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!
December 6th, 2021 at 8:41 am
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.