One after another, the films in out POW!!! retrospective turn out to be far better when seen on the big screen than one would expect — DANGER: DIABOLIK’s somewhat episodic plot seems to flow more smoothly, MODESTY BLAISE’s jarring tonal shifts seem more thought-through, and BARBARELLA —
I used to assume that of the army of writers on this film (including Hammer scribe Tudor Gates, also credited on DIABOLIK), Terry Southern was probably responsible for the funniest lines, but when I got ahold of the Grove Press (!) edition of Jean-Claude Forest’s comic strip, I found they’d been lifted straight from its speech balloons. (“A great many dramatic situations begin with screaming!”) All of them are enhanced, however, by Jane Fonda’s witty and inventive line readings. How many ways of doing wide-eyed innocence ARE there? An infinite number, apparently. Fonda not only makes the film funnier, she defuses offense in the more exploitative scenes, reassuring us that good taste, and the heroine, will not be violated altogether.
Embodying a very up-to-the-minute view of the future, 1968-style (the swishy shipboard computer seems like a riposte to 2001, but surely can’t be), the film is also, by movie standards, comparatively generous towards its source, crediting Forest once for co-co-co-co-co-co-writing, and once for design. Combining his art with the craft of production designer Mario Garbuglia (THE LEOPARD) results in wonderfully Felliniesque settings.
In my intro I said that Roger Vadim’s direction was the weakest link, but after watching the film with an audience I would have to retract that halfway — true, Vadim’s marshalling of his resources into camera coverage sometimes seems a bit random, so that you frown at shapeless footage of clearly magnificent environments and crowds — not as bad as CALIGULA, say, but a milder version of that effect — “I know we’re in an amazing set, but we just can’t see it!” As if, having covered his wife/star, Vadim had no clear plan for how to present anything else, and just let the cameramen roam about as if in a behind-the-scenes documentary. But the pacing of the film is really good. Despite their charms, DIABOLIK and MODESTY BLAISE are both peppered with dead spots in their talking scenes, partly a result of rather thin sound design, partly a result of directors who are either not so comfortable with actors (Bava, I’m afraid) or with comedy timing (Losey, unquestionably). BARBARELLA, in front of an audience, really PLAYS.