Deneb does Danger: Diabolik

“The whole underworld worries me less than a single man.”

The Scoop: 1968 PG-13, directed by Mario Bava and starring John Phillip Law, Marisa Mell, Michel Piccoli, Terry-Thomas, and Adolfo Celi.

Tagline: Out for all he can take, seduce or get away with…

Summary Capsule: The world’s most infamous super-thief plies his trade with style, and every single one of us are jealous of him.

Deneb’s Rating: 4 ¾ sleek black Jaguars out of five.

Deneb’s Review: You may find it hard to believe, gentle readers, but I do have a life beyond putting up reviews here, and in that life I have made plans. What are those plans? Ah, they are splendid ones indeed – to go see the new Tintin movie. I am very, very excited by this, as I am a huge fan of the character, and have been awaiting this moment with baited breath for years now, ever since its development was first announced. Here’s hoping it’s good, or drastic action shall be taken! [Future me: It’s good! It’s good! Woohoo! Woohoo! Expect a full review from me the moment the DVD comes out.]

Anyway. In the meantime, I figured I might as well focus on another movie based on a hit European character – albeit one who is very, very different. Ladies, gentlemen, spambots, assorted random house-pets and others, let us usher in the new year with a look at one of the absolute coolest movies ever made – Danger: Diabolik.

For my fellow Americans and other members of the unenlightened, a brief bit of background. Diabolik is a character in Italian fumetti (their term for comic books), and has been extremely popular ever since his creation in ’62. He is an antihero, a master thief who preys on the wealthy and powerful, especially other, more sinister criminals. Together with his lover, Eva Kant, he zips around in his trademark black Jaguar E-Type (a car which has become as synonymous with him as the Batmobile is with the Batman), committing crimes and evading the law, as personified by his nemesis Inspector Ginko (pronounced ‘Jinko’), who has sworn to bring him in at all costs.

As the movie opens, a major shipment of currency is being prepared for transport, as overseen by Ginko (Michel Piccoli), who is fully aware that this sort of thing is pure catnip to the titular miscreant (John Phillip Law). This time, however, he’s sure that his careful preparations will ward off the crook. He is very, very wrong – Diabolik nabs the loot, and makes his escape as the opening credits roll.

From there, it’s just one caper after another, as Diabolik continues to thumb his nose at the law in between schmoozing with the lovely Eva (Marisa Mell) in his underground lair. It’s not just the police who are after him, either – organized crime also wants him dead, as he’s cramping their style. But can anyone truly catch such a crafty criminal? And if they do, just how long will it last?

OK, as you can probably tell, nobody really watches Danger: Diabolik for the involved and ingenious plot. Because, in point of fact, it does not have one – there’s nothing wrong with the plot, but it is episodic in the extreme. Something valuable is set up for Diabolik to steal – he steals it. Something else valuable is set up for Diabolik to steal – he steals that, too. In between, there is quite a lot of the cops doing police-type stuff and our main romantic couple frolicking around. You could pretty much walk out at any point, come back in again a few minutes later, and not miss anything of particular substance.

But you know what? This is adapted from a comic book, which is a serial medium, and moreover, a fumetti, which, I gather, are generally pretty short, or at least they used to be (although admittedly I’ve never read any of them). And this was 1968 – expanded storytelling had yet to take over the medium. In short, these sorts of episodes are exactly what people would have been reading in the comic at the time, and anything else would have been an unnecessary addition – so why gripe?

In any case, you wouldn’t want to get up and come back a few minutes later, because then you’d miss all the pretty pretty stuff onscreen. This film is gorgeous, capital G gow-er-juss. Mario Bava was well-known for his visual style and expert use of color, and boy oh boy does he show it here. There are precious few moments that don’t make you feel like you’ve entered a pop-art fanatic’s dream come true. From Diabolik’s ultra-mod bachelor pad of a subterranean hideout (which would make Batman throw a weeping fit of jealous rage, it’s that cool) to the hallucinogenic weirdness of a mob-run hippie nightclub (yep, it’s the ‘60’s, all right) to Eva’s endless array of eyebrow-wagglingly risqué outfits to… well, everything, the whole movie is just a major treat to watch. The colors are bright but never garish, the overall design style is awesome, and it even features some brief but innovative bits of animation. You’ve heard of eye candy? Well, this is the fancy imported kind of eye chocolates that come in the big boxes and keep you guessing as to what the fillings are, but they’re all good.

And really, what is the main thing you expect from a movie with the hero’s name in it? That’s right, plenty of stuff involving the hero (or antihero, in this case), and in that respect Danger: Diabolik does not skimp. It’s a good thing, too, because Diabolik may not exactly have many hidden depths, but he’s certainly a fascinating guy to be around. He’s one of those characters that you really shouldn’t be rooting for, but do. I mean, technically speaking, the guy’s actions are horrifying – he doesn’t just steal things, he kills people – quite a few of them – in the process without the slightest hint of remorse. Basically, he’ll do anything to get what he wants, which is what makes him so formidable. In the real world, we’d probably consider him a fairly detestable person.

But gosh-darn it, the guy may be a ruthless, murderous criminal, but he’s having so much fun. Whether he’s messing around with “exhilarating gas”, screeching around corners in his ever-so-sweet black Jaguar, or, oh yes, making out with his girlfriend on a giant rotating bed covered with piles of money (I am dead serious, that happens), this guy is living the good life. He’s the James Bond of supercrooks, with all that that implies.

Some have criticized John Phillip Law’s portrayal of the character as “wooden”, and while I’ll admit that his line readings are not exactly inspired, physically he fits the part in much the same way that Arnold Schwarzenegger fit the part of Conan – it’s just very difficult imagining anyone else in the role. He slinks around in what is basically a ninja suit with only his very intense eyes and big swoopy eyebrows showing through the mask – a mask that is technically rather unnecessary, since it fits his face so exactly that every single feature is revealed. But, hey, it looks cool, so who am I to judge? (Oh yes – he also has one of the greatest villainous laughs in the history of film. It’s impossible to accurately transcribe, more’s the pity, and he only lets loose with it a few times, but ye cats, that laugh is awesome!)

Also, Law has great chemistry with Marisa Mell. Say what you will about the man’s morals, he is deeply in love with his gal, and she with him. Mell as Eva is perfect – she’s one of those meltingly gorgeous European actresses that ‘60’s films seemed to specialize in, and those watching the film with, shall we say, shallower intentions should find it worthwhile for that alone. She’s not just eye candy, either (that’s the set’s job). Eva may not have a whole lot to do in the story, but she is clearly more than just Diabolik’s moll – she is his partner in crime, and loves every minute of it. She would die for him, and he for her, and this may be the one thing that makes the title character so difficult to dislike. I mean, how can you hate someone who loves his girl so much? Aww, they’re such a cute couple! They’d kill you and steal all your money, but oh, the romance!

As for the other actors, Michel Piccoli is rather dry as Inspector Ginko, but then that’s what he’s supposed to be. This is Diabolik’s party, not his – he’s there to be the Nayland Smith to the title character’s Fu Manchu, and he carries it off quite well (and to his credit, he does manage to work in touches of personality here and there so we at least get to know Ginko better as a person). Adolfo Celi plays Valmont, the head of the local crime syndicate. He’s also put in sharp contrast to Diabolik, but in a different way – whereas Diabolik is a cool, sophisticated super-thief who drips with mod stylings, Valmont is a complete bastard of the old school. He brutalizes his underlings, cares not a fig for anyone but himself, and is generally in the style of the outdated form of gangsterism which he represents. In any other film, he’d be the villain – here, where the villain is also the hero, he’s merely an antagonist to serve the plot and be disposed of. (Oh come on, that’s not a spoiler. Did ol’ James ever leave any of his baddies still standing? I think not.) Terry-Thomas also has a small role as a government minister, and completely steals every scene he’s in. I just love that guy – he’s got a truly masterful sense of comic timing that shines through in every role he’s given, and that’s definitely the case here.

Oh, and one more detail – by any chance, have any of you heard of a guy called Ennio Morricone? Done a few film scores you might have heard? Hmm? Well, yeah, he scored this one, too, and it’s great, with his usual mixture of weird vocalizations and distinctive instrumental riffs. The aforementioned scene in the nightclub features a particularly memorable piece – you may not be able to put coherent words to the bizarre chant that comes over the soundtrack, but it will stick in your head like nobody’s business, I guarantee.

As is generally the case with such things, the film is far from perfect. As previously noted, the plot is episodic, and some of the acting is less than brilliant. Furthermore, Bava was clearly not very proficient with bluescreen effects, as their few appearances are more than somewhat clumsy, and there is at least one sequence where it’s very obvious that miniatures are being used.

Really, though, that’s nitpicking. Danger: Diabolic is a hoot and a half from start to finish. Some people have described it as “camp”, and I suppose that’s partially true, in the sense that it more or less fits into the same general world as Adam West’s Batman. But while that show was kitschy and self-mocking and generally played up the silliness of it all, D:D’s campiness extends only to getting us to accept that yes, this is all somewhat ridiculous, but holy crap, here comes another awesome thing! It’s camp as narrative lubricant, smoothing out the rough surfaces of skepticism and ‘oh come on, that couldn’t really happen’ so we can whiz right by them and launch into another candy-colored mod-styled sequence featuring the world’s most stylin’ thief doing something cool. And I ask you, who could argue with that?

Anyway, people have also described it as one of the best comic book movies ever made, and there I am in full agreement with them. As always, it won’t please everybody – if you prefer your movies cerebral and profound, this probably ain’t your baby – but if you’re in the mood for an over-the-top barrage of stylish ‘60’s niftiness, you can’t get much better than Danger: Diabolik. See it. I doubt you’ll regret it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go tease my eyebrows and change into my ninja suit. There’s an armored truck passing through town soon, and I want to… say hi. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

"Yeah, that's right, I'm lookin' at YOU. Want to be as cool as me? Think you could do better? Well, TOUGH LUCK!"

Intermission!

  • Danger: Diabolik’s chief claim to fame amongst the general (American) public seems to be that it was featured in the final episode of MST3K. I have two things to say about this – one, you can find something to mock in any movie, so don’t therefore assume that it is bad, and two, WHAT THE HELL?! OK, to be fair they were apparently reviewing a badly-edited version of the movie, so that explains a little bit, but still, they must have been hard up for movies if they had to pick on a genuinely good film like this one.
  • The composite sketch that the crooks make of Eva was a piece by Angela Giussani, the original artist of Diabolik. (At least, I think it was her – she co-created the character with her sister, Luciana, and information as to which one was the artist and which the writer is a little bit sketchy.)
  • In subsequent years, the movie’s soundtrack was voted one of the three best ever, though it was never officially released.
  • We are never told just which country the film takes place in. The scenery is clearly Italian (it was filmed in and around Rome), but dollars are used in place of lira, and the form of government and many of the accents seem conspicuously British (although it’s clearly not Britain, as a British minister making a state visit is an important plot point). All this ambiguity is likely intentional, as the comics are set in the fictional city of Clerville, in the country of the same name, as presumably the film is, too.
  • Catherine Deneuve was initially cast in the part of Eva.
  • When producer Dino De Laurentiis hired Mario Bava to direct the film, he gave him a budget of about three million dollars. Bava had worked primarily on low-budget films up ‘til then, and was used to making every dollar count; hence he made the whole thing for only $400,000. De Laurentiis was so blown away by this achievement that he offered Bava the chance to direct a sequel with the leftover money. However, Bava had not enjoyed working with the producer, so he declined.
  • There is a reason why John Phillip Law and Marisa Mell have such good chemistry together in the film – they were dating at the time.
  • Terry-Thomas laughing hysterically will never not be hilarious.
  • One of the few significant changes from the source material was in the character of Eva. While the film version is basically the same as the original in that she is Diabolik’s lover and accomplice, the Eva from the comics is an extremely competent criminal in her own right, and is considerably more than merely his sidekick. Also, the revealing clothing and long, flowing hair she sports in the film are purely cinematic inventions – in the original, she is typically clad in a heavy sweater and pants, and usually wears her hair bound up in a bun.
  • If any of you happen to be interested in the art of filmmaking, I strongly suggest that you give the DVD commentary a listen. John Phillip Law talks quite a bit about the various cinematic illusions employed by Mario Bava, and some of them are absolutely astounding – you can see them once they’re pointed out, but I guarantee you’d never notice them otherwise.

Groovy Quotes:

Eva: I didn’t see Ginko.
Diabolik: If you didn’t see him, he’s there.

Inspector Ginko: Logical suggestion, sir.
Minister: Hm-hm, thank you…
Inspector Ginko: But I’m afraid quite useless.

Diabolik: This laser-gun can melt anything – except you, honey.

Valmont: Here’s a banana, pig!

Inspector Ginko: The whole underworld worries me less than a single man.

Old lady: Excuse me, where is the doctor?
Diabolik: He’s in shock.

Valmont: You can always apply to me. You’ll find yourself better off. You’ll be more warmly dressed, and your women, less.

Minister: He’s certainly not going to make a fool of me.

Inspector Ginko: What do you mean it’s not there? It weighs twenty tons!

Diabolik: Damn you, Ginko!

Bimbo: They’ve been inside for hours. Such a waste of us!

Lady Clark: That inspector was sweet. He never took his eyes off my decollete once the entire evening!
Sir Harold Clark: It was your necklace, my dear.
Lady Clark: Don’t be crude.

Valmont: Listen, Vernier, San Francisco dropped you out of the medical register – but if you’re lying, I’ll drop you out of the human register!

Inspector Ginko: Yes, sir.
Minister: ‘Yes, sir’? Don’t try to ‘yes, sir’ me, sir! You either.
Police Chief: Yes, sir.
Minister: What am I going to say to the Prime Minister – ‘yes, sir’?
Police Chief: Yes, sir.
Minister: No, sir!

Diabolik: Eva – you’ll not be alone while I live.

If you liked this movie, try these:

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4 Comments

  1. Not every movie featured on MST3K was strictly speaking a stinker. There were some that were enjoyable in their own right. Among those that come to mind are Jack Frost, The Magic Sword, and The Day the Earth Froze. However, they did tend to be goofy in the extreme. I think Diabolik was perfectly acceptable fodder for Mike and the Bots. One of my favorite riffs comes during the overhead shot of Diabolik and Eva having sex in their loot and Crow remarks, “If they had stolen a little less, we could have seen her arse.”

    • Well, admittedly I haven’t really seen enough of MST3K to qualify myself as an expert on it. It just didn’t seem fair to me that they were tarring the film with the same brush as, say, Overdrawn at the Memory Bank. I realize that inclusion on MST3K does not automatically qualify a film as ‘bad’, but it does tend to put it in the category of ‘something to make fun of’, which I don’t think Danger: Diabolik qualifies as. Just my personal opinion, though.

  2. To back up what Sitting Duck said, the films on MST3K ranged from the completely unwatchable to movies that weren’t bad, but lent themselves to wisecracks. I don’t think a movie has to be bad to find scenes I can joke about. Some of my favorite good films have lots of unintentionally funny moments. Oftentimes it can be from the acting and filming trends of that decade.

    I definitely see your side, too. To most (especially those who aren’t a huge MST3K fan), for a movie to be featured on the show means it’s bad.That may or may not have been a problem you’ve run into when trying to recommend this movie to people, and I get why that would make you sour towards the episode. If you haven’t watched that one, I suggest giving it a try to see if you can reconcile with it.

    One last thing: Danger: Diabolik was the last episode of MST3K. If nothing else, I think they may have featured that one in order to end the show on a good note. I wouldn’t want to end my ten-year run on something like Monster-A-Go-Go or The Creeping Terror.

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