The Revision Redux: Modesty Blaise

Modesty Blaise TV pilot (1982)

I actually watched the 1982 TV pilot for Modesty Blaise (directed by Reza Badigi) twice because the first time I watched it, my focus was fading in and out and I was certain I must have missed something.

But no, I did not.

It starts out with some promise — it’s mere moments into the show when there’s an attempted kidnapping and Modesty (Ann Turkel) and Willie (Lewis Van Bergen) leap into action. They rescue a young woman named Emma (Sarah Rush), who is a computer genius. She was in the protection of Gerald Tarrant (Keene Curtis), who works for a secret government agency. He thankfully gives us a quick info dump on Modesty’s background. (Willie does the same with his history to Emma). It’s certainly a lot of setup and that’s fine. It’s a pilot.

But then it decides it needs a plot and things just go downhill from there. The villainous Debbie DeFarge (Carolyn Seymour) is introduced and there are things about computers and the stock market. We also know Debbie is evil because she has a severe hairstyle and a pet snake. (She also has three jail cells in her house, just in case, I guess.)

Turkel finds the right tone for Modesty, to her credit. She’s smart and playful and always in command. She’s not really a great actress, though, although it’s possible she would’ve grown into the role had the series been picked up. Van Bergen is an adequate Willie but he doesn’t quite have the right raw sex appeal Willie needs.

I have no idea if Emma was just going to be a one-off character or was going to hang around as a sidekick of sorts, but Rush never quite settles in. Seymour chews some scenery as Debbie but her styling does most of the work (I’m guessing Debbie was going to be the primary antagonist of the series but I have no idea).

In its better moments, it tends to find the right tone, overall, that feels close to Peter O’Donnell’s comic strip. In its worse moments, it’s basically nonsensical. Modesty and Willie have far too easy a time sneaking into Debbie’s compound, which is supposed to be highly protected. The whole plot is foiled because Modesty picks up the phone to tie up the line so the computer can no longer communicate with the stock market.

And it ends with Modesty grabbing Debbie, holding her arm behind her back and then she and Willie give each other thumbs up. That’s it. The end. It feels like they ran out time so it just stopped it there.  I really thought I had missed something.

Really, the script feels like it was maybe half-written when they started filming and just had to wrap it up somehow.

Certainly, it started out as an adequate attempt at adapting the comic strip but I don’t think anyone was too excited about it. I’m not surprised this didn’t get picked up.

My Name is Modesty: A Modesty Blaise Adventure (2004)

I don’t think most people would call My Name is Modesty: A Modesty Blaise Adventure (2004, directed by Scott Spiegel) a good movie because it isn’t one. It was made in 18 days so Miramax could hang onto the Modesty Blaise rights a bit longer (it’s even given a “Quentin Tarantino Presents …” at the beginning because Modesty Blaise was/is a passion project of his). It has a serviceable cast led by Alexandra Staden but Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is probably the only actor you’ve heard of (although you may recognize Raymond Cruz even if you don’t know his name). It’s a scant 78 minutes (including title sequence and credits) and it really feels like a TV pilot.

Yet, for some reason, I have now seen this at least three times. (Well, in this case, I did have a reason. I don’t know about the other times.)

This takes place in Modesty’s (Staden) earlier years. She hasn’t joined up with the Network, she hasn’t met Willie Garvin. She’s just a young woman working in a casino in Tangier. One night, they’re invaded by a gang looking to get into the casino’s safe. Modesty strikes a deal with the ringleader, Miklos (Coster-Waldau), that they’ll play roulette. If she wins, he releases a hostage. If he wins, she’ll answer any question he asks.

So yes, it’s mostly Modesty telling her life story. That’s certainly a way to keep most actors restricted to one setting.

Modesty was an orphan (here, from the Balkans) who is taken in by a man named Lob, who teaches her languages and how to fight and more. That’s mostly true to the comic strip, with some updates. Still, it feels like everyone went out of their way to not interfere with more classic Modesty Blaise tales. (There is no Willie Garvin here, for instance, which is a shame, but it’s also understandable they wanted to save him for later.)

Spiegel, who directed From Dusk Till Dawn 2, does an adequate job here. It’s vaguely stylish enough with just enough action to keep it distracting. Screenwriters Lee Batchler and Janet Scott Batchler bring a workmanlike quality here — they’re not deeply engaging with the work but they’re doing the job that’s asked of them.

Staden is a standout here and I’m surprised she didn’t do more (her last acting credit seems to be in 2011). She does come across as a little young here and not the confident, worldly Modesty we usually know, but that works for this point of her life (I’m guessing Modesty is meant to be in her very early 20s). She’s not perfect in the role but she does capture the savvy intelligence Modesty is known to have.

As much as this wasn’t meant to be a hit or really even seen by too many people, it’s mostly successful as an adaptation. At the very least, it’s not a failure as one. Everyone involved seems to understand and like Peter O’Donnell’s comic strip. They did what they could given all the restraints they had making it.

It’s definitely not Modesty Blaise at its height, but it points to what could come next. Sadly, that has yet to happen. I’m still going to keep hoping.