Sunday, July 20, 2014

Back to Blaise: Peter O’Donnell’s Celluloid Heroine

"There came a time when fear was transmuted into stimulus, and the moments of danger which had once brought terror now brought only a keener sense of being alive."

                                                                                                       -- Modesty Blaise, Peter O'Donnell

Review by Nathaniel Poggiali

Modesty Blaise: striking, sophisticated, and lethal, she retired as head of a criminal organization with her devoted right-hand Willie Garvin; wealthy and bored, the two freelance for Sir Gerald Tarrant of Special Intelligence, accepting only the most dangerous assignments. Modesty and Willie made their first appearance on the comic pages of the London Evening Standard in May 1963, and proved so popular that their creator, Peter O’Donnell, continued to feature them in stories for 38 years. Though the comics continued over several decades, a related book series was just as important in keeping the characters alive. O’Donnell’s debut novel, Modesty Blaise (1965; Souvenir Press), was based on a story for an unsuccessful action spoof directed by Joseph Losey.

Within a year of the comic’s premiere, O’Donnell was approached about turning the strips into a film. He completed a screenplay using elements from a pair of stories published in the Standard, “La Machine” and “The Gabriel Set-Up." The film that resulted bears little resemblance to his work. In an interview for Comic Media, O’Donnell claimed that his writing had been altered “first by an Englishman, then by an Italian lady (in Italian)... translated back into English... rewritten by a West Indian, and finally polished off by an American” (8). The film in its released form (with Evan Jones credited as screenwriter) retains the basic story but adds bizarre, unfunny sight gags -- Modesty’s inexplicable changes in costume, for one -- and, according to O’Donnell, only uses three lines of his original dialogue (8). Not surprisingly, the author rewrote his story as a novel.

Like the film, the novel’s villain is Gabriel, a sociopathic criminal mastermind plotting to hijack a government shipment of diamonds en route to an oil sheik in Lebanon. Accompanying him are the obnoxious hired gun McWhirter and butch Mrs. Fothergill, who is introduced gleefully breaking the neck of a British agent. Modesty, at Tarrant’s request for assistance, stages a falling-out with Willie on the French Riviera to mislead their targets, then uses herself as bait to gain access to Gabriel’s ship. The hijack goes as planned but at the hideout, an island monastery somewhere in the Mediterranean, Modesty and Willie plot their escape with the diamonds.

Losey’s film was only superficially faithful to its source, and O’Donnell’s novel, with its warm, complex characters, exciting action scenes, and lack of camp, is far superior. The heart of the book’s success comes from Modesty and Willie’s chemistry, an unusual (platonic) relationship that transcends the genre’s contrived plotting. Noble and wise but tainted by experience, Modesty and Willie are two of the smartest and most credible of adventure series protagonists.

O’Donnell wrote fight scenes in vivid, thrilling detail, capturing the fear and adrenaline rush experienced by his characters. A brutal match between Modesty and Mrs. Fothergill was not properly staged for the film and featured two actors (Monica Vitti and Rossella Falk) who were out of their element, but in the novel we get a strong depiction of every strike and parry.

The villains are also distinctive, and Gabriel has many chillingly memorable moments. First appearing in comic strip form in “The Gabriel Set-Up” (he would return for “The Head Girls” and the fourth Modesty novel, A Taste for Death), Gabriel’s businesslike approach to torture and murder, his casual brutality, an obsession with Tom & Jerry cartoons - the man is unsettling to the point that we fear for his enemies. It’s too bad Losey had Dirk Bogarde, a wonderful actor not well served by the material, playing him for laughs.

Speaking for Comic Media, O’Donnell claimed that as part of the contract between Beaverbrook Newspapers, owner of the Standard, and the film’s producers, the “essential characteristics” of Modesty and Willie could not be altered. Therefore, some of the more outlandish ideas proposed by other writers never made it to the screen. One written scene O’Donnell objected to -- and had removed -- was an opening credit montage that featured Modesty cold-bloodedly murdering a succession of enemy agents (one has his throat removed with steel talons). Sadly, the author could not block Losey’s campy, condescending approach, a fatal miscasting of the great Monica Vitti, and some ridiculous musical numbers.

Far more faithful is DC Comics’ superb 1994 adaptation, written by O’Donnell with illustrations by Dick Giordano. There are minor differences and dialogue has been simplified, but generally this is closer to what was intended for the big screen. The characters are drawn to resemble the work of original penciller Jim Holdaway and successor Enric Badia Romero, neatly placing the graphic novel into a kind of continuity with the strips (sleepy-eyed Gabriel, in particular, seems to have emerged from Holdaway’s sketches). And Giordano has fun in the panels, whether recreating a Road Runner short to illustrate the villains’ entertainment break, or amusingly playing up differences in height between the irascible Fothergill and taunting McWhirter. A remarkable achievement, the graphic novel is a must for fans. It’s a shame that DC Comics could not move enough copies to justify adaptations of the remaining books.


O’Donnell, Peter. Interview. Comic Media 2.2 (Jan. 1973): 4-16.

---. Modesty Blaise. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965.