Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Danger: Diabolik (1968)

The late sixties and early seventies saw a number of conic book based movies emerge from Italy.  While the best known of these, Roger Vadim's 1968 adaptation of Barbarella now hailed as a classic, most of the others were low budget, easily forgettable cash ins.  The exception is Mario Bava's Danger: Diabolik.  Unlike many other attempts to adapt 'Fumetti' type comics, Bava's film doesn't seek to fundamentally alter or soften its title character.  Diabolik, a Fantomas-style master criminal anti hero, is presented on screen in his full amoral, utterly ruthless comic book glory.  (In terms of the then contemporary version of the comic, at least.  As time went on, the creators of Diabolik gradually toned him down in the strip, making him less murderous and amoral).  It is interesting to note that many Italian comics (most of which were aimed at an adult readership), tended to focus on super villains of one kind or another, in contrast to their English-language equivalents which preferred to focus on super heroes.   The movie adaptation seizes upon the inevitable audience identification with someone who is essentially the 'bad guy' to effectively critique the whole 'cult of the hero' that superhero and spy movies tend to be built around.  Diabolik might have the trappings of a Bond villain, (an amazing Ken Adam inspired secret hideout, a beautiful hench woman and audacious plans to steal diamonds and gold reserves), but the way in which he operates is far more Bond-like: the gadgets, the fast cars, daring stunts including scaling buildings and penetrating supposedly impenetrable strongholds.  Even his disregard for the lives of opposing operatives, a degree of sadism when dealing with opponents and a penchant for dealing out personal vengeance in the guise of 'justice' are reminiscent of the Sean Connery incarnation of Bond, (which was contemporary with the film).

The movie version of Diabolik is, in essence, questioning the our devotion to our supposed screen heroes: in truth, is there any real difference between, say, Diabolik and Bond?  Sure, they might be on different sides of the law, but the methods they employ to achieve their ends is essentially the same, and the audience seems as happy to root for Diabolik as they are Bond.  By contrast to the flamboyant and charismatic Diabolik, the actual 'hero' of the film, Michel Piccoli's Inspector Ginko, is an overworked and under paid civil servant, forced to spend as much time fighting bureaucracy and his superiors as he does trying to outwit Diabolik.  Which, in truth, is the reality of real crime fighting heroes - but such a reality isn't attractive enough for audience identification.  Diabolik's faux heroic status is further reinforced by his conflict with local crime boss Valmont (a conflict engineered by Ginko) - who, although coming on as a Bond villain (he has a private plane with a trapdoor he uses to dispatch henchmen who displease him), he is ultimately revealed to be simply a cheap hoodlum.  Like real crime fighters, real villains simply aren't as attractive or flamboyant as Diabolik.    (Valmont is aptly played by Adolfo Celi, who had already played the villain both in a real Bond movie - Thunderball - and in the notorious Bond knock off OK Connery).

The ambivalent nature of Diabolik's status extends to his motivation.  Even within the film he seems to be all things to all men.  While his flamboyant activities, which culminates in the destruction of the country's tax records, make him a popular hero, the authorities see him as a threat to the fabric of capitalist society, denouncing him as a socialist and an anarchist.  Yet he doesn't seem to be a 'Robin Hood' figure: there is no evidence that he redistributes the wealth he steals to the poor.  Rather, he seems simply to steal it to accumulate it for himself, (presumably, he spends some of it on buying replacement E-Type Jaguars, he gets through so many) - making him the ultimate expression of capitalist consumerism, (not to mention a prototype for today's 'one percent' who have accumulated most of the world's wealth as their own private property).

Unlike most other super heroes or villains, Diabolik has no alter ego, we never learn his real name or his origin.  Even the police don't seem interested in identifying him when they think that they have killed him.  He is simply Diabolik.  An eternal enigma.  That's certainly the way John Philip Law plays the role.  Whether he's in his trademark black cat suit and mask, or masquerading as a press photographer, he remains unreadable - a sleekly efficient machine.  Never the world's greatest actor, the film trades on Law's striking good looks and physique, keeping his dialogue to a bare minimum, (a maniacal laugh being his main vocalisation), resulting in a hugely effective performance.  The likes of the aforementioned Michel Piccoli and Adolfo Celi provide excellent supporting performances, while the lovely Melissa Mell lifts Diabolik's partner in crime, Eva, way beyond being simply a hench woman or side kick.  It is clear from her performance that she and Diabolik are true soulmates, truly devoted to each other in their life of extravagant crime.  Terry-Thomas contributes a finely honed and restrained comic performance as the hapless Minister of the Interior, railing at the inability of his police force to apprehend Diabolik and fronting platitude laden but utterly meaningless press conferences.

Most of all, Danger: Diabolik looks superb.  Mario Bava's use of wide screen photography and bright colours creates a suitable comic book look and feel to the film.  That said, while no attempt at realism is made, Bava never makes the mistake of making things appear cartoonish.  The appearance is, instead, one of a slightly exaggerated version of everyday reality, with everything, colours, design, costumes and the like somewhat accentuated, but not to the point of parody.  While self-parody is deftly avoided by Bava, the film does happily parody much of the prevailing pop culture of its era, from Bond to the Batman TV series.  Not to mention every so often adding dollops of satire to the mix - after being dismissed, in disgrace, as Minister of the Interior, Terry-Thomas turns up later in the film, replacing the dismissed in disgrace Minister of Finance.  Clearly, the political merry-go-round in which being discredited never proves permanent is nothing new.

Like Barbarella, the film was produced by the prolific Dino de Laurentis and featured one of that film's stars and shared some sets and script writers with it.  Indeed, Danger: Diabolik was made during a hiatus in the filming of Barbarella, which allowed John Philip Law to appear both as Pygar the blind angel and the eponymous Diabolik, Barbarella, with its 'name' director and Jane Fonda in the title role, has always eclipsed Danger: Diabolik in both the public and critical consciousness.  Nevertheless, despite Bava never really having been a 'fashionable' director, his Danger: Diabolik is, to be frank, the better of the two films.  Barbarella all too often drifts into camp and frequently feels unfocused.  Danger: Diabolik is brighter, bolder, more stylish and far more entertaining. subtly deconstructing its own genre while still playing by most of its established rules.  It recently had a rare outing on UK terrestrial TV when shown by Film Four, so there's every chance that you should be able to catch it on a repeat showing within a few weeks.  Trust me, it's worth waiting for it to roll around the film Four schedules again.



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