Last Day in Limbo

Author: Peter O’Donnell
Publisher: Souvenir Press
Published: 1976

Over the years I haven’t blogged too much about Modesty Blaise, which I almost feel embarrassed about. A casual observer may think that I don’t like Modesty, which is actually far from the truth. So I thought it was time to rectify the dearth of Modesty material on P2K. What spurred me to action was prior to reading Last Day in Limbo, I read Charlie Charters’ Bolt Action, and the the heroine in that story, Tristie Merritt reminded me strongly of Modesty Blaise. Although they are very different characters, and with the passage of time, existing in very different universes, the characters share a lot of similarities, and seem to get themselves into some similar scrapes.

In my review for Bolt Action, I suggested that some of the action passages resembled those of one of my favourite Modesty Blaise books, The Silver Mistress, and just to labour the point, here’s a brief snippet from the climax of Bolt Action (Hodder & Stoughton 2010) – as Tristie Merrit tries to negeotiate the crawlspace area above the cabin of an airplane, just as it is about to be blasted from the sky. Page 350 – 351

She realises why she feels so short of breath. There’s no oxygen supply up there, other than what percolates up from the hole. It explains the tightness in her chest, and the sudden panting. “You’ve got to… get me… some oil. Cooking oil… Olive oil… anything… I saw some… in first class… the focaccia bread… Go.”

But he doesn’t move. He looks around the roof space, testing struts, pulling on brackets. When he speaks, his voice is apologetic. “Just wondering what you need the oil for?”

She gives a long sigh of exasperation. Her lungs feel curiously deadened. “Because there’s a slot… I need tp get through… over there,” and she points to her ten o’clock, “… little bigger than… the size… of a letterbox… and I need… to be… oiled up… to have a chance.”

She can almost hear his smile. “You’re kidding?” Tristie Merritt, naked oil wrestler. Woo, woo.

“No, Whiffler… and I’m going to need… your help… can’t reach… my back… and legs.”

He disappears like a mouse down a hole. No doubt the only person on the plane smiling.

And here’s a passage from the climax of The Silver Mistress (Archival Press 1981) – as Modesty Blaise, slicked in mud, takes on a professional killer named Sexton, while Sir Gerald Tarrant watches on. Page 227 – 230

Page: 227:

She stood with her feet apart, her head thrown slightly back. By some trick of the reflected light which shone down from the glittering mass of needles in the dome, her body was turned to silver. Her hair, drawn tightly back, gleamed like a black helm. But for the slow rise and fall of the breasts under her steady breathing, she might have been an heraldic figure; woman rampant, silver, crowned sable.

Page 228:

She had known that Sexton would want to do it with his bare hands, given the slightest chance. The man came on and halted six paces from Modesty.

“I hope you’re not expecting to seduce me,” he said. “Aren’t you rather cold like that?”

She stood like a statue, not answering. Sexton glided a step nearer, testing the footing carefully. Then suddenly, moving very lightly and with that deceptive fluency which concealed speed, he came after her.

Page 230:

There was blood on her side now, where a glancing kick had torn skin from her ribs, but she seemed unaffected by it. The grease had helped the deflection, and was serving her well. Twice Sexton caught her briefly, once by the forearm and once by the ankle as he evaded a kick. Tarrant’s scalp crawled with fear, but each time she twisted the greasy limb free as the awful fingers closed.

Okay, by selecting those two passages, you’re probably thinking I am some weird fetishist. But I have my reasons that I will explain later – and after all, I am sure you’d rather hear about this Modesty Blaise adventure, Last Day in Limbo, than any of my nocturnal activities. So without further ado, Last Day in Limbo is the eighth book in Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise series – an adventure that doesn’t feature too much spying (although there is a small amount of espionage relayed at the beginning of the story), but still has the rough and tumble kind of adventure that you’d expect from one of Peter O’Donnell’s books.

This story starts with Modesty on vacation, doing a spot of white-water canoeing with millionaire John Dall. Their trip is rudely interrupted by two armed rednecks, who could have stepped off the screen from Deliverance, who take Modesty and Dall prisoner and start marching them up the mountain to a waiting helicopter, which will spirit them away. Of course, Modesty intervenes, and even though the kidnappers are professionals, she quickly takes them down.

The kidnapping was arranged by a corrupt millionaire businessman named Paxero, and his right hand minion, Damion. Paxero kidnaps other millionaires on behalf of his old twisted Aunt Benita, who runs a slave plantation in the middle of the jungle, called Limbo. Aunt Benita’s scheme involves kidnapping the world’s most wealthy and pampered people – faking their deaths, so there’s no questions – and then having spend the rest of their days toiling away as a slave. So the kidnap attempt, was actually aimed at the millionaire John Dall – Modesty, just happens to be an innocent bystander.

Meanwhile, Willie Garvin is helping out Sir Gerald Tarrant, the head of the Secret Service. Garvin is running a refresher course at the training centre where Tarrant’s operatives are taught a wide range of combat skills. Garbin’s student is Maude Tiller – one of Tarrant’s operative’s who has returned from a rather trying mission. She hasn’t quite been herself since she returned. Her last mission, quite coincidentally, was an investigation into the activities of Paxero, and she posed as a good time girl, who Paxero and Damion hired and used at their house in Switzerland. It seems Paxero and Damion are two peas in the same pod when it comes to creepy and aberrant sexual behaviour.  It seems that Maude has not quite recovered from the sexual practices she was forced to perform.

Garvin takes it upon himself to teach Paxero a lesson, and jets off to Switzerland. Of course Modesty joins Garvin on his little adventure. The first thing they do is reconoitre Paxero’s house, and it’s there where Modesty begins to suspect there is more to Paxero than meets the eye. While searching the house, she finds a pocket watch, which she gave to a friend, Danny Chavasse, many, many years ago. She knew that Dany would never give away or sell the watch, so the only conclusion is that it must have been taken or stolen. Which then brings up the question, where is Danny Chevasse? Modesty has a sneaking suspicion that he is not dead.

Of course, Chavasse is one of the many people trapped in Limbo, although at this stage, Modesty does not know what or where Limbo is. But she soon finds out with the help of some of her friends (characters who have been in previous Modesty Blaise novels). The first, is Lucifer, who has powerful pre-cognitive skills. He tells Modesty, that Chavasse is still alive. Next are Steve and Dinah Collier. Dinah has extremely perceptive devination skills, and with a plumbob over a map, is able to ascertain where Chavasse is.

But Modesty has to get to Limbo, and she believes that the best way to do that, is to allow herself to be kidnapped, which she does while scuba diving. She knows she can work better from the inside. Meanwhile, Willie Garvin and Maude Tiller set off from British Honduras (Belize) and virtually cut their way through the rain forest to rendezvous with her at the camp – just in time for the inevitable showdown.

Out of all the Modesty Blaise books I have read (and I haven’t read them all), this is possibly the most sleazy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not smut, but it certainly implies quite a few sexually repugnant actions carried out by the villains. Above, I quoted passages from Bolt Action and The Silver Mistress that are similar, in the fact that they are slightly titillating; both featuring naked female characters, who both happen to be greased up – I know, I know, I am sounding like a weird fetishist again, but bear with me. The thing is, in both books, this titillation happens in tense and exciting action sequences, and as events play out are actually helping the female protagonist to prevail. So while, it’s sexy, it is also consistent with the plot. The greasing up, actually gives them an edge. Last Day in Limbo is driven by sex. Sex is not used as a titillating element in the story, but a ‘dirty’ backdrop. Modesty and Willie are only drawn into the story because of the villain’s penchant for kinky and deviant sex. As such, this book doesn’t share the same joyful tone, as many other stories of its ilk – even those by Peter O’Donnell.

My comments may make Last Day in Limbo sound like a bad book. It’s not. It’s not smut – as I alluded to earlier, the deviant sex is only implied, never paraded in front of the reader. The book is a good Modesty Blaise adventure. But I would suggest Peter O’Donnell, tried to take the story into slightly new territory eschewing, if only slightly, some of the light swashbuckling charm of the early novels, and attempted to bring the story kicking and screaming into the mid 1970s. And that’s not a bad thing.

While Last Day in Limbo is a solid piece of entertainment, there are one or two coincedences in the story, that start to push the the envelope of believability. There is an awful lot of ‘just going on a hunch’ type of action. Modesty friends and their ‘special powers’ also weaken the story. They are interesting characters, but there is very little investigation in this story. The pieces of the puzzle come to her just a tad too easily, and although her physical prowess comes to the fore at the end of the novel, her brain is never really tested.

Last Day in Limbo

Dig that Crazy Scene, Man!

One of the fascinating things about watching spy films from the 1960s is the layering of psychedelic elements into the plot, and their presentation on screen. Psychedelia is one element that truly separates a spy film from 1960s from those of the preceding decades, and those after it (although I am sure some throwback psychedelia filtered through to the ’70s and beyond – such as the Michael Caine film Blue Ice, but the tripping torture sequence in that film, I would suggest was meant to evoke the torture scene in Caine’s The IPCRESS File which was made in 1965).

The psychedelic elements in spy movies came out of several factors. Firstly, and most obviously, LSD. LSD was invented in the 1940s, but the C.I.A. started experimenting with the drug in the 1950s.

From Wikipedia:

Beginning in the 1950s the US Central Intelligence Agency began a research program code named Project MKULTRA. Experiments included administering LSD to CIA employees, military personnel, doctors, other government agents, prostitutes, mentally ill patients, and members of the general public in order to study their reactions, usually without the subject’s knowledge. The project was revealed in the US congressional Rockefeller Commission report in 1975.

As the C.I.A.s experiments weren’t public knowledge until the 1970s they can’t really be held accountable for the profusion of psychedelic elements in spy films throughout the ’60s. However the rise in the use of LSD as a recreational drug, coincided with stories about ‘truth serums’ emanating from Russia, and ‘brain washing’ emanating from China. One of the first stories to capture the public’s imagination about ‘brain washing’ was Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate.

Once again, a snippet from the knowledgeable contributors at Wikipedia:

The Oxford English Dictionary records its earliest known English-language usage of “brainwashing” in an article by Edward Hunter in New Leader published on 7 October 1950. During the Korean War, Hunter, who worked at the time both as a journalist and as a US intelligence agent, wrote a series of books and articles on the theme of Chinese brainwashing.

[Also, brain washing…]

… originally referred to methodologies of coercive persuasion used under the Maoist regime in China, which aimed to transform individuals with a reactionary imperialist mindset into “right-thinking” members of the new Chinese social system. To that end the regime developed techniques that would break down the psychic integrity of the individual with regard to information processing, information retained in the mind and individual values.

To listen to a radio broadcast of Edward Hunter talking about Brainwashing, visit WFMU’s Beware of the Blog – Radio Site. Here you can also download an MP3 of the interview.

For stories about ‘truth serums’ we turn to the USSR – from Wikipedia:

A defector from the biological weapons department 12 of the KGB “illegals” (S) directorate (presently a part of Russian SVR service) claimed that a truth drug codenamed SP-117 was highly effective and has been widely used. According to him, “The ‘remedy which loosens the tongue’ has no taste, no smell, no color, and no immediate side effects. And, most important, a person has no recollection of having the ‘heart-to-heart talk'” and felt afterwards as if they suddenly fell asleep. Officers of the S directorate used the drug primarily to check the trustworthiness of their own illegal agents who operated overseas…

So combining drugs and brainwashing which had already crept into the arena of espionage, and adding the increasing public awareness of mind altering substances such as LSD eventually paved the way for film-makers to portray lurid and fanciful tales of espionage littered with psychedelic elements.

Our Man Flint - Japanese Record Sleeve

But these ‘real-life’ elements were not the only reason for ‘psychedelic spy stories’. During the mid to late sixties, there was a massive spy boom brought on by the success of the James Bond movies. Films and television shows emerged seemingly overnight, each of them eager to capture their own slice of the lucrative spy market. But how did these imitators separate themselves from just being pale imitations? The first thing they did was get away from the stiff authoritarianism of the Bond series. Bond was a suit with a gun. The imitators adopted more casual heroes: heroes who were hipper and more with the times. Derek Flint the hero of Our Man Flint and In Like Flint does work for a government agency, he works alone. But he can go-go with the best of them. Matt Helm as played by Dean Martin is The Silencers, Murderers’ Row, The Ambushers and The Wrecking Crew was perpetually inebriated and never in a suit. So in line with the loose heroes of these movies, the film makers adopted a modern approach in the presentation of their movies. Weird camera angles, shots through coloured glass and fish-tanks, psychedelic wallpaper and colour schemes were all adopted to in an attempt to present their movies as hipper and more in keeping with the times than the staid old Bond movies.

Youth gone wild in Hammerhead

On of the more interesting opening scenes, happens in the film Hammerhead, where secret agent Charles Hood attends a piece of performance art, clearly based on the Theatre of the Absurd. During the opening, manikins are being shot and dismembered, while a food fight happens around them. One girl gets covered in tomato sauce and placed inside a giant bread roll, while nude violinists and accordion players serenade her out of key. It’s a very surreal sequence.

David Niven and Joanna Pettet in Casino Royale (1967)

Slightly ironic, is the fact that Charles K. Feldman’s 1967 version of Casino Royale, itself a James Bond film, also tried to distance itself from the official Bond series by adding generous helping of psychedelia.

Monica Vitti as Modesty Blaise

But for psychedelic excess, Joseph Losey’s film version of Modesty Blaise must take the cake. In the film we are treated to a swirling kaleidoscope of colours, and twisted imagery. One of the many stylised highlights of excess is when the villain, Dirk Bogarde, drinks from an over sized wine glass, which not only contains an electric blue beverage, but features goldfish swimming around inside as well.

Dig that Crazy Scene, Man!

Bolt Action

Bolt ActionAuthor: Charlie Charters
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Published: 2010

As a youngster, one of my favourite books, was the Modesty Blaise adventure The Silver Mistress. I don’t even know if it is one of Peter O’Donnell’s best Modesty stories, but it hit me at just the right age – and when I found out what the ‘silver mistress’ alludes to, it just blew my tiny mind. For those who haven’t read it, it is Modesty, during hand to hand combat with a villain, naked and covered in a gray mud, which under the moonlight makes her look silver. You can see how that would appeal to a teenage boy, right? So I love Modesty. She exists in a place in my heart that only sentimentality and nostalgia can bring. But her adventures are very much of their time. That’s not a criticism, but a rather obvious observation.

But what if there were Modesty Blaise stories being written now? What would they be like in this post 9/11 world. Of course, this a huge leap, but maybe they may be a little like Bolt Action, which features a heroine named Tristie Merrit. Tristie is an orphan, who found a life – a community – as a soldier. And an exceptional soldier at that. One, that even the most hard-nosed, woman hating members of the armed-forces, had to admit, was a damn fine soldier.

From page 15:

Because the truth was best summed up by one of the DS, a barrel-chested warrant officer from Merthyr Tydfil whose first combat was almost twenty years before. Purposefully he’d tabbed every step of the Downs alongside Tristie, watching her, willing her to cock up.

Back in the sergeant’s mess, everybody crowded around to hear the Welshman’s verdict…Aye, Lads, You’re Not Wrong There…She’s A Pretty One, I’ll Give You That… He couldn’t stop himself from beaming with something like pride… But More Than The Fact She’s Damn Good Looking, Let Me Tell You, She’s F*cking Brutal Too. In the mess that was an astonishing rare compliment towards a female, let alone a female officer.

But Tristie’s life as a soldier has come to an end – after she is badly injured near Lashkar Gar in Afghanistan. The thing is, after rehabilitation she is dumped in a run-down barracks in South Wiltshire, and there she discovers that the the armed forces amenities have been sub-contracted out to large corporations. Corporations that are happy to take the governments money, but are not so keen on putting that money back into accommodation and services for the armed forces. Basically the army is going to shit, while a few fat-cats live off the riches and get even fatter.

Now as a civilian, this almost abusive treatment for people who have served on the front line for their country is unacceptable. It’s there and then she decides to do something about it. Now in my intro I took the lazy option of comparing Tristie to Modesty Blaise, and in some ways that is fair enough – they share many similar characteristics – but if you’ll forgive me – here she displays qualities more akin to Major Reissman – that’s Lee Marvin – in The Dirty Dozen.

Tristie sets about putting a team together for a mission – her own ‘dirty half dozen’. The guys are known as Whiffler, Button, Ferret, Shoe, Piglet and  Weasel – and each is a specialist in a field of military endeavor, whether it be shooting, explosive’s, vehicles etc. She calls her team Ward 13.

Tristie and Ward 13 then set about extorting the Ministry of Defense for a sizable amount of money after stealing a computer with the protocols for Britain’s Trident missile system. The money however, is not for Ward 13’s personal use, but to be directed to a series of veteran’s charities.

Meanwhile as on the other side of the world, Pakistani General Ali Mahmood Khan has covertly been taken into custody as it is believed that he has siphoned off $247 million dollars in US funds which were intended for equipment and facilities for the Pakistani forces to use against al-Qaeda. But General Khan is a wily old critter, and had put in place a plan of vengeance against the west should he be killed or disappear, and his capture and rendition has inadvertently put his diabolical scheme into action. One man who suspects something is going to happen – but he doesn’t know what – is the CIA’s top man in Islamabad, Bill Lamayette. However Lamayette doesn’t have any concrete proof to back this up, so his opinions and ideas are given short shrift by his superiors, and he is left to go it alone.

In fact, Bolt Action features three main story threads playing out. The first concerns Tristie and her band of brothers, then there’s Lamayette’s quest for answers in Pakistan, and finally there is the office bound actions of Sheila Davane, who is one of the heads of M.I.5.

Unfortunately Lamayette is correct and a terrorist attack is in the works. The operation is called Macchar (or mosquito), and it involves the hijacking of a plane on route from Manchester to New York. This flight also happens to be the same flight that Tristie Merrit, Whiffler and Button are on. I’m sure you don’t need me to fill in the blanks now and can see where the story is headed. And while the central premise of the story may have done the rounds over the years, what lifts this story above the pack is the way it is told.

The first thing you will notice about Bolt Action is that it is written in the present tense. Most novels these days, and either written in past tense or in first person. So for example, rather than saying ‘she picked up a gun’, Bolt Action would say, ‘she picks up a gun’. Obviously writing in this way would not change the plot, but what it does, is drop the reader right into the middle of the action. Rather than having the story reported to you, you are in fact a witness to the action. Which is probably just what you want in an thriller novel.

Bolt Action, despite its title isn’t too action packed. The ‘Bolt Action’ of the title actually refers to the locks on the cockpit doors. The story does contain passages of action, but this book is a thriller in the old sense of the word. It’s sort of like the literary equivalent to an Alfred Hitchcock movie, with each incident building upon the next, ratcheting up the suspense and tension.Once the ill-fated flight takes off from Manchester to New York, the pages can’t be turned fast enough and it becomes a white-knuckle read.

From the Blurb:

The pilots are dead. The cockpit door is locked.

Since 9/11, the door between the pilots and the passengers on an airliner must be locked and impossible to break down.

But what if the pilots are dead?

Tristie Merritt leads a renegade band of ex-soldiers. Their daring scam will take millions from a furious British government and give it to veterans` charities – if MI5 don`t catch up with them first.

But, faced with the ultimate terrorist outrage at 36,000 feet, MI5 and the CIA find that Merritt is their one hope of preventing global disaster.

For more information about Charlie Charters, and Bolt Action, visit his website.

Bolt Action

Deadlier Than the Male

In the 1960s the world was changing. With the Women’s Liberation movement and the sexual revolution, women became more than damsels in distress that had to be rescued by stereotypical men of action in spy stories. Women could be secret agents in their own right, every bit the equal to a James Bond or a Matt Helm. Take Modesty Blaise (1966) for instance. Okay she is not really a secret agent, but she undertook missions that would be befitting of a spy and she had more gadgets hidden about her person than in Q’s wildest nightmares. In the television show Get Smart, (1965-1971) Agent 99 was a far superior spy to the constantly inept Maxwell Smart.

Asian cinema, in particular, certainly embraced the idea of a leading female secret agent, with Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong pumping out of few features, such as Angel with the Iron Fists, Angel Strikes Again, and to a lesser extent, Temptress with a Thousand Faces. In the ’70s and beyond, Japan presented us with the (if I may say – ‘the slightly perverted’) Zero Woman series.

But once this equality was achieved, where did it go from there? Women became the SUPER VILLAINS. Not just ugly old women that cinematically speaking, had no worth, but gorgeous svelte girls who knew how to use their sexuality to achieve their goals. Like Sirens on the rocks these girls would lure unwitting men to their deaths.

In Deadlier Than The Male (1967), and it’s sequel Some Girls Do (1969) the head villain employs women solely as his operatives, or to borrow from Ian Fleming, as his ‘Angels of Death.’

The Million Eyes of Sumuru (1969) and In Like Flint (1967) take the premise even a step further. Their evil organizations are controlled and run exclusively by women and their sole purpose is to take over the world.

We’ve come a long way since the sixties. On prime time television we’ve had the girls strutting their stuff on La Femme Nikita and Alias. Currently we have Covert Affairs with Piper Perabo (and soon Nikita with Maggie Q – I think it hits the air tonight in the US) dominating our television screens. These girls aren’t just hot, but they are in control too. Sure some of them may have to answer to male controllers, but the men aren’t out in the field helping fight the good fight. They’re back in the office scheming. In time though, even this changed.

When in real life, Stella Rimington became the Head of M.I.5 in 1992, the role of a female in the labyrinthine world of espionage changed forever. This was reflected in films too. The Bond films replaced their crusty old male M with Dame Judi Dench.

Spy films and television often cop a lot of stick for being sexist entertainment, and while in some cases that may be true, I would also argue that it also one of the most liberating of genres, and allowed the girls to take the lead long before they were allowed to strut their stuff in other genres, such as science fiction and detective stories.

Deadlier Than the Male

Modesty Blaise: Pilot (1979)

Release Year: (1979 or 1982)
Country: United States
Director: Reza Badiyl
Starring: Anne Turkel, Lewis Van Bergen, Keene Curtis, Sarah Rush, Professor Toru Tanaka
Music: Kevin Knelman
Based on characters created by Peter O’Donnell

Most visitors to this site probably have an image in their mind of what Modesty Blaise looks like. For some, it may come from the illustrated book covers (American ones by famed illustrator Robert McGuiness), others may recall the long running comic strip that appeared in newspapers all around the world (I think I started reading around the Romero era). There may even be one or two of you who plump for Monica Vitti in Joseph Losey’s 1966 film adaptation, or Alexandra Staden from the recent ‘beginnings’ flick, My Name is Modesty. But whatever the image is that you have locked away in your head, it will, most likely, never prepare you for this small screen incarnation of the popular character.

This production was actually the pilot episode for a proposed television series featuring Anne Turkel as the ubiquitous Modesty Blaise. While Turkel is a very glamorous woman — whoa, actually let me stop there — I am not going to blame Turkel for the way Modesty looks. There are wardrobe, makeup and hairdressers to blame for all that. This pilot episode was made — well I don’t know — some sources say 1979, and IMDb says 1982. On style I’d guess the earlier date, but sure, I could be wrong. But at the risk of being lazy, and to help me convey a mental picture of what this series is like, the epitome of feminine beauty (at least on TV) when this pilot was made, could be summed up in two words — ‘Charlie’s Angels’.

This Modesty seems to be aimed at the ‘Jiggle TV’ crowd. Turkel is saddled with some big hair, is overly made-up, and the fashions – especially a hot-pink t-shirt she chooses to wear later in the mission, are in a word, ‘tacky’.

Now having said all that, I now have to repeat the process for Willie Garvin, played by Lewis Van Bergen. Rather than rattling through the same long-winded diatribe again, let me simply say that it looks like the Bee Gee’s hair stylist has got hold of poor Willie. This episode must have cost the producers a small fortune in hair mousse.

Okay, so the episode doesn’t meet my preconceived ideas about Modesty and Willie. But what if I stripped away the window dressing and simply judged the characters by their actions and their rapport? Does this episode, hidden beneath its glossy teased exterior, have the true essence of a Modesty Blaise adventure? Well, let’s take a look.

The episode starts with a slick title sequence. A gentle, flamenco guitar flavoured jazz flits over some stylised spy / crime imagery — loading guns and that sort of thing. Then it explodes into sax driven seventies disco rock with a shrill vocal, that tries hard to evoke the magic of Dame Shirley Bassey. Sadly it falls way short.

As the episode proper starts, Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin are attending an exclusive art exhibition. They are about to leave when, across the lobby from them, the elevator doors open, and a young women rushes partially out of the door and screams. She is quickly grabbed from behind and dragged back in. The doors close. Of course, Modesty and Willie have to act. The elevator is heading down, so Willie rushes to the stairs and starts scrambling down. Meanwhile Modesty waits for the next lift.

On the ground level, the lift door opens and the kidnapped woman is escorted out with two burly goons at her side. By this time Willie has made it to the ground level and has exited the stairwell. He sees the girl being shunted through the crowd, and he rushes over and immediately sets about bringing the burly goons down with some rather unconvincing karate moves.

While Willie takes on the goons one by one, the frightened woman runs back in the opposite direction. The second goon is on her tail. Naturally, as the show is called ‘Modesty Blaise’ and not ‘Willie Garvin & his cute sidekick’, our heroine must get involved in the action.

Now let me explain something here. All this action is taking place in a crowded foyer with an audience of wealthy black-tie types standing by and just watching. When Modesty enters the fray, visually she seems no different from the other patrons at the exhibition centre. Now if I was a big burly goon (don’t say it!) and chasing somebody through a demure black-tie event and a scrawny little princess-type leaped into the way, I wouldn’t be too perturbed. I know that fans of Modesty Blaise know that she can more than take care of herself, but this goon isn’t to know that. He should simply just try to brush her aside. Instead he breaks off his pursuit of the woman and chooses to engage in a fight with Modesty on a set of stairs. He pulls a knife and charges at her. She performs some particularly unconvincing martial-arts moves (every bit as unconvincing as Willie’s) and knocks the big lug down. Modesty then grabs the young girl and spirits her to safety.

Now, if you’re like me, you’re probably wondering what this is all about. It appears that the target of the kidnapping, Emma Woodhouse (Sarah Rush) is a computer genius. In conjunction with two other computer wizards, she has invented the ‘MTX Cryptographic Computer ©’. But, as so often happens when exciting new technological devices are created, the inventors get bumped off. The two other men who worked on the MTX project have both met with mysterious accidents. Now it appears that Emma, who is the only one left who can operate the MTX, is wanted by some very shady villains.

Actually the villains aren’t very shady or threatening at all. In fact they’re laughable. After what was a rather straight opening, the episode veers towards high-camp. If it wasn’t for the presence of professional wrestler Professor Toru Tanaka as one of the henchmen, the whole episode would have nose-dived into bad pantomime. He adds a modicum of physical menace.

During the episode there is a strange little sequence where Modesty meets Gerald Tarrant for the first time. Readers of the books and comics will be well aware of Sir Gerald. Of course, his character is similar here – he is the director of the Special intelligence Bureau. But as we first met him, he is bald — in fact he remains bald, that doesn’t change — and he sits stroking a white Persian cat. I am puzzled why the script writers (or whoever though to include this sequence) felt the need to allude to Ernst Stavro Blofeld from the James Bond series — that is unless they thought that they were appealing to the same market? Maybe it was a red-herring to make us suspect that Tarrant was a villain. I don’t know. I simply thought it was clumsy and unnecessary.

That brings us to the cast. I know Anne Turkel can act. She is in the cast of the pilot episode for the Matt Helm television series starring Tony Franciosa, and she does an admirable job. But I guess, it is quite a bit different playing a scared, wide eyed damsel in distress, to playing a sexy, confident and charismatic character like Modesty Blaise. On the whole she does a decent enough job. If the series was allowed to continue, I think she may have grown into the role, but of course, we will never know. But she is, as I have mentioned, saddled with the trappings of the day. Looking back now — almost thirty years, Turkel and the production just seems lame and, well let’s be honest, laughable. It may be a cruel judgment in 2010, but there was a reason that this series wasn’t picked up, and that is, it just didn’t quite work. On top of that now, all these years later, the only people who would seek this show out are extreme Modesty Blaise fans (or spy geeks like me) — and we’re a pretty tough crowd to play to.

Then we have Lewis Van Bergin, who is terribly miscast as Willie Garvin. His acting is amateurish at best, and he really comes from the ‘scratch your ass and mumble’ school of acting. Van Bergin would later star in the short-lived series, Sable, based on the comic by Mike Grell. Grell is no stranger to the fans of the comic book incarnation of James Bond, having done Permission to Die and the illustrated adaptation of Licence to Kill. But Van Bergin’s Willie (that’s a trifle clumsy on my behalf) is not the man he should be. He appears to have a better rapport with his co-star than his leading lady.

Earlier I asked, did this episode contain the essence of a Modesty Blaise adventure. I hate to be a fence sitter, but there is just enough to offer hope – but not enough to give the show the big thumbs up, The writers were obviously familiar with the source material (which I applaud), and they also realised that they were writing in a different medium and for a different market. You can’t really blame them for that. When it comes to dealing with Modesty and Willie’s backstories, it is quite accurate, but that isn’t enough. At best, it now serves as a curio for Blaise fans, and with each passing year, it is going to seem more out of tune with the times and the (most importantly) the character. At the end of the day, it is what it is, a piece of lightweight ‘Jiggle TV’. Maybe not the dog to be kicked, as some would have it, but by no stretch of the imagination is this a long-lost gem.

Thanks to MB

Modesty Blaise: Pilot (1979)

My Name Is Modesty (2003)

Directed by Scott Spiegel
Alexandra Staden, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Raymond Cruz, Fred Pearson, Eugenia Yuan,
Music by Deborah Lurie
Based on Characters created by Peter O’Donnell

Time was running out for Miramax films, who held the film rights to the character Modesty Blaise. They had to make a film quickly or lose those rights. My Name Is Modesty is the result. It isn’t a ‘bad’ picture, but it is a low budget production which attempts to tell a small story about how Modesty, became Modesty Blaise. It is not a slam-bang action film. And in no way does it resemble the 1966 film, Modesty Blaise (and that is a good thing!) It was filmed in Romania and shot over a period of eighteen days…as you can see; it wasn’t exactly a labour of love…more of a contractual obligation.

The film starts off with a slick monochromatic title sequence, which uses pop-art colours. Since Modesty began her life as a comic-strip character, this seems appropriate. Then the story starts, somewhere in the Balkans…

In the middle of a war zone, a group of soldiers take a break from the carnage to eat. In the ruins is a young girl, Modesty of course, in tattered rags. It appears that her family is dead, and she lives amongst the rubble. One of the soldiers offers her a can of food, and asks her name. No reply. She takes it, and then is gone!

Eleven years later we are in a casino in Tangiers. Modesty Blaise (Alexandra Staden) is now one of the managers of the casino. She says:
“Everybody is born with a certain amount of luck. Some spend their luck on cards – some spend it at the roulette wheel – one in thirty-six chances – for the lucky, the brave or the foolish. One in thirty-six did I say? Actually no! One out of thirty-seven. Most people like to forget that the odds are stacked against them!”

Although Modesty is in charge of the casino, she doesn’t own it. Her boss is Henri Louche (Valetin Teodosin). Louche is planning some ‘big’ deal. We aren’t told what it is, but we know it is illegal and requires him to have a large amount of cash in the casino vault. As Louche, is chauffeured home, his car is ambushed and he is shot and killed.

Then the assailants burst through the door of the casino and shoot up the place. Naturally enough (in case you haven’t worked it out), they are after the money in the vault. Unfortunately for them, their itchy trigger fingers have killed all the people who know the combination. Well, except for one man, Garcia (Raymond Cruz) who has taken the evening off and is ‘entertaining’ a lady friend out of town.

The head of assailants, mercenaries if you will, is Myklos (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). He is a blood thisty, shoot first – ask questions later kind of guy. He now finds himself in a predicament. He takes all the staff hostage and threatens to shoot one person at a time till he is given the combination to the vault. Modesty takes control and explains that only one man can open it. She calls him on the phone, with a gun at her temple, so she can’t warn him. Garcia prepares to make his way back to the casino, but it will take him a few hours to make the journey.

While the mercenaries and the captive casino staff wait for him to return, Myklos and Modesty engage in a game of roulette to pass the time. If Modesty wins three spins in a row, one of the hostages is released. If Myklos wins, he gets to ask Modesty a question about her past. Why is he, a cold-blooded killer, so infatuated with Modesty? Let’s just say it is one of the conceits of the script, so that we can see via flashback how Modesty Blaise became the person she is today.

If you can get over the ‘smallness’ of this picture, it almost succeeds. The idea of explaining the origins of Modesty’s character is a good one – and even the films structure, given it’s budgetry and time constraints is pretty good. The real weak link is Alexandra Staden as Modesty. She certainly looks the part, but in a small (there’s that word again) ensemble piece like this, you really need an actress who is ‘electric’ as Modesty. Staden does not have the charisma or the depth to bring Modesty to life. It is pivotal that she dominates her screen time, and this doesn’t happen.

Many other reviews for My Name Is Modesty are fairly scathing, which isn’t an accurate reflection on this film. It is very flawed, that’s for sure, but if you have an interest in Peter O’Donnell’s character then this movie is not a total waste of time. It presents a different insight into one of popular cultures most loved heroines.

Let’s hope that if another Modesty Blaise film is made, that they finally get it right.

This review is based on the Miramax Home Entertainment USA DVD

My Name Is Modesty (2003)