Tuesday 27 May 2014

Superargo VS Diabolikus (Superargo Contra Diabolikus)

Key Argo

Superargo Contra Diabolikus 
(aka Superargo VS Diabolikus)
1966 Italy
Directed by Nick Nostro
LFACC DVD Region 0

Superargo Contra Diabolikus is a film I’ve been wanting to take another look at for while because I have a few of these Italian masked heros and villains films to get through over the next year or so and this one is one of the first of these from Italy and, as it happens, it’s also one of my favourites. I’m probably, in fact, unusual in that most of the things I’ve seen in print about these particular films tend to favour the sequel, Superargo And The Faceless Giants (which I reviewed here ) over the original but, personally, I still prefer this one, although it’s even more simplistic than it’s successor, it has to be said.

From what I can understand, Superargo Contra Diabolikus was one of a number of films which were put in production to ride the wake of the popularity of the Diabolik fumetti and the proposed big screen adaptation of it, Danger: Diabolik. However, due to production problems on the Diabolik movie, which led to delays and eventually ended up being directed by the incredibly talented Mario Bava for a 1968 release, this film (and a fair few others, from what I can make out) didn’t exactly coast along in the wake of the Diabolik film because it actually beat it into cinemas by two years.

I personally reckon, however, that certain elements of the Superargo character, which I believe was a creation created entirely for the screen and not based on any source novel or comic, must have taken some influence from the popular Mexican series of films headlining Santo (aka El Santo) the masked wrestler and which dealt with his exploits against various villains or supernatural monsters, sometimes with a big helping of science fiction thrown in at the same time. That would certainly account for the pre-credits sequence in this film, which looks like it could almost have been ripped out of one of the Santo movies, and which establishes Superargo (played by Ken Wood) as a wrestler who accidentally kills his friend in the ring (by throwing him out of it) and forcing Suparargo himself, filled with remorse, into retirement... thus leaving him free to join the secret service and lend them the use of his superpowers. This is something his girlfriend, played by Monica Randall, is very pleased about, when he joins the service after a fantastically cool and psychedelic opening credits section which combines swirling shapes, an illustrated artist's mannequin and shots of Superargo posing and screaming in mad pain, all set to a soundtrack which eventually... oh, wait. I’ll get to the music in a little while.

There follows a post credits sequence where Diabolikus (played by Gérard Tichy, who looks almost like a clone of Joseph Cotton, in all honesty), his sexy right hand gal (an unnamed character played by Loredana Nusciak) and a bunch of never ending thugs, steal plutonium and other rare substances from a ship before mercilessly machine gunning to death the entire crew.

Having proven to us that the villains are well worthy of their bad guy (and gal) status, we are then treated to an extended sequence where Superargo is briefed and then subjected to a series of lengthy tests to demonstrate his abilities to the five government leaders representing the United Nations. Here we learn such things as his near invulnerability when his new boss stabs him in the arm and he doesn’t bleed, or flinch. We learn that his blood coagulates faster than anything and that you can subject him to extremes of cold without getting him too frosty. We also learn that no matter how much he physically exerts himself, his blood pressure and heartbeat always remain at a constant speed. Also, we are shown that he can hold his breath for at least seven minutes, which probably comes in handy in some circumstances... so all good stuff then.

Curiously, we are also thrown a supposed Achilles heel in the character by showing that, although being subject to live electricity cannot harm him... he actually feels great pain when handling it. I say curious because the standard reason such things are pointed out in these kind of affairs is so that you can play with this later on in the film. Alas, it only comes up once near the end and has absolutely no impact, positively or negatively, on the actions of the characters.

Once this sequence is out of the way, Superargo is given a spacial “Q branch” style scene where he is given a new costume... which is absolutely identical to his usual red body suit and black face mask (which, incidentally, you never see him without, as conspicuous a spy as you could want I guess) but which is bullet proof. He is also given a new car, pills which stop his heartbeat (oh yes, those do come in handy), a television camera inside a lady’s brooch (because... um... WTF?) and a load of geiger counters. Superargo nearly eats one of these because... well, let me put it to you this way, only the Italians would equip their agents with geiger counters hidden in replicas of an olive on a stick. Again, most curious since Superargo doesn’t once encounter a Martini filled party but, instead, throws these in the water to trace the trail of the boats that made off with the radioactive substances at the start of the movie.

And this is a long set up for a movie which is entirely ridiculous, quite a bit of fun while, to the cast and crew’s credit, taking itself absolutely seriously and straight faced all the way through.

There’s some nice camerawork too... with some shots in particular used to split frames vertically or sometimes diagonally to push the idea that this masked hero might have stepped out of a comic book at some time... even though he didn’t. Also some interesting stuff when Superargo is being tortured in a scene which is not even feintly trying to hide the sadomasochistic subtext that a lot of the adult audience might find an appealing element of the movie... with Diabolikus’ lady using her big stick to repeatedly hit the classically secured Superargo. During this sequence he is subjected to fiery jets beneath the tilting table to which he is fastened, the camera dizzyingly wobbling up and down to express the intensity of the flames and its effect on Superargo which, to be fair, the audience probably wouldn’t have thought to be too much, considering the extended demonstration of the title character’s formidable and totally unexplained and unjustified super powers at the start of the movie.

Other things like using repeat motifs on transitions are also used in the film and are also a very nice touch. For example, Superargo spinning a globe and then cutting shot to a similar globe spinning in another room used as a location transition... or the same to characters shaking hands in first one place and then cutting to them doing the same in a separate location to suggest the passing of time. It’s all quite good and does its job in keeping you interested in the film if, for whatever reason, you weren’t already interested in a film with a ridiculously red costumed, black masked, super powered hero at its centre.

And then there’s the little matter of the music. Oh yes. The score to this by Franco Pisano is a right little gem. I would absolutely love to get this score because it’s vibrant, dynamic, bold and totally appropriate to its bizarre subject matter. However, I suspect the fact that I can’t find evidence of any recording ever being made commercially available is possibly down to the fact that it’s also a complete rip-off of John Barry’s score to the James Bond film of the previous year, Thunderball. The main theme is a similarly orchestrated, similarly tuned version of Barry’s famous 007 sub-theme, which he began using in From Russia With Love but which is used most prominently, of the five Bond films it features in, in Thunderball and it’s specifically this kind of pacing that the score is trying to match here, if I’m not mistaken. Throw in some underwater sequences with similar orchestrations to Thunderball’s famous underwater atmospheres and, seriously, a great score which I would give anything to own on CD. Although I suspect they might have some difficulties with John Barry’s estate if they did release this one. Only my opinion though... watch the movie and have a listen for yourself and see what you think.

So, there you go, great music for a serious movie about a less than serious subject. Ideal for kids who will take it as seriously as the main cast, and with any adult subtext going straight over their heads, and a fun romp for those of us who like to watch movies made in simpler times and with simpler, larger than life and, let’s face it, more than feintly ridiculous concerns. A good, solid recommend from me and, if you like it, be sure to watch the sequel, where Superargo has a guru sidekick who has taught him how to levitate. Why would anyone not want to watch these films?

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