Bright Lights Film Journal

Two More Action Heroines

Last week’s Action Heroine Blog-a-Thon was quite enlightening in that it underlined how few action heroines there actually were in the movies prior to the late 1970s. The apparent tipping point was Sigourney Weaver’s debut as Ripley in 1979’s Alien. Which isn’t to say there were NO action heroines prior to the 1970s. Joining Kriemhild in my personal pantheon, here are two more pre-’70s favorites.

Modesty Blaise
A side effect of the James Bond double-nought spy craze that began with 1962’s Dr. No was the emergence of a new archetype – the ass-kicking spy gal. Sometimes she was good. Sometimes she was bad. But in the movies at least, she always played second fiddle to the spy hero. (Not so in the British television series, The Avengers, where Diana Rigg as Emma Peel was an equal partner to her co-star, Patrick MacNee as John Steed. Some might even say she was the real star of the show.)
That changed in 1966 with the release of Joseph Losey’s Modesty Blaise, starring Monica Vitti as a spy gal who could do everything. (As the title song says, “She is the perfect mistress of her art; she is the perfect mistress, too!”) Based on an English comic strip character created by Peter O’Donnell and Jim Holdaway, Modesty was nobody’s sidekick. In fact, she had a sidekick of her own, Willie Garvin, played in the movie by Terence Stamp. She also had, as so many comic book characters do, an arch-nemesis, Gabriel, played with camp hauteur by Losey’s favorite actor, Dirk Bogarde. Losey places his “heroine” and “villain” on a morally level playing field; they are both motivated by greed, Modesty having been hired to thwart Gabriel’s plans by a British government that Losey depicts as treacherous and corrupt.
The movie was not well-received. Losey was an unusual choice to helm a tongue-in-cheek spy film as he had never before directed either a comedy or a big commercial thriller. To the consternation of many spy-film lovers, Losey’s movie was more than anything else an exercise in visual style, the highlight of which was Modesty’s imprisonment in an Op-Art dungeon (see above). Others were offended by the film’s political subversiveness and what some perceived as its outright perversity (Rosella Falk strangling a man in clown makeup between her thighs). Today, I treasure Modesty Blaise as a colorful artifact of ’60s Mod culture, for John Dankworth’s great score, and for Ms. Vitti’s sly deadpan performance as Modesty.
Bat Lady

Y’all remember Bat Lady, don’t you? She was the comic book heroine obsessed over by Jerry Lewis in Frank Tashlin’s classic comedy, Artists and Models (1955). Dorothy Malone plays Bat Lady’s creator, the writer and artist who draws her. A young Shirley MacLaine (in her second film) plays the model who poses for her.

The problem with Bat Lady is we know she’s supposed to be a super-heroine in her comic book, but we never get to see any of her comic book adventures acted out. Regardless, MacLaine is incredibly cute and sexy, posing in her Bat Lady outfits.

Like the best of his other films, Artists and Models is Tashlin’s look at a pop culture phenomenon: Comic books are to Artists and Models as rock ‘n roll is to The Girl Can’t Help It as advertising is to Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

And the new Paramount DVD version of Artists and Models is stunning. I agree with Dave Kehr: “Frank Tashlin + Jerry Lewis + Dean Martin + 8 Perf VistaVision = Bliss.”