John DANKWORTH * Modesty
Blaise * Harkit Records HRKCD 8002 * [47:35]
35 years before fans were complaining about sex-bomb British video-game icon Lara Croft being played by a foreign actress (the American Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider) fans were complaining about sex-bomb British comicstrip icon Modesty Blaise being played by a foreign actress, the Italian Monica Vitti. The character Modesty Blaise was created by Peter O'Donnell in 1962 and ran as a successful newspaper comicstrip for several years, O'Donnell going on to write a series of popular novels about a heroine who was essentially a female James Bond.
The making of the film Modesty Blaise (1966), a misguided attempt on the part of 20th Century Fox to jump on the Bond bandwagon, is fascinatingly recounted in David Caute's book Joseph Losey: A Revenge on Life. It is a far better source of background information than this current album, the only notes with which comprise a detailed plot synopsis (simple plot synopsis: Modesty Blaise saves the world).
The film was misguided because the intellectual, politically minded Losey was as bizarre a choice for a popular action franchise as can be imagined. His other mid-60's work included The Servant, King and Country and Accident, all with Dirk Bogarde, who first worked with the director as far back as 1954's The Sleeping Tiger. Bogarde played the villain in Modesty Blaise, and Losey reputedly became so obsessed with Vitti that he totally disregarded her Italian accent made her a laughably unconvincing Englishwoman. The result was a distinctively unfocused slice of eccentric 60's filmmaking, resembling nothing Losey had made before or would make after. In retrospect it appears that the director and his friends were having fun in Europe spending a lot of Hollywood money whilst attempting a freewheeling satire of the very sort of commercial pictures Losey despised. The result was a gorgeously photographed film which pleased neither Losey's arthouse fans nor the film's intended mainstream public. It was not artful satire nor exciting action picture, but a somewhat entertaining mess pitched between the two.
John(ny) Dankworth is generally known as a popular jazzman, but has been a film composer since the 1950's, his most recent score being for Gangster No.1 (2000). By the time he wrote the music for Modesty Blaise he had already penned Losey's The Concrete Jungle (1960) and The Servant and would afterwards score the director's Accident and Boom. Given the muddled approach to the making of the film it is barely surprising that the score is something of a grab-bag of astonishingly disparate elements.
Almost every possible musical element and then several different models of kitchen sink appear on this release, an extended version of the original 1966 soundtrack album. There are 18 tracks, but no indication which are newly released. The sound is a rather limited and sometimes slightly distorted mono, the quality varying from cut to cut, from good to poor. The predominant mode is unsurprisingly jazz, but this is only a starting point for a score which goes everywhere in swinging 60's style.
First appearing in the inevitable opening title song, the main theme pops-up in various instrumental and vocal guises and is suitably up-beat, dynamic and carefree; it is given a particularly rousing workout in the exciting "Modesty and Willie Escape". Much prominence is given to trumpet, while elsewhere Dankworth indulges in pastiche Barry/Bond suspense music, "Going Upstairs"; kitsch dances such as the mock Russian "Nightclub Dance" as might have appeared in more polished form in a Henry Mancini thriller score of the period; right through to enormously kitsch talking-on-pitch duets. Listening to Vitti and Terrance Stamp on the first part of "Modesty, Willie and Ice Cream" has to be heard to be disbelieved, while the central section sounds like Francois Lai on speed, the later part Mancini on mogadon.
"Modesty Chased - Modesty Unchaste!" is nothing so much as a 1960's spoof of what was then imagined to been "silent movie" music, and as such rather echoes the beginning of the recent Oscar winner, Tom Jones (1963). There is spoof cavalry to the rescue music in "The Sheik to the Rescue", leading into another Vitti/Stamp duet which makes one wonder if the film actually comes from some parallel universe where this sort of thing makes sense. At one point a drunk-sounding Stamp "sings", "We'll have a donkey in the stable for a peaceful donkey ride." Of course.
Daffy as a psychedelic cartoon and only like anything else you may have heard in 1966, the invention positively bubbles, but it doesn't make for a remotely coherent album. It is though a fair enough memento of a very mad movie. If you loved the film, or are a Dankworth completist, go ahead and purchase. Anyone else is advised to have a listen and see if this really is their sort of thing.
- reviewer Gary S. Dalkin