I was incredibly saddened to read Tim Lucas’s post on Video WatchBlog last night about the premature death of John Phillip Law at age 70. Since then, there have been other obituaries in the mainstream press, but I haven’t seen one yet to mention the film that Law is probably best known for among his followers: Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik. Diabolik may not be a spy movie per se, but as I’ve often argued on this blog, it is in many ways the quintessential Sixties spy movie, showcasing all the elements the genre requires despite focusing on a criminal instead of a secret agent as its hero. In my opinion, Danger: Diabolik is a near-perfect film (and a clear influence on later productions as diverse as Moonraker, V For Vendetta and The Beastie Boys’ "Body Movin’" video), boasting witty writing (thanks to the recently departed Tudor Gates), an infectious score, amazing costumes, luscious photography, lavish settings, spectacular setpieces, stunningly beautiful women, and, at its core, the most dashing, handsome, charismatic hero you could ask for in the person of John Phillip Law. Decked out in a skintight leather suit and form-fitting latex mask, Law dominates the movie as the comic book antihero. The limitations of the mask demand a compelling performance from the actor’s eyes, and Law’s eyes (and eyebrows) deliver in spades. In fact, not even Sean Connery could say anymore with a raised eyebrow than Law could.
Law (along with Tim Lucas) delivers one of the most engaging commentary tracks I’ve ever heard on Paramount’s Diabolik DVD, and his obvious pride and pleasure in his work is truly infectious. This came across in person, too. I was lucky enough to meet Law on several occasions, and to hear him speak after screenings of some of his films, and he was always as affable and charming as you could ask for. On the last occasion on which I met him, at a screening last January of Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown (in which he stars alongside Michael Caine, Robert Hooks and Jane Fonda), he didn’t seem well and may have already (according to a follow-up post by Lucas) known that he had limited time left. Realizing this puts the whole evening in a new perspective, but I can’t think of a warmer send-off for such a beloved star. The screening, the Q&A, and his easy, amiable chatting with fans like me afterwards (along with gracious autograph-signing) shed light on one of his most overlooked performances and served as a celebration of his prodigious career in general. I hope it was as rewarding an experience for Law as it was for his public.
I suppose my own first John Phillip Law movie was The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, a childhood favorite. I saw him in other per-formances later (as the Red Baron, as Diabolik, as Sinbad, as Barbarella’s Angel Pygar), but didn’t always recognize him right away. For someone with such good looks and such distinctive eyes, he was a masterful chameleon, losing himself in every role he took. It’s a shame that Law never appeared in his prime as a straightforward secret agent hero, but he did turn up in such spy-tinged productions as Target of an Assassin, The Cassandra Crossing and Roman Coppola’s fantastic homage to Diabolik and Modesty Blaise, CQ.
John Phillip Law may not have been as widely known today as some of his contemporaries, but he was not only a true movie star in the purest sense, but an icon, and a charming, gracious man. In the words of Diabolik’s Inspector Ginko, "I can’t believe he’s really dead." He will be missed.
But, thankfully, thanks to his body of work on DVD, he’ll never be gone. And so, the image I choose to picture right now is the last shot from Danger: Diabolik, of Diabolik encased in his protective suit and covered in molten gold, presumed dead. Through the window of his safety visor, we see those unmistakable eyes, frozen wide open. And then he winks. Diabolik’s not going anywhere, and neither will John Phillip Law as long as people still watch movies.