The Hidden S in Phonebooth

Welcome to "The Hidden S in Phone Booth." Your writer is Mark Rhodes, a man known within many magazine circles including The Christian Science Monitor, Opera and Wizard. He runs a site called the European Film Report that looks at the art of filmmaking, and will tackle whatever he feels like writing about (similar to Tedd in Hank McCoy (Before the Fur) except with less love of Dazzler). It took until the late 70's for US superhero films to really take hold and transform into something sophisticated and even serious. Ironically enough, the 60's were a particularly fruitful golden age for European oriented superhero/comic films. Three in particular made a fairly serious impact and are still referenced and influential today. The source of the cult popularity of some of these films is in their counterculture tendencies. For instance, there remains a genuine tradition of super-villains with the cache, skills and mythology of American superheroes. The most influential of this group is Barbarella, based on the French comic strip created by Jean Claude-Forest in the early 60's (Forest had a hand in designing the film's production as well). The strip became famous and the live action version of Barbarella was released in 1968 directed by French playboy/international man of mystery Roger Vadim. Barbarella remains a very influential film which is referenced in song, film, comics, manga and almost any pop media. I have recently revisited the film and it does not hold up very well. In particular, the films ideas about sex and sexuality are pretty dated (probably even at the time). There are a couple of eye-popping sequences, however, that are impressive, most notably the opening scene of a young Jane Fonda stripping in zero gravity; a sequence justifiably considered one of the most striking introductory scenes in modern film. Jane Fonda and the great John Philip Law are impressive physical specimens as well and this no doubt accounts for much of the film's continuing image as a cult classic superhero film. Modesty Blaise is a English superhero comic created by writer Peter O'Donnell and artist Jim Holdaway. The strip was the story of a woman (Ms. Blaise) who had escaped from a displacement camp in WWII Europe and managed to learn and train with a series of gurus to become efficient in various types of physical and mental arts. Eventually (as happens in these kind of stories) she took control of an international criminal network and found a male sidekick named Willie Garvin who was equally skilled at martial arts, weaponry and languages (partly under her tutelage). Eventually, Modesty made a fortune and began working on the side of the British government as an operative when she and Willie moved to England. As with many of these kind of characters, the strip was popular all over the world, but less so in the United States. A reason for this is probably because the comic strip often had Modesty lounging around her apartment in various stages of undress which caused the strip to be censored in US newspapers on more than one occasion. There may have been some reluctance to embrace a female superhero type character on the part of the American public as well. In any event, there was a major film made in 1966 (the height of the 007 craze) starring Italian sexpot Monica Vitti as Modesty Blaise and chic leading man Terrence Stamp as Willie Garvin. The film was released on DVD not too long ago by Fox and it remains an enjoyable mess with no real plot and a tone that veers back and fourth between genuine violence and weird slapstick. The production design and clothes of the film are what I think are most enjoyable (Stamp's/Garvin's apartment is very cool). Like Barbarella, the film does not hold up well, but there are some rewards to be found in watching. The best of this lot is Danger: Diabolik. The film, directed by Italian maestro Mario Bava is an adaptation of the italian comic Diabolik about a super-criminal who dresses in a sleek black bodysuit and robs for the pleasure and thrill of it. The comic was very popular in Europe and around the world. But, as with the other comics and strips this was not the case in the United States. I recently saw the film in an art-house type cinema in Huntington, NY (it was a new print). It was impressive to see how the film has held up. John Philip Law's (from Barbarella) is one of the more imaginative performances in a superhero film. Many of the sets are unbelievable (Diabolik's lair is particularly breathtaking) and the soundtrack has a memorable score from Ennio Moriccone. It is assumed that with the success of Iron Man, The Dark Knight, etc., that some European comics might lend themselves to be made (or remade) in the popular cinematic marketplace. Indeed, there were recent news reports that Sin City's Robert Rodriquez was going to remake Barbarella with his (then) girlfriend Rose McGowan. Quentin Tarantino has been a vocal fan of the Modesty Blaise strip (he coproduced a prequel a couple of years ago called My Name is Modesty) for many years. There have also been some reports that the comic Blake and Mortimer (about a couple of Bond-like operatives) will be made into a feature film with John Malkovich. So, this European film and comic fan is ever hopeful... Extra credit-check out the film CQ which was is an homage of many of these 60's era European comic/superhero films. Also, check out a great exhaustive site about European Comics called Cool French Comics as a primer in European Comics.