According to Judge Paul Corupe, European superheroes have more fun, mostly because they don't worry so much about actually being heroic.
Out for all he can take, seduce, or get away with.
Based on a popular Italian comic book (known as a fumetti), Danger: Diabolik is hands down one of the most intriguing cult films of the 1960s: a pop culture intersection of the Batman TV show, the James Bond series and the French hit Fantômas. Whereas four-color heroes of the Western hemisphere usually stood for truth, justice, and the American way, Diabolik was a master criminal whose only motivation was his own material gain. Not only did he pull off implausibly daring heists, but he also took perverse delight in embarrassing stuffy state officials and thumbing his nose at law and order: a ruthless rebel that became a pulp fiction idol throughout Europe.
At the height of the character's popularity in the late 1960s, producer Dino De Laurentiis called on Mario Bava, Italy's undisputed master of low-budget filmmaking, to adapt the fumetti to film. Few could have anticipated that the results would be so imaginative or so enduring-Danger: Diabolik is a visually stunning celluloid treat that remains audience-pleasing fun from the first frame to the last.
Facts of the Case
Italian supercriminal Diabolik (John Phillip Law, Barbarella) consistently and effortlessly baffles Police Inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli, Atlantic City) with daring and brilliantly executed crimes. After Diabolik playfully pilfers a five million dollar purse from a limousine and outruns the bewildered cops, Ginko increases his efforts to catch the slippery thief. He plants a media story about the fabulous emerald necklace that immediately draws the attention of Diabolik, who is in the market for a birthday gift for his girlfriend-cum-accomplice Eva Kant (Marisa Mell, Stuntman). While Ginko lies in wait in the next room, Diabolik scales the castle wall leading to the necklace's resting place, dupes a closed-circuit television camera, and heads back to his underground lair with a daring, catapult-aided escape.
Clearly out of his league, Ginko blackmails plaid-suited mob boss Ralph Valmont (Adolfo Celi ,Thunderball) to do his dirty work when the gangster's drug dealing nightclub gets busted. Valmont quickly kidnaps Eva and demands the emeralds in exchange for her life, but once on board Valmont's private jet, Diabolik outwits both Valmont and Ginko again. After ingeniously stashing the priceless jewels and putting himself in a state of suspended animation, Diabolik is soon back in Eva's arms once again, preparing for his most daring theft yet-stealing a 20-ton gold ingot from a speeding train. But before the shipment hits the rails, Ginko radiates the gold in an attempt to use it as a homing device, should Diabloik ever get his criminal hands on it.
1968 was an exciting year for Euro-comic fans, as two of their most beloved characters, Barbarella and Diabolik, finally made their big screen debuts. While Roger Vadim's adaptation of the saucy French sci-fi Barbarella was unable to back-up its touted Jane Fonda nude scene with much more than hokey production design and awkward camp, Danger: Diabolik was the film that delivered on everything it promised, and then some. Perhaps even better regarded today than when it was first released to theaters, Danger: Diabolik is the very embodiment of sex, style and wit: an absolute pulp masterpiece.
Best known as Italy's premier special effects pioneer, director Mario Bava was at the absolute top of his game when he helmed the film. Bava's knack for dynamic shot composition saw him working steadily as a cinematographer throughout the 1950s and 60s, and when he finally made the leap to direction, studios were nothing but impressed with his ability to squeeze a lush look from even the stingiest budget. Employing highly theatrical lighting and startlingly deep shots (as opposed to Barbarella's self-conscious flatness), Bava broke from comic book film tradition and drew on the stylish and playful humor that he brought to more typical Euro-trash outings like Black Sabbath and Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs. With Danger: Diabolik, Bava created what is now recognized as one his finest visual masterpieces, a film of swirling psychedelia and intense colors that approximates the graphic energy of the comic panel in a way that had never been seen before, and only rarely since.
While the film's production design bears some similarities to Barbarella's shag-carpeted universe, Bava's film is far more visually inventive, from Diabolik's iconic outfit—a skin-tight black suit topped by a mask with large, exaggerated eyeholes—to a Batcave-like underground lair crammed with sleek, modular Italian interior design and twin Jaguar E-Types. It's simply amazing how Bava was able to create such a detailed, three-dimensional world, especially considering what little money he actually spent—he used only $400,000 of his allotted $3 million budget. But where Adam West's TV Batcave was an exaggeratedly-labeled children's playground of computers and atomic generators, Diabolik's home is something of a futuristic take on Hef's infamous grotto. In both set design and story, Bava injects his film with a lush sensuality that is immediately established in the film's infamous pre-credits sequence, as Diabolik and Eva lustfully cavort on a huge revolving bed covered in mountains of paper money.
In fact, much of the film seems specifically scripted around a series of vivid images, like the roll-in-the-lira opening, an animated sequence of a map filling in with red lines, Diabolik donning a white outfit to scale the stone castle wall unseen and a shower of melted gold. Apparently taken directly off the page of several of Diabolik's four-color adventures, the plot is pure comic book hokum, but it's presented without pretension and with just enough novelty to remain consistently entertaining. The three central heists of the film give the film a curious episodic "cliffhanger" structure that doesn't quite gel together as well as one might hope, but the film is in little danger of self-destructing under Bava's expert guidance, and each individual plotline is tautly scripted and effortlessly suspenseful when taken on its own merits.
The character of Diabolik may be just as cardboard as his American superhero contemporaries, but Law breathes life into the charismatic crook with a wildly manic laugh and sharply arching eyebrows; it's like he was born to play the infamous supercriminal. The lovely Marisa Mell ably fills the role of Eva Kant, a character that figures prominently in the comics, even though she's not given very much to do in this film besides bat her eyelashes and get kidnapped. Adolfo Celi's turn as Emilio Largo the previous year in Thunderball serves him well here, and his approach to Valmont is barely indistinguishable from the shark-breeding, eye-patched Bond villain he is best known for.
Also deserving of praise is Ennio Morricone's score for the film. The film's theme, "Deep Deep Down," is bursting at the seams with lush, groovy orchestration punctuated by shrill blasts of brass and malevolent electric guitar stings. It's easily one of his finest scores, capturing the slyly mischievous tone of both the comic and the film and providing the perfect compliment to Bava's dynamic shots.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Danger: Diabolik looks incredible, with bright, bold colors and very little dust or debris to be seen. Unlike previous releases, this DVD retains the film's original English mono soundtrack, which means that several of the European actors are dubbed by different performers than viewers may be used to. Regardless, the film is presented in an adequate mono, with all dialogue and Morricone's memorable score coming through just fine, if a little flat.
Originally announced and then withdrawn from Paramount's slate in order to prepare extras for this release, Danger: Diabolik is equipped with an excellent set of features that were well worth the wait. First up is a documentary, "Danger: Diabolik-From Fumetti to Film," which includes interview footage with John Phillip Law, Roman Coppola, Morricone, the Beastie Boys' Adam Yauch and comic book artist/Video Watchdog scribe Steve Bisette, who takes a in-depth look at the way Bava adapted the original comic. Bisette's Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas is also here, joining Law on a lively and entertaining commentary track. Lucas does a fine job at prompting Law through some stories and fascinating bits of trivia related to the film, tossing in lots of examples of how the director managed to make highly detailed sets out of fan grates and matte paintings. Also here is The Beastie Boys' music video for "Body Movin'," which incorporates several scenes from Danger: Diabolik and features an optional, uninformative commentary by Yauch. Finally, there are two trailers for the film's American release, both of which completely spoil the film's ending.
There's no denying that Danger: Diabolik is a well-aged 1960s timepiece, but its importance goes much deeper than that. With this film, Bava fashioned a wholly unique comic book adaptation, as well as one of the most eye-catching European fantasy films ever made (Jane Fonda's anti-gravity striptease notwithstanding). For contemporary Western audiences, the film's extravagant anti-establishment stance is more apt today than it was during the film's disappointing U.S. theatrical release, and Bava's distinct, psychedelic style retains its power to astound. Loaded with extras and a more-than-acceptable image quality, Paramount's long-awaited release finally presents the film as it was meant to be seen, with the preferred original audio track, and without any wise-cracking robots. Definitely one of the genre DVD releases of the year, Danger: Diabolik is an absolute must-buy for Euro-cult junkies and fans of fantastic cinema.
Diabolik guilty? Dry up, stupid!
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with John Phillip Law and Tim Lucas
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