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Danger: Diabolik

Mario Bava’s DANGER: DIABOLIK stars John Phillip Law, who to me will always be Pygar, the blind angel of love from BARBARELLA. This one came out earlier the same year, 1968, and kinda seems like BARBARELLA’s evil crime movie cousin. It is in fact another Dino De Laurentiis international co-production based on a comic book, and reportedly uses some of the same sets (though I’m not sure which ones). It feels very much like a super hero movie at the beginning: we hear police talking about Law’s character Diabolik as some kind of legendary figure, he first appears in a long black car (Jaguar, not Batmobile), he shows up in a mask, does his thing, makes an escape to a secret entrance to an amazing hidden base inside a cave. But this guy is no super hero, he’s just a thief with a whole lot of flair.

Police Inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli, THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE) is determined to not let Diabolik steal the $10 million that needs to be transported, going out of his way to deliver decoy money and send the real shipment in a Rolls-Royce with cops disguised as diplomats. But that car finds itself engulfed in plumes of multi-colored smoke and then lifted up by a crane operated by by Diabolik. The camera zooms in on him for a diabolical laugh when the title comes up.

Much like Fonda as Barbarella, Law looks uncannily similar to the drawings from the original comic. In an old interview on the Shout Factory blu-ray he says that he figured it was all about the eyebrows and used mascara to shape his before meeting for the role. Smart move! Also it helps that their first choice, Alain Delon, wanted too much money.

After the psychedelic credits there’s a great chase with Diabolik foiling a police helicopter by driving into a tunnel and then sending his Jaguar out the other end empty to drive off a cliff. Inside the tunnel in a cool white convertible is his super-model-looking gilfriend/accomplice Eva (Marisa Mell, SEVEN BLOOD-STAINED ORCHIDS, MAGHOGANY) and they sneak off to the cave. Mell got the role after an unknown American model was fired for alleged lack of acting skills, and Catherine Deneuve was fired for supposedly having no chemistry with Law. Mell and Law hit it so much better that the two lived together for a while after the movie.

The main part of the fantasy of Diabolik is that he can pull off these audacious, mischeivious heists using fanciful methods, infuriating authorities. But the other part is this cave, which Ginko refers to as “his hideout,” but which I think you will agree is more like his crib or his pad.

It’s hard not to be envious of this lifestyle. The design of the place is so cool, a mix between some mod hangout and James Bond (or GAME OF DEATH II) supervillain lair. IMDb claims the uncredited production designer was creature effects genius Carlo Rambaldi. I can not verify this and neither E.T. or the White Buffalo could not be reached for comment. But Wikipedia says Rambaldi created Diabolik’s mask, which makes perfect sense.

Diabolik and Eva have these great waterfall style showers (each with a strategically placed circle on the glass to blur the view of certain anatomical features). Eva has a towel that looks like a fur coat. And then they go make love buried in money on a huge circular bed that for some reason rotates. They are just having a great time, you know?

I don’t know what the upkeep is on that cave, it’s gotta be huge, but he doesn’t seem worried about paying bills. He seems to operate more for enjoyment, which you gotta admire. He didn’t need to go to a press conference disguised as a photographer just to humiliate the Minister of the Interior (Terry-Thomas, TOM THUMB, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES) by emitting “exhilarating gas” from his flash to make everyone laugh. And he goes through a very complicated heist that involves scaling a mountain with suction cups (a scene you may recognize from the Beastie Boys’ “Body Movin’” video), stopping his heart for just under 12 hours using an old Tibetan trick, smuggling emeralds in the bullet wounds of an actual dead person and stealing the remains from a crematory, just to give Eva a birthday present. When she emerges from the cave swimming pool and he sensually balances the jewels across her cleavage you once again gotta recognize that this is a good life they live.

Law at times goes shirtless and looks like a statue come to life, but it’s certainly a movie that enjoys ogling the female figure, with many outrageous outfits. When Eva gets a truck driver to stop for theft purposes we laugh at how powerless he is to her unfathomably short shorts, but it’s not like we’re averting our eyes. Ginko forces a gangster called Valmont (Adolfo Celi, THUNDERBALL) to help him catch Diabolik, so we get to see how many young party girls this other criminal has hanging around just sipping cocktails and acting as decoration. After Valmont drops a couple people out of a trap door in his private jet a fearless woman (possibly Annie Gorassini of 8 1/2?) laughs and enjoys the “fresh air” blowing her dress up Marilyn Monroe style until he tells her to “Scram!”

I bring this up partly to acknowledge that people may have a problem with the objectification here, but also to note how much I appreciate Diabolik and Eva’s committed, monogamistic relationship. Diabolik definitely comes across like one of the over-the-top ladies man types we see in spy movies, Blaxploitation, etc., and Eva certainly looks like someone a character like that would only have a fling with. I would expect him to have 2-3 sex partners in the movie or one sex partner who dies and he’s sad but finds another sex partner, or at the very least to have a bunch of women throwing themselves at him so he clearly could have them but turns them down. This guy, whether or not it’s officially on the books, is happily married! He just has a super hot wife who loves him, shares his interests and works closely with him. The movie treats their love as very real and passionate, and I noticed a moment toward the climax where it slows down to get an extra long shot of Eva backing into the shadows of the cave, looking back at Diabolik, clearly worrying that it may be the last time she sees him. And usually a movie only does this if it is going to be the last time. I suppose I have already spoilered but no, they both survive. So the purpose here is not foreshadowing, it’s just emphasizing their relationship.

Being a good husband doesn’t prevent him from doing badass shit. In fact, it opens up opportunities for it, since the motherfuckers kidnap Eva. He meets with Valmont on his jet to give in to his demands, gets dropped somewhere with a parachute, pulls Valmont off with him and threatens him while they fall. After he gets away he blows up all the tax buildings, destroying the economy! The authorities come up with two brilliant plans: asking everybody to pay their taxes on the honor system, and melting 20 tons of gold into one brick that “Nobody in the world could possibly steal.” I think you can guess how well that goes for them.

After Diabolik steals it obviously he can’t just cash it in, but luckily he has the equipment to melt it down. Unfortunately Ginko finally locates his cave as he’s doing this and interrupts. Another nice touch: the intruder alarm is an organ that plays and lights up! I bet either he or Eve do some real soulful organ playing sometimes. They just seem like people who would enjoy the arts. It would be cool to see them jamming out.

Oh, speaking of which, the score is by Ennio Morricone and it’s fantastic. Very fast paced grooving with some wild trumpet and a drummer getting really into adding flourishes over the wonderfully repetitive guitar riff. I guess Morricone was inspired by his time working with an improv band.

I was surprised by the inconclusiveness of the ending, but it’s very cool. The machine explodes and splashes molten gold all over him, and it dries up, leaving him standing there frozen like a sculpture, his eyes visible behind the glass visor of his protective suit. Everyone thinks he’s dead, but he moves his eyes to signal Eva. How the fuck is he gonna get out of this one? Well, we saw him laying dead on a slab and he got out of that, I’m sure he’ll be fine!

On the other hand, Bava refused to do a sequel and said that Diabolik was permanently frozen. I’m not clear if he really believed that or just said that because of his frustrations with De Laurentiis not letting him make it as violent as the source material.

This is one of those movies that’s just a cool world to hang out in – great music, psychedelic colors, beautiful people in outlandish outfits and places doing even more outlandish things. And unlike many movies like that it’s pretty well-paced and the scenes with the inspectors blathering about boring shit don’t weight it down too much. I know from the handful of Bava movies I’ve seen that I love his visuals, and here he gets to go further because it’s a much bigger budget than he usually got. He incorporates many stylish and inventive matte painting and miniature effects, including some painted extensions to existing structures very much like would be done today digitally. Many of these effects are really convincing, though I don’t mind when they’re not, such as the shot of a model train exploding on a bridge. And I hadn’t thought about it myself, but American comic book artist Stephen R. Bissette makes some good observations on the blu-ray extras about how empty bookshelves and other objects in the foreground of some of the shots divide the frame up like comic book panels.

Bava was not the first director on the project. British filmmaker Seth Holt, who had directed episodes of Danger Man, actually started filming a version that was abandoned after De Laurentiis either ran out of money or thought the dailies absolutely sucked ass, depending on whose story you believe. The latter claim is supported by the fact that De Laurentiis got a new director, script and cast when he restarted.

This is Bava’s followup to DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE GIRL BOMBS starring Vincent Price, which honestly I thought was terrible when I saw it long ago, but I’m sure it plays better in a modern restoration. After this he did FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON. His son Lamberto was second unit director, one of his early credits before going on to direct BLASTFIGHTER, the DEMONS movies, etc.

While De Laurentiis had the rights to the character he put him in the anthology THE WITCHES (played by a different actor, Gianni Gori). Diabolik has continued in comics and had an animated series and many video games, but has not returned to film until a new trilogy set to start this year. Thankfully it’s a period piece and, judging from the stills released, will at the very least be nice to look at.

P.S. Somebody suggested reviewing this recently and I can’t find who or where, but this is for you!

This entry was posted on Monday, December 6th, 2021 at 7:06 am and is filed under Action, Comic strips/Super heroes, Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

25 Responses to “Danger: Diabolik”

  1. I definitely liked it when I watched it a few years ago, yet I was surprised how it asked us to sympathize with a cold blooded cop killer and terrorist, just because he is so groovy. It’s not even a FAST FIVE situation, where we just have to shrug and assume that all the people who got killed by Dom and his family in the final chase were corrupt criminals. He is the bad guy in his own movie! Even today’s premium cable and streaming anti-heros aren’t THAT rotten and either are good guys who broke bad, so we can at least root for their redemption, or fight people who are even worse then them. He doesn’t even get his comeuppance in the end, even if it seems like that at first.

    Don’t get me wrong, that movie doesn’t offend me in that regard. After all it’s clearly an unrealistic pulp fantasy, unlike something like PROJECT X, that is at least somewhat grounded in reality and tries to convince us that those shit roosters, who taze a guy because he was concerned for the safety of his toddler, were the most awesome kids ever. But it definitely stands out in its glorication of a cold blooded criminal.

  2. Thinking about it, it’s actually kinda odd that the Beastie Boys were the rappers who did a DIABOLIK video, instead of some gangster rapper, who would idolize him for his materialistic outlaw life. But I guess Tony Montana is more relatable than an Italian pulp villain from the 60s.

  3. Inspector Hammer Boudreaux

    December 6th, 2021 at 7:03 pm

    This has been at the top of my Bava list for a long time, because it’s gotta be Bava’s most famous non-giallo title (well, this or BLACK SABBATH). Hearing it’s higher budget makes me want to see it even more since, despite such awesome penny-pinching work as KILL, BABY… KILL and TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE, I think Bava was really first-class on a more generous budget. One of my favorite “horror” movies period is LISA AND THE DEVIL because it’s just so atmospheric and beautiful to look at (my favorite Argento is INFERNO, the one Bava directed to some extent). Be warned: I don’t really think LISA is a horror movie, not in the HALLOWEEN sense. If DEATH NERVE was an important progenitor of the slasher, LISA is more a predecessor of A24 stuff.

  4. Ben (the one from NY)

    December 6th, 2021 at 9:22 pm

    All right I’ll say it. Where are the reviews of Ghostbuster: Afterlife and Eternals? And is he going to review West Side Story this weekend or no? Don’t get me wrong, reviews of Obscure Nick Cage Project #17 or Asian Martial Arts Thing Most Of Us Will Never Watch can be amusing, but the most interesting content on this site, for me, has always been his unique takes on the films that are stabs at making painting something big on the ceiling, pop-culture-wise. He’ll always have something more interesting to say about the 25th Marvel movie or old timey franchise remake than the guy at Rolling Stone, will, so I always look for that. But it’s been a long time now.

  5. I’ve always found Law a bit wooden. But with DEATH RIDES A HORSE, this and BARBARELLA he really had a good run before he moved in permanently at the Playboy Mansion.

  6. Well, that definitely makes me feel shitty, but I’ll assume you didn’t mean it that way and try to take it in stride. I write about what interests me at any given time and what I feel I can write something interesting about. That’s not always or usually gonna be new releases. I did see ETERNALS (and DUNE) and may or may not review them, but haven’t succeeded so far. I won’t rule out ever writing about GHOSBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE but it’s just not something that interests me, I haven’t seen it or planned to see it and honestly I think I would rather keep bellyflopping at trying to get people interested in odd things than talk about fucking ghostbusters again. I don’t even think the original one is worthy of the discussion and fascination, it might be more trouble than it’s worth to even bring up the topic.

    I sincerely appreciate that you like my reviews of mainstream movies, and I enjoy writing them when I get into them, but the entire internet is dedicated to that shit. Surely it can be of value to discuss other topics that aren’t so dominant in pop culture, that I have more passion for, and that haven’t already been discoursed to death by the other critics by the time the movie is released for me to see. (I couldn’t go to early screenings if I wanted to because I was rejected from the local critic’s group. Why? For not focusing on new releases.)

    I hope my recent reviews aren’t as lackluster as you imply, but if they are it’s because I’ve been really throwing myself into finishing two director retrospective series so I can start posting at least one of them after Christmas. And next week I’ll be doing a timely franchise revisit. I will definitely see WEST SIDE STORY, but only time will tell if I have something worth saying about it.

  7. Inspector Hammer Boudreaux

    December 6th, 2021 at 11:54 pm

    What I love about Vern is I learn about older, obscure things. There are many places about new releases.

    I saw DUNE. I thought DUNE was spectacular on the big screen. I was stoned. Whatever. I’m interested to hear his opinion, of course, but I already saw the movie because I noted it’s director, provenance, maybe stars. Vern isn’t going to make me see a blockbuster I’m not already interested in- but he can absolutely make me see an 80s slasher or Indonesian violence movie that I would have never heard of otherwise.

  8. I’m no Vern, but I did post my thoughts on GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE in the thread for GHOSTBUSTERS (ORWELL/EURYTHMICS YEAR) that you are welcome to use as a springboard for any GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE discussions you’d like. Similarly I don’t see any reason why you can’t post “what is the deal with ETERNALS?” in the thread for SHANG-CHI or AVENGERS: ENDGAME or whatever, although I think all our ETERNALS thoughts should only be posted at 3am.

    Or we could always discuss the Sam Firstenberg oeuvre in the BREAKIN’ 2 thread.

  9. Make no mistake, Ben (from NY), we who have followed Vern’s writings for some time are not behind you on this in any shape or form.

  10. I love this movie, i think it’s the best attempt of translating a comic book to film. The glibness of the exposition, the rythm of the narrative, the coolness of the protagonists, the sketching of the antagonists, all these are strengths of the comic that is very well worth checking out. And the film just translates it effortlessly into a sparkling adolescent fantasia, with a couple of rough edges, for sure.
    I didn’t know they were planning to make new ones, do we know who will make these?

  11. There are about a million films I want to see Vern review, and probably a million that he wants to review, and there is undoubtedly a certain joy for me when the two sets of that Venn diagram overlap, as, say, happened in January with THE GAUNTLET. So I recognise the impulse you are giving voice to Ben, even if I cannot accept that the reviews of the more mainstream movies are the most interesting content here. But Vern goes his own way and, as Pegsman suggests, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    Much as I enjoy reading Vern’s reviews of the films everyone sees, and the fun we have when we all pile in on them, I really value someone whose opinions I trust who can find and highlight things I’m probably going to like: ROGUE and THE STUNTWOMAN are recent examples that spring to mind, and I’m pretty sure I’d never have bothered with ROGUE without Vern’s endorsement.

    And, frankly, screw the SFCS! I don’t read any of them.

  12. I’ve always loved this one, and its mistreatment at the hands of MST3K is one of the main reasons for my vendetta against them. There used to be a strong European tradition of thrillers about amoral criminal masterminds like Fantômas, Dr. Mabuse, or Satanik. Nowadays you’d have to do them as horror or else spend all the screen time on a heroic protagonist.

    It’s a shame that there’ll probably never be a proper soundtrack album; we’re limited to bootlegs from the film’s audio track, overlapping dialogue and all.

    I really wouldn’t be in a hurry to rewatch DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE GIRL BOMBS. On paper it looks like it’ll be a fun Eurospy time-waster, but it’s just insufferable. I’ve only seen the American cut, and people have told me the Italian version is better, but seeing as it cuts down on Vincent Price and adds more of those terrible Italian comedians, I don’t see how that could possibly be true.

  13. Matthew, aren’t the FANTOMAS* or DR MABUSE movies about the people who are after them anyway, with the titular criminal masterminds being obviously painted as the bad guys in the story?

    *Man, I still hope that Christophe Gans will be able to do the

  14. *to do the remake that he announced years ago.

  15. Hey Vern. It was me who suggested it to you. Thanks so much for doing so and I’m really glad you liked it! Also, Somewhere in storage I have a giant book about Bava by Tim Lucas called All The Colors Of The Dark with chapters on every single movie he directed or worked on. I immediately skipped to the chapter on this movie but it was years ago. I’ll try to dig it out and find out which sets were re used in Barbarella. If anyone would know it would be Tim Lucas. Thanks again Vern. This made my day.

  16. CJ Holden: There’s generally a detective character (as there is in DIABOLIK), but the villain is the drawing card — it’s their name in the title, and they’re much more in the foreground than they would be in other sorts of thrillers. And absolutely, they’re painted as bad guys. That’s the appeal.

    I’m generalising here. Some of these characters have had decades of books, comics, or films in various styles. Fantômas in the penny dreadfuls and silent serials was a vicious killer given to decapitations and poisonings; by the 1960s he was in Pink Panther-ish comedies. Mabuse is the main character in his silent films, and largely offscreen when Lang revived him for THE THOUSAND EYES. (I know there are some later krimis also featuring Mabuse, but I haven’t seen those.)

  17. Two points: 1. DANGER DIABOLIK is a timeless classic. 2. I’d rather get kicked in the dick than have another discussion about GHOSTBUSTERS for as long as I live. So you keep doing you, Vern.

  18. Great review, Vern! This movie is awesome.

  19. Long time listener, first time caller. I just wanted to say that reviews like this are the reason I keep coming back. Keep up the good work!

  20. I appreciate everybody’s encouragement and also want to reiterate that I don’t think Ben meant to be insulting. Hopefully I will have the type of review he’s been itching for before too long. Not today, though!

  21. Ben (the one from NY)

    December 7th, 2021 at 2:26 pm

    No, no, none of the reviews have been lackluster, ever. It’s not that there was anything wrong with any of the reviews you did, they’re always good, it was just a recent variety thing I was reacting to. Usually we have a mix of you-heard-about-it-from-Vern-first reviews and your reviews or series of reviews about more well-known films, whereas for the last few weeks there wasn’t any of the more well known stuff despite a few big releases. I check the site everyday (as I have for over 10 years) and there’s always something interesting here, I was just surprised that a few of those November releases hadn’t shown up and was kind of greedy to see one or more of them reviewed.

    I do just want to reiterate one point, I guess at the risk of making it sound like I’m championing one category over the other (which is not really what I’m trying to do). When you say that the internet has hundreds of sites dedicated to reviewing the movies everybody knows about, yeah, sure that’s true, but no other site I know of approaches them like this one. The summer retrospectives, the special series like the recent Friday the 13th deep dive, the annual Oscar essay, and just one-offs of some movie I saw recently are invariably more interesting than anything anyone else out there is doing. Now maybe what I underestimate is how much work it is to write one of these especially if you’re not feeling it for a particular movie, or may not feel like you have anything to say about one even if you liked it, which I wish I had though of before I posted. But my point is, one of the things that makes your site special is you talk about movies nobody else does; but another thing that is equally special about your site is that your reviews of more familiar movies are very, very distinctive.

  22. Thanks Ben. I’ll at least have some well known movies soon.

  23. Bava and obscure martial arts movies all day long! And dance movies! I’m thrilled that you just reviewed Flashdance.

  24. I’m excited there is a new Diabolik film made in Italy. They are currently shooting Diabolik 2, and the release date of Diabolik is on Thursday (16.12.21) in Italy. Hopefully, it’s good so everyone outside of Italy gets a chance to see it. I’m surprised that the comic book is still going strong in Italy.

  25. Just watched Danger Diabolik. It’s just so good. Its like a 12 year old boy’s favourite film directed by an auteur.

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