and their henchmen. In this book the main malefactor is a brutal would-be king named Karz who plans to invade and take over Kuwait. His top henchmen are Lok and Chu. Get this: they're twins born conjoined at the shoulder. They lived much of their lives that way, grew to hate each other, but learned to fight and defend themselves in tandem as a matter of mutual survival. When they were finally separated they realized they had no purpose apart, and now go about wearing a leather harness that keeps them conjoined. They still hate each other, but also give each other purpose. As killers they fight back to back and side by side, switching configurations, baffling opponents. That entire concept is O'Donnell in full flower. Take Karz and his twin killers, add the Kuwait takeover, sprinkle in an international mercenary army holed up in an Afghan stronghold, and finally fold in equal portions of Blaise and deadly sidekick Willie Garvin, and you've got yourself a thrill ride worth reading.
O'Donnell shows how sex, violence, and style are supposed to be done.
First of all, we recognize that Peter O'Donnell set down his comic strip character Modesty Blaise in book form almost a decade after the Ficklings created Honey West, but we don't think O'Donnell had any advantages. We don't think his way was paved by earlier sexy heroines, or that he was working under fewer constraints because the permissive ’60s were underway. He simply had a better feel for how to titillate readers. But while his 1965 Blaise debut, entitled simply Modesty Blaise, was erotic, it was also carefully plotted, scenically enthralling, and technically convincing. For example, Blaise and her partner Willie Garvin discuss calibres of weapons, preferred approaches to combat, and the logistics of dealing with adversaries in a way that not only feels natural, but lends credibility to what is at its core a preposterous premise.
The premise: Modesty Blaise is an orphan who, abandoned somewhere in the near east, rises from the life of a street urchin to become the biggest crime kingpin in the Mediterranean. She has help along the way, learning how to fight, shoot, organize, roleplay, meditate, dominate men, and generally survive in a brutal world. There's an edge of harsh realism to this fantasy. Her backstory contains two rapes, a gunshot wound, and beatings, but she perseveres to become a feared, almost mythical figure of the criminal underworld, known by name to many but personally only to Garvin, her partner, protector, sounding board, and trainer, who like her is a former street crook.
Modesty Blaise picks up after Blaise and Garvin have retired with a pile of money but are bored. The British government comes calling with a proposal: work for them under minimal management and return to the life that thrilled them, this time on the side of law and order. The government wants Blaise to stop the theft of a pile of diamonds andprevent a potential international incident. They know a man named Gabriel plans to steal them but they don't know how, where, or when. Blaise and Garvin first work preventatively at a distance, but soon realize the only chance they have is to infiltrate Gabriel's deadly organization and be on hand when the theft is carried out.
In the tradition of James Bond, each Blaise villain tends to employ a particularly unusual henchman, and in this case it's a woman, speculated to be hermaphroditic, definitely sadistic, named Mrs. Fothergill, a martial arts expert and slavering loon. The eventual showdown between Blaise, with her analytical mentality, and Fothergill, who's dense but animalistically clever, doesn't disappoint thanks to O'Donnell's descriptive skills, which allow him paint the action in a step by step way that makes it cinematically easy to picture. He may have picked up this ability from visualizing and writing the Modesty Blaise comic strip, or he may have had it all along. In any case, more writers need the gift.
O'Donnell would write twelve more Blaise books, several of which are—within the constraints of the erotic adventure genre—excellent. When we say erotic we don't mean sex defines the narratives. Blaise is merely a red-blooded beauty in the bloom of youth who happens to be free of inhibitions and possessed of strong appetites. Some of the eroticism is wrapped in action. In The Silver Mistress there's a great climax set beside an underground lake where she evens the odds against a physically superior opponent by stripping and coating herself in slippery cave mud. O'Donnell describes her as he might a creature made of mercury, in constant, fluid motion and silvery in color.
And speaking of visuals, the art on this 1966 Fawcett paperback was painted by Robert McGinnis and was a tie-in to a Twentieth Century Fox film adaptation starring Monica Vitti, whose stylized likeness McGinnis placed on the cover. There's also extra Vitti on the rear. As always, this is great work from McGinnis, a master of his craft. As for O'Donnell's craft, now that we've revisited Blaise and Garvin's debut we'll probably take another look at a few of their other adventurous forays. But this one we can strongly recommend, both on its own and as a superior alternative to Honey West.
An itty bitty glimpse of Vitti is almost as good as the whole thing.
It’s not what you reveal, but how you do it. This shot showing about ten percent of actress Monica Vitti is one of the more provocative images we’ve seen of her. It comes from 1966 and was made when she was filming the adventure Modesty Blaise in Italy.
La Vie Parisenne offers readers an enticing mix of cinema, illustration and photography.
Above, La Vie Parisienne #202 of October 1967—more than one hundred years into its existence by this point—with an uncredited cover star, and interior photos of Gina Lollobrigida, Dany Carrel, Terry Martine, Jane Fonda, Slovenian actress Sceila Rozin, aka Spela Rozin, and other celebs. There’s also a shot of Talitha Pol from Barbarella, and some of you may remember she married the fast living John Paul Getty, Jr. (he of the kidnapped son, though not Pol’s) and later died of a heroin overdose. You also get some truly excellent ink illustrations by the diverse James Hodges, not to be mistaken for contemporary artist Jim Hodges. James Hodges was a French pin-up artist of the 1960s who also became a magician and illustrated magic books, painted playing cards, and designed stage sets. See more from La Vie Parisienne here.
Sexiness is a warm gun (on a book cover anyway).
This cover of Peter O’Donnell’s Sabre Tooth, part of his popular Modesty Blaise series, shows Italian actress Monica Vitti as the title character, and it got us thinking about all the paperback covers that feature photos of women with guns. Of course, we realize that, as far as the gun-crazed U.S. is concerned, thinking of armed people as enticing or artistic may seem a little tone deaf, but we're talking about book covers, that's all. So we decided to put together a collection. We should mention that the Blaise series is worth reading if you’re looking for something along the lines of light thrills. It’s breezy and sexy as only 1960s spy literature can be, and Blaise herself is an interesting character, born in Greece, raised by a Hungarian scholar, trained in martial arts, and proficient in piracy, theft, and all around sneakiness. In Sabre Tooth she finds herself trying to thwart an invasion of Kuwait by an Afghan warlord. Below we have a dozen more photo covers featuring heat-packing women. As always with these collections, thanks to the original uploaders, most from Flickr, but particularly Muller-Fokker and Existential Ennui.
Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise is required reading for fans of pulp.
Above is one of our recent finds, a 1966 French edition from De Noël of British writer Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise, based on his iconic comic strip of the same name. If by chance you aren’t familiar with the character of Modesty Blaise, let’s just say she’s the archetype for every female ass-kicker from Lara Croft to Charlie’s Angels. Her background is too complex to get into in a short post, but the quick version is she began life as an orphan somewhere in the Middle East and rose at a young age to become the head of a vast crime syndicate called the Network. She eventually retired, but sometimes works as a sort of a freelance spy for the British government.
The cover art here is a screen of Italian actress Monica Vitti, who played the lead in a 1966 film adaptation that failed to capture the essence of the character or the scope of her adventures. A 1982 television adaptation didn’t do much better, and a cheapie 2004 effort that was made so the rights wouldn’t revert from the then-owners was monumentally bad. One of those owners was Quentin Tarantino, but he hasn't said if he’ll helm a fresh adaptation. If you haven’t read any Modesty Blaise, we recommend you remedy that immediately. It’s light, but O’Donnell still manages to deliver some thrills along with a healthy dose of eroticism and humor. And in the meantime us Modesty fans will just keep waiting for a film that does the character justice.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1957—Sputnik Circles Earth
The Soviet Union launches the satellite Sputnik I, which becomes the first artificial object to orbit the Earth. It orbits for two months and provides valuable information about the density of the upper atmosphere. It also panics the United States into a space race that eventually culminates in the U.S. moon landing.
1970—Janis Joplin Overdoses
American blues singer Janis Joplin is found dead on the floor of her motel room in Los Angeles. The cause of death is determined to be an overdose of heroin, possibly combined with the effects of alcohol.
The newspaper Pravda is founded by Leon Trotsky, Adolph Joffe, Matvey Skobelev and other Russian exiles living in Vienna. The name means "truth" and the paper serves as an official organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party between 1912 and 1991.
1957—Ferlinghetti Wins Obscenity Case
An obscenity trial brought against Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of the counterculture City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, reaches its conclusion when Judge Clayton Horn rules that Allen Ginsberg's poetry collection Howl is not obscene.
After a long trial watched by millions of people worldwide, former football star O.J. Simpson is acquitted of the murders of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. Simpson subsequently loses a civil suit and is ordered to pay millions in damages.
1919—Wilson Suffers Stroke
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson suffers a massive stroke, leaving him partially paralyzed. He is confined to bed for weeks, but eventually resumes his duties, though his participation is little more than perfunctory. Wilson remains disabled throughout the remainder of his term in office, and the rest of his life.
1968—Massacre in Mexico
Ten days before the opening of the 1968 Summer Olympics
in Mexico City, a peaceful student demonstration ends in the Tlatelolco Massacre. 200 to 300 students are gunned down, and to this day there is no consensus about how or why the shooting began.
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