Mario Bava’s 1968 pop-art masterpiece Danger: Diabolik is not only one of my favorite spy films, but one of my favorite films, period, ever made. Top ten, easily. 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. It plays as a checklist of everything I look for in a great Eurospy caper: stunningly beautiful women, lavish settings, amazing costumes, spectacular setpieces, an infectious score, fast sports cars, underground lairs, bizarre deaths, Adolfo Celi, and, at its core, the most dashing, handsome, charismatic hero you could ask for in the person of John Phillip Law. It’s a near-perfect film (and a clear influence on later productions as diverse as Moonraker, The Beastie Boys’ "Body Movin’" video, CQ and V For Vendetta), from its witty writing (thanks to Bava, Dino Maiuri, Tudor Gates and Saint writer Brian Degas) to its polished look (primarily thanks to Bava and not credited cinematographer Antonio Rinaldi, according to Law on the commentary track) to its pitch-perfect performances. Best of all, it’s endlessly fun. I’ll never grow tired of watching Danger: Diabolik, and I still discover something new on every viewing.
The film follows the subversive escapades of Italian comic book hero Diabolik, a lithe, mirthful superthief clad in a skintight latex ninja outfit and matching face mask. His girlfriend and willing partner-in-crime is the iconic, criminally sexy Eva Kant (Marisa Mell, looking more ethereally gorgeous than ever in a fantastic blond wig and outrageously mod, barely-there fashions), and the two of them are relentlessly pursued by the single-minded Inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli), the only authority figure in this world capable of rational, intelligent thought. And even he isn’t above ridicule: in one scene, Ginko munches on a tiny sandwich while boasting to a gangster over the telephone that "for once, we’ve got special powers!" With his mouth full. (Nicely undermining any talk of police special powers.) Overall, though, Ginko manages to escape the derision reserved for other officials because he is somewhat smarter than them, and certainly more noble.
Bava was fifty-four when he made Danger: Diabolik, but tapped completely into the zeitgeist of the late Sixties youth movement, delivering a candy-coated hymn to anarchy. Diabolik is James Bond for the revolutionary set, appealing equally to the decade’s conflicting appetites for consumerism and rebellion. The character is not a Robin Hood because he doesn’t aim to redistribute the wealth he steals. Then again, he’s not interested in moving it to some offshore account, either, and building a nest egg. After he heists ten million dollars ("the largest single shipment of dollars ever made... at six in the morning") from a disguised convoy at the film’s opening, the buffoonish Minister of the Interior (Terry-Thomas, doing a dead-on Terry-Thomas) suggests it only logical to conclude that he’ll do exactly that. "Logical suggestion, sir," says Ginko to Thomas' annoyance, "but I’m afraid quite useless. Diabolik will handle the ten million dollars, but in some quite different way." What quite some different way? "A way no mind but his could imagine." That way, quite famously, is by spreading the bills out all over his gigantic, rotating circular bed and making love to Eva while rolling around in the cash. (Were paper cuts were an issue?) He merely wants money out of circulation to disrupt commerce and government; what he actually does with it is his business–or, more precisely, his pleasure. (I always find it amusing that the $10 million appears to be largely made up of tens and twenties.)
It’s true that Diabolik already has the ultimate in lavish lairs (comprised entirely of very impressive matte paintings and foreground elements), fashionable clothing, a fleet of sleek and trendy E-type Jaguars and a beautiful, adoring companion, so he’s not above creature comforts. But he still wants more. ("Out for all he can take, caress or get away with!" blared the American posters.) What for? He shows no particular financial ambitions beyond his already immodest holdings. No, he doesn’t want riches to spend; he wants them to make love upon, to decorate his lair, so the government can’t have them. He wants to tear down the very fabric of law and order–and the financial institutions upon which that fabric is slung. He’s a paradoxical consumerist anarchist, the perfect combination for 1968.
All of Diabolik’s heists and crimes are perpetrated against authority. He’s liberal with his use of knives and bullets, but only against police, security guards, mob kingpins and other authority figures. And the movie does nothing to endear audiences to those authority figures, either. With the noted exception of Ginko (portrayed in the Guissani Sisters’ original comic books as Diabolik’s doppelganger), not one of them has an ounce of sense. Terry-Thomas is the Minister of the Interior for crying out loud! It’s certainly no accident that Bava cast someone known only for playing twits. The police officers guarding the initial cash shipment that Diabolik knocks off are equally idiotic. The slovenly, slouching cops fail miserably in their attempts to pass themselves off as upper-crust society types, out for a pleasant drive in the Rolls. And the helicopter that hovers overhead keeping tabs on the situation (what authority is higher than an eye in the sky?) identifies itself on the radio as "Aerial Surveillance Ship #1." Weird call sign? Go ahead, note the acronym. From the very first scene, we’re alerted that in this film, all representatives of the establishment are unmitigated asses!
Bava adheres closely to the character’s comic book roots both in visuals and narrative. In a nod to the fumetti, the story is episodic, but very deliberately so. Each act focuses on a different heist, but also advances the overall story. In Act 1, we see Diabolik pull off a flashy but fairly rudimentary robbery, knocking over the aforementioned disguised cash transport. In the course of his escape, we’re not only treated to a very exciting helicopter/car chase, but also introduced to the love story. And it’s Diabolik’s mad, passionate love for Eva that drives his actions in the second act.
Diabolik’s first crime enables the police to invoke "special powers," putting pressure on mob kingpin Valmont (Thunderball’s Adolfo Celi–dubbed to sound much less polished and charming than Largo) to do their work for them, and capture Diabolik. ("It takes a thief to catch a thief," reasons Ginko.) Act 2 centers on a more elaborate heist, with Diabolik liberating a priceless emerald necklace from a visiting British dignitary’s wife within a castle crawling with Ginko’s men. The episode of the necklace doesn’t end there, however, as Valmont snatches Eva (the one thing Diabolik cares about above all others), ostensibly to ransom her for the emeralds. We’re also treated to more fantastic action (including a freefall from Valmont’s airplane and a shootout on a beach) and one of the two best freak-outs ever filmed when police raid one of Valmont’s drug dens in order to pressure him. (For the curious, the other one occurs in a Patrick Macnee movie called Bloodsuckers.) The scene, set to some of Ennio Morricone’s trippiest music ever, is a hilarious parody of "hippy" culture. Yes (despite some influential pundits’ misunderstanding of the scene), it’s a parody–and very intentional. This isn’t out-of-touch filmmakers (like some at Hammer or ITC) trying in vain to replicate youth happenings; this is a joke. Don’t believe me? Check out the standout day player decked out in plants who frolics about high on whatever all the kids are taking, getting in a final pirouette as the cops show up! This is clearly Bava reveling in a comic mastery he wasn’t always able to display in his horror movies. Also laugh-out-loud funny is the ultra-square gangster in a pinstripe suit who remains rigid despite the vibe and distributes drugs to the youths in a hilariously surreptitious manner.
By the third act, things have escalated to the point that Diabolik must steal the world’s largest gold ingot (twenty tons–all of the country’s remaining gold supply has been melted into it), and heist it from a moving train. The plan involves Eva distracting a truck driver by wearing the shortest of short shorts, and the two of them in some Thunderball-like underwater action. This act also brings Ginko and his men to his very doorstep. It’s a very tight script, much moreso than the ones Bava often worked with. (Not that the director couldn’t do great things with the flimsiest of scenarios.)
Along the way, Diabolik revels in every opportunity to undermine the system. When Terry-Thomas’s minister gives a press conference about his first robbery, Diabolik and Eva show up disguised as photographers (each in some amazing sunglasses) and distribute laughing gas to the crowd (but only after carefully administering themselves handily labeled "anti-exhilarating gas capsules!"). Thus they make a literal laughingstock out of the minister, forcing his resignation. Later, when the government offers a huge reward for his capture, Diabolik decides that if they’re putting their money to such bad use they don’t deserve to have it. So he blows up all the banks and tax bureaus! Terry-Thomas is forced to grovel once more on TV, pleading with his people to come forward and pay the taxes they think they owe.
In addition to the structure, the film’s aesthetic also evokes comic books at every opportunity. Two animated sequences stand out: in one, we see the spread of Ginko’s police forces across a map of city streets leading into the freakout sequence. In another, Valmont’s men use an Identikit gizmo to recreate Eva’s face from a prostitute’s description. The hand-drawn face expands and contracts against multiple primary color backgrounds, changing many times before settling on a likeness not to Mell, but to the comic book depiction of her character. Both sequences play out to particularly trippy, discordant music.
Furthermore, the very composition of the shots also recalls comic books–specifically their panels. Bava frequently uses vertical and horizontal elements in his foregrounds and backgrounds to break up the frame into simulated panels, including the latticework of a telephone booth, an open bookcase and a car’s rearview mirror. He uses the latter again and again as Diabolik drives, so that you have a full-frame image of him and Eva in the car driving, with the road ahead (also in a panel of its own, framed by the windshield) and, in the form of the rearview mirror, an insert panel showing a close-up of one of their faces as they talk. Coolest of all, the director even uses the limitations of the effects at his disposal to his advantage. He plays up the thick greenish outline around characters’ faces in certain rear-projection shots to further establish panels within the frame.
That’s not the only instance in this film in which Bava uses perceived limitations of special effects to his advantage. After making off with the emerald necklace, Diabolik dashes out onto the roof of the castle and sees a catapult: a possible means of escape! The pursuing policemen burst out just in time to see the catapult spring forward, flinging what’s supposed to be Diabolik into the sea. To a jaded audience, well used to such special effects, it’s clear that no stuntman performed this feat; it’s only a dummy in his suit that was launched over the edge. The police are fooled, but the audience is not. We know it’s a dummy! We assume that we’re seeing through the artifice of the filmmaking. But we’re wrong! Bava’s tricked us! It was really a dummy, not just behind the scenes but in the world of the film as well! Diabolik’s still up here, naked. He put a dummy in his suit and launched it into the sea to fool the police, and it worked. It also worked on us, because Bava used our preconceptions to fool us. He played on our expectations. In doing so, he tips his hand, revealing the craft of movie making in a similar manner to his famous final shot in Black Sabbath when Boris Karlof is revealed to be riding a dummy horse in the confines of a movie studio.
On top of being clever and visually arresting, Danger: Diabolik is also an incredibly sexy movie. Even if they’re both a bit crazy, Diabolik and Eva share a genuine love and a very healthy sex life. When they meet in the middle of a job in a tunnel, fully knowing that the police are hovering just outside looking for them, the pair can’t keep their hands off each other. They’re so in love! As soon as they arrive back at the incredibly mod hideout (accessed via a fake mound in the landscape that lifts up to reveal an underground passage), she tells him to "be quick" in the shower. They can’t wait to find each others’ bodies once again. Despite being in a long-term relationship, they’ve lost none of the spark. (Of course, they do spice things up with games: making love in heaps of money, roleplaying as prostitute and john while reconnoitering a potential target, etc.) The two actors’ chemistry together is phenomenal, which may come partially from the fact that they were involved off-set at the time, one of many juicy facts revealed by Law in the DVD’s commentary track.
The characters aren’t the only ones with sex on the brain. Bava crams more sexual imagery into this movie than an entire Hitchcock film festival! From the stalactites in the cave leading to Diabolik’s underground lair to the vertical pipes in the organ that serves as its alarm to the gearshift in his Jaguar that Eva excitedly shifts for him when she’s turned on as he races down a winding road, there are phallic symbols everywhere. And after stealing the gold ingot, Diabolik sets about melting it down. Eva looks on eagerly as he wields a large hose between his legs, preparing to issue molten gold from it into a mold. We see him and his hose framed between her statuesque legs, just in case we still don’t get it. Then we see her bite her lower lip as the gold spurts out. It’s ridiculously over the top, but so appropriate for this movie! And really rather shocking for 1967. In poking fun at the sexuality in James Bond films with scenes like this, Danger: Diabolik actually manages to one-up 007 on that count.
From the shot compositions to the performances to the action to the suggestive situations, there is no part of Danger: Diabolik that isn’t a sheer joy to watch. Bursting with Sixties style and fashions, it is an absolute must for fans of the era, and also compulsory viewing for James Bond and Eurospy afficionados. But it’s not a movie that should be limited to any sort of niche audience; it’s a movie for all. It’s sheer entertainment.
I’m generally a fan of the cult favorite TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000, but they did a grave disservice to cinema in general when they wrongheadedly selected Danger: Diabolik as their final "experiment," thus poisoning a generation against what’s really one of the greatest movies ever made with their riffing. (It’s not even a very funny episode, since genuinely bad movies lend to better jokes.) Fortunately, a lot has been done since then to correct this misapprehension.
In 2005, Paramount issued a fantastic special edition DVD, boasting not only a great widescreen transfer (utilizing the better of the two available English language tracks; an inferior one had circulated widely as a bootleg before then), but also a number of excellent special features. Foremost among them is a truly stellar commentary track by John Phillip Law and the erudite publisher of Video Watchdog and Bava biographer Tim Lucas. It’s both informative and entertaining. Law candidly recalls lots of great stories from the set, and Lucas makes sure there’s never a lull in the track with a plethora of behind-the-scenes facts about nearly everyone involved in the production. (His book, Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark also contains an entire, exhaustively researched chapter on the movie–and is the final word to date on its making.) The Beastie Boys’ music video "Body Movin’" is also included, and that’s a real treat as well. It utilizes clips from the film mixed with new footage of the musicians playing the roles themselves. Beastie Boy and director Adam Yauch provides a commentary on that. There’s a good (if ultimately too short) featurette called "From Fumetti to Film" in which comic artist Steven Bissette makes the credible case for Danger: Diabolik being the best comic book movie ever, and both the U.S. teaser and theatrical trailer round out the special features. The disc is sadly out of print in America at present, though still easy enough to find used. (I’m hoping this moratorium is only temporary while the studio prepares an even better special edition for Blu-Ray, but I have no evidence supporting that theory.) It’s still available in Region 2, but sadly without the features.
Since then, Lucas’s book has fueled a much-deserved renaissance in Bava films in general, and Danger: Diabolik frequently makes the rounds of revival cinemas. Celebrity fans like Joe Dante and Edgar Wright have also done their part to reclaim this misunderstood classic from the schlock status unfairly bequeathed it by MST3K.
There is so much more I’d love to write about Danger: Diabolik, but a review can only be so long. In short: this is a truly fantastic film. If you’ve never seen it, make sure to rectify that at your earliest opportunity!
For more on the fabulous set design of Danger: Diabolik, be sure to check out Jason Whiton's fantastic article on the subject over at Spy Vibe.
This review was originally published on the Double O Section on March 7, 2009 here. Danger: Diabolik was the second entry in an ongoing series devoted to My Favorite Spy Films. Other entries so far include: