Tuesday, 3 May 2022

Danger Diabolik

Kant Get Enough

Danger Diabolik
aka Diabolik
Italy 1968
Directed by Mario Bava  
Paramount Blu Ray Zone A

Warning: Light spoilers.

I thought, in light of the reboot movie released in Italy recently, I’d revisit one of my favourite comic book movies, Danger Diabolik, based on the famous, long running fumetti Diabolik by sisters Angela and Luciana Giussani which, as far as I know, has not been translated for an English audience. The comic book followed in a long  line of lionised fictional super-criminals which seemed more abundant in countries like France, Germany and Italy than they did over here in the UK or in the US. I suspect the character was more than a little inspired by the original Fantomas, for example and there were a few attempts to get Diabolik started as a film by producer Dino De Laurentiis, with actors like Jean Sorel and Catherine Deneuve in the roles of Diabolik and his super sexy girlfriend Eva Kant, before he finally got the great Mario Bava to direct the movie.

So this version stars John Philip Law as the master criminal (who was also working on Barbarella for the same producer at the time), the marvellous Marisa Mell as Eva Kant, the great Michel Piccoli as Diabolik’s nemesis police Inspector Ginko, Adolfo Celli (who played Bond villain Largo in Thunderball) as mob boss Valmont and, in a few scenes scattered throughout the film in what is more or less an extended cameo, comical British actor Terry Thomas (who was so much in demand at the time that he shot all his scenes in one day).

Although Diabolik does not come over as ruthless, perhaps, as he did in the early comic books, he’s still going around killing innocent people who get in the way of his headline grabbing crimes and, although you’re always on his side as much as Ginko’s, he does tend to do some typical Robin Hood style acts of terrorism along the way. For instance, when a new police commissioner puts out a one million dollar reward for his capture, he sends him a note saying that he does not believe using this sum of money as an enticement to his capture is in the interests of the regular taxpayer... and then proceeds to blow up all the tax offices in the district so that people no longer have to pay any income tax, since the government has no records left to figure out what anybody owes to anyone.

The film is beautifully directed and, because Dino chose Bava to direct it, looks stunning. Bava uses some of his standard modi operandi to split the shots with foreground objects such as book cases, windows and bars to compartmentalise his actors and uses ‘natural inserts’ such as reflections in a rear view mirror in a car to add interest to the shots (and possibly as a wink to the comic book origins of the character, almost as if he’s presenting the audience with a bunch of comic book panels on the page). Although his colouring in the film isn’t as bright as the neon primary hues he uses in a lot of his films, it’s still a pretty colourful affair with the odd Bava trademark colour collision thrown in, such as a psychedelic night club party sequence, enhanced by Ennio Morricone’s swinging score or, in the pre-credits sequence where Diabolik uses a smokescreen to steal a car carrying a large amount of money, using three jets of orange, purple and green smoke injected into the mix. And when Diabolik has to climb up a pale castle tower in the moonlight, he changes from a black catsuit to a white one to better blend in with the environment.

Bava also uses his lens to really build an iconic status around the characters of Diabolik and Eva, with everything they do in their ‘larger than life’ sets and locations (including a super-villain’s lair which would make Bruce Wayne green with envy) enhanced to the point where almost every shot they are in becomes an artificial, attention grabbing statement of the importance of their respective characters. For instance, Diabolik is not introduced as a person initially, but as his two seat Jaguar car, which invades the proceedings in the pre-credits with a Morricone musical stinger and which becomes almost an apex predator to the poor, bumbling policemen who are trying to protect the money... and when Diabolik’s masked, iconic visage is seen, he is giving a proper super-villain laugh before he dives into the sea, along with the money, as the brilliant title song ‘Deep Down’, sung by Christy, cuts in with swirling credits before we rejoin him racing off in his speedboat, hotly pursued by police helicopter.

Now, there are a lot of wonderful, jokey comic book style sequences in the movie, such as when Valmont promises to cross a character’s name off the human register and then later, indeed, making an X shape with the path of his machine gun as he guns the victim down. And there’s that sumptuous villain’s lair with it’s huge, pipe organ alarm system and, of course, everything is enhanced with Bava’s miniatures and matte paintings to make everything look much bigger than it really is. He even adds in a couple of animated sequences to bring the comic book comparison closer in a couple of scenes.

The film has often been called campy but, with the hard edge of various characters, not forgetting the dark criminal heart of Diabolik himself, it really isn’t. There are, however, a couple of similarities, it could be said, to the landmark Batman TV show and film from a couple of years earlier. Most notably when Diabolik and Eve, disguised as press photographers, use laughing gas dispersed by their flash bulbs to infect a police press conference with a very lively atmosphere. So... in very much the Batman style... the gas is actually labelled up as Exhilarating Gas and the pills which Diabolik and Eva take to protect themselves, are similarly labelled up as Anti Exhilarating Gas Capsules.

If I had to pick a favourite moment, in a film which is full of little ingenious and light hearted gags, it would be when the title character places himself under a security camera, takes a shot of the room with a polaroid camera and them places the photo in front of the camera so the room looks empty. Preposterous, of course, since it would probably be completely out of focus but, in the setting of a comic book milieu which is further heightened by the visual genius of Mario Bava, it works really well.

And I suppose that’s me done with Danger Diabolik, for now, although I am hoping to watch the new version over the next week or so and so, I will review that one for the blog soon (yeah... I did just that, review coming tomorrow, stay tuned). Meanwhile, if you haven’t figured it out by now, Danger Diabolik is a movie I’m always going to recommend to any lover of cinema and well worth your time.

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