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Danger: Diabolik

by Glenn Erickson May 23, 2020

Oh Joy, Oh Rapture!  Mario Bava’s comic book thriller makes the jump to Blu-ray in fine shape, with knockout visuals and eye-popping color. John Philip Law, Marisa Mell, Terry-Thomas and the late Michel Piccoli are all irreplaceable in this one-of-a-kind show. Bava’s film translates action comic fantasy into cinematic terms, pictorial appeal and dynamism intact. The disc comes with a pair of excellent commentaries, featuring Nathaniel Thompson, Troy Howarth, Tim Lucas and John Philip Law himself.


Danger: Diabolik
Blu-ray
Shout! Factory
1968 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 99 min. / Street Date May 19, 2020 / Available from Shout! Factory
Starring: John Phillip Law, Marisa Mell, Michel Piccoli,
Adolfo Celi, Terry-Thomas, Mario Donen.
Cinematography: Antonio Rinaldi
Film Editor: Romana Fortini
Art Director: Flavio Mogherini
Original Music: Ennio Morricone
Written by Adriano Baracco, Mario Bava, Brian Degas, Tudor Gates,
Dino Maiuri story by Angela & Luciana Giussani
Produced by Dino De Laurentiis
Directed by
Mario Bava

We were very happy in 2005 when Danger: Diabolik arrived on DVD in a decent encoding. It was remastered at Zoetrope in San Francisco, where disc producer Kim Aubry undid the previous restoration disasters that went out on VHS and laserdisc. The sad fact of this life (sob) is that too many of my favorite movies end up with big problems on disc. So far, this release looks too good to be true. Unless I’ve missed something, Paramount and Shout! Factory have also corrected a soundtrack issue that before was my only gripe.

The Batman TV show debuted in January of 1966, kicking off a cultural boom of interest in comic-book TV shows and musical plays. In response to that trend as well as the recent French theatrical revival of Fantomas, Italian producer Dino de Laurentiis initiated his own pair of grandiose comic-book adaptations. The erotic French Barbarella comic became a fallen soufflé of dull dialogue and plastic sets. Roger Vadim’s latest star conquest missus Jane Fonda starred as a sexy female Buck Rogers, and did score points for her spirited camp attitude. The Bob Crewe soundtrack is … unusual, and Anita Pallenberg’s evil queen purrs with a truly wicked voice provided by the great Joan Greenwood.

But the second de Laurentiis comic book project is brilliant moviemaking, plain and simple. Angela & Luciana Giussani’s edgy, adult comic book anti-hero Diabolik becomes a surreal combo of Cocteau and Feuillade brought up to date with James Bond gadgetry. Mario Bava’s only foray into expensive continental filmmaking may be the first movie to truly achieve the ‘feel’ of an action comic book. The awful French Fantomas films of the ’60s didn’t have a clue, that’s for sure.

 

The committee-written script conflates two (or three?) original Giussani storylines, adding a veneer of campy satire slightly above Batman level. The wild crime capers of Diabolik (John Phillip Law)  defy law enforcement’s every attempt to put him out of action. Despite elaborate precautions the master thief makes off with a huge shipment of cash, prompting the Minister of the Interior (Terry-Thomas) to grant the frustrated Police Inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli) special extra-legal powers. When Ginko puts the squeeze on the underworld, vice racketeer Ralph Valmont (Adolfo Celi) has no choice but to help the cops. Ginko’s bait of priceless emeralds is too enticing for Diabolik to ignore, as he needs a birthday present for his lover-accomplice Eva Kant (Marisa Mell). But the anarchist-thief’s daring one-man burglary raid on a seaside castle is a brilliant success. Valmont sets a trap from another angle. His crooks kidnap the one person Diabolik can’t do without: Eva.

I don’t think too many 1968 fantasy film fans were even aware of Danger: Diabolik  — it certainly didn’t play in my small town. But when John Baxter covered it in his book The Science Fiction Film I knew it was a must-see item. My chance didn’t come until a 1972 midnight show in Santa Monica. I was floored. In contrast to the generally ugly, style-challenged film fare of ’72, Diabolik in Technicolor was a sensory, mind-blowing feast. I rented Films Incorporated copies to show at the UCLA dorms, and eventually bought collector 16mm prints.

Mario Bava’s unique filmic skills and talents combined a unique sense of lighting design with a mastery of in-camera special effects. Detailing his career is no longer needed, at least not in a review aimed at fans of fantastic films. Bava’s tiny film for A.I.P. just before Danger: Diabolik was Planet of the Vampires, a dazzling space epic created with a bare minimum of resources. One of the first things we learned about Danger: Diabolik was that Bava spent only a fraction of the hefty production budget allotted him by Dino de Laurentiis. The resulting comedy crime thriller delivers twice the impact of the pricey, directorially lazy Barbarella.

Diabolik definitely makes a unique style statement. His bizarre costume is a fascinating leather & rubber concoction that looks terrific but must have been torture to wear for long periods of time. It’s a refinement of the leather space suits just seen in Planet of the Vampires. The Cocteau-like molded rubber headpiece is perfectly skin-tight. When we first get a close-up, the mask appears to be painted onto John Phillip Law’s face. The costume makes rubber and fine black leather look extremely sexy; Diabolik stalks through scenes like a human spider.

Elsewhere the show benefits from the kind of dazzling Italo design that impresses us in interior design magazines, even if only one-percenters own the kinds of rooms depicted. It’s all glass, partitions, modern furniture and minimalist art. Even in police headquarters the walls are in beautiful pastels. Note that little or no text appears anywhere, to render the film’s locale generic, with no language conflicts. The police uniforms and vehicles, however, are all definitely Italian!

 

Comic book aesthetics meet pure cinema.

Danger: Diabolik’s color and art direction have a big-time appeal to art students. Its action-movie stylistics certainly knocked us out fifty years ago, blending Feuillade (breakneck action, aestheticized and glamorized) with Georges Franju (artistic delicacy, an emphasis on textures). Bava’s camera loves to linger on startlingly beautiful scenes. Diabolik’s white jaguar creates psychedelic reflections as it traverses a cream-colored underground tunnel. His cave grotto has a shimmering, sensual visual atmosphere, when Eva waits poolside to have a necklace of giant emeralds affixed to her chest. The criminal doesn’t use ordinary smoke to mask his getaway, but smoke in billowing multi-colored plumes. Bava’s wide-angle lenses and sharp camera moves (and zooms) energize every shot. The distorting lenses exaggerate the motion of speeding cars and trains. When Diabolik dashes up a stairway his spidery legs seem to stretch to twice their length.

The frequent wide angle shots aren’t arbitrary, but are used to hype the spatial dynamism. Gangster Ralph Valmont’s power is enhanced when he crosses what looks like twenty feet of boat deck in just a couple of steps. A gigantic telephone and foreground heads blot out half of the screen when Valmont waits for an important call. When Diabolik interrupts his own autopsy to take the scalpel from a startled surgeon, his hand reaching up at the lens becomes a giant black claw.

Bava creates a convincing castle with another brilliant use of a wide-angle lens, to make it look as if Diabolik were performing a daredevil human fly stunt. The castle tower is actually just a half-tube construction leaning at a shallow angle on a sloping hill, filmed with a fisheye lens. Bava used the same trick for a similar castle climb in his earlier Erik the Conqueror. The setup would look ridiculous to an observer on location — but through the camera viewfinder the illusion is perfect.

Other Mario Bava ‘magic’ is revealed in the new HD scan. Diabolik’s swimming pool is almost all foreground miniature. When Eva climbs out to greet her partner in crime, look carefully — the only full-sized, ‘real’ parts of the scene are the exact bit of stairs next to Marisa Mell and parts of the cave around them.

In the from-the-beach angle of the St. Just Castle (a Gothic structure with a modern steel and glass wing!) we can see a small human figure where the castle tower meets the rocks. Is it just another guard, or was it meant to be Diabolik, preparing to begin his climb? It’s really tiny.)

 

How does one translate comic book action to film?

Comic books must render all action in stylized static images. Remember how Jean-Luc Godard created ‘action’ scenes for Alphaville by having his combatants hold still poses, as if for a camera?  That’s also the modus operandi of comic book artist Jack Lemmon in Richard Quine’s How to Murder Your Wife — he bases his cartoon panels on actual still photo shoots. His actor-models must pose like cartoon characters.

Diabolik moves well, but he poses even better. Like an animated character, he moves from one ‘cool’ pose to the next, perched on a wall or peering through a pair of binoculars. Bava doesn’t just put people in funny costumes for the show, he rearranges action in comic book terms. Thus we have the spectacle of Diabolik’s Jaguar zooming down roads at impossible speeds, or dodging machine gun bullets by veering right and left. It’s all action fantasy writ large.

The comedy is also comic strip- oriented. Many side jokes are brief throwaways, as when Valmont points to a gang moll’s rear and says, “Look here.” A zoom to the twin masts of Valmont’s yacht creates a visual pun, a literal ‘double cross.’ Some setups use universally-understood comic book ‘semaphore language.’ Gangster Rudy doesn’t just spot Eva in a gas station, he holds up a large cartoon image of her, that we can see as well. When Diabolik approaches the minister of the interior at the press conference, he pauses with his laughing gas camera and turns to look directly at the camera before continuing. It’s like Bugs Bunny doing an aside to the audience: “Yes, it’s me. Aren’t I sneaky?”

The film’s editorial sense also breaks new ground. Remember how the Batman TV show caught some of the color and fun of the comics, but not the active immediacy of a comic book narrative?  Romana Fortini’s editing hits perfect notes of comic book inspiration. An ineffectual government minister pounds his desk in defiance of the thief: “It’s a JOKE! But we’ll call his Bluff!”   The minister’s declaration is cut off by Diabolik’s response, a terror explosion that rocks a government building. Carefree villainy is expressed when Diabolik does a cartwheel into his Jaguar. The wide angle of the tumbling figure cuts instantly to the Jag’s tires peeling out, before Diabolik is even in the driver’s seat. When we first see  Diabolik’s face, it is in a car in a dark tunnel. He kisses Eva as he drives away, without looking up to see where he’s going.

An important part of Bava’s style is his avoidance of opticals — 99% of his visuals are accomplished in the camera. Scenes do not fade or dissolve. They cut, so as not to degrade the image with an optical dupe. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a rear-projected process image in a Bava film. Diabolik is one of the few Bavas to use traveling matte opticals. Scenes of people in cars and Diabolik in a phone booth were perhaps ordered by de Laurentiis, as they don’t look at all like the director’s style. Bava didn’t like to spend money, and handing over work to an optical house would also mean he would lose visual control … and Bava wanted control so badly that he turned down offers to make more ‘big’ movies.

You say you want a revolution?

The adult content in this action-hero comedy goes beyond the steamy make-out scene in Diabolik’s Jaguar. The script doesn’t give a hoot for conventional superhero morality, that’s for sure. The maniacal Diabolik is a terrorist-thief who laughs wickedly at any attempt by the government to exercise control. He kills policemen left and right without regret. One sequence shows him dynamiting scores of government buildings because he ‘doesn’t approve’ of how tax money is spent. Remember that the show came out just four months before Italy and France were brought to a halt by the May ’68 strikes. Italy was experiencing an ultra-violent true-life crime wave by thieves armed with machine guns. Carlo Lizzani’s Wake Up and Kill (1966) and Banditi a Milano (1968) put these real criminals on film. The crooks had no motive beyond get-rich materialism, just as Diabolik’s greedy defiance of law and order has no direct political aim. But it mighty bear a relationship to the radical-chic vibe conveyed by Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, by way of Jean-Luc Godard: “We’re young, beautiful and against the establishment, so if we’re unhappy we’re entitled to rob and kill.”

It’s more likely that the makers of Diabolik were taking nothing seriously. The show is at its most outrageously irresponsible when our anti-hero thief flippantly blows up multiple tax offices in one coordinated strike (pretty good organizing, there). The rude anti-government joke is surprisingly funny, but it’s only a little more disturbing than the sadistic gags we laugh at in Road Runner cartoons. Just the same, the satirical overkill pushes Diabolik closer to an outright anarcho-artistic statement like Godard’s Le weekend.

 

The film enjoys a near-ideal cast. Terry-Thomas had recently worked for de Laurentiis in the now-obscure spy fantasy Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die. He’s hilarious as the Interior Minister; his comic gags are short, sweet and focused, and could have been filmed in a single day. Adolfo Celi’s broad mob boss Valmont is an amusing re-tread of his James Bond villain from Thunderball. He’s backed by an assortment of stylishly sleazy crooks and well-costumed vice molls. Star Michel Piccoli must have wanted to work for Mario Bava, because his dramatic starring career was going very well at the time. Piccoli adds a touch of class, and it’s fun to see him in something less serious that usual. The storyline’s ‘it takes a thief to catch a thief’ motif is of course reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s classic “M”.  Celi’s Valmont growls, “We’ve got the know-how the cops don’t.”

 

Marisa Mell is one of the more interesting of the exotic Eurostars of the period; she makes a wonderfully sexy and stylish comic-book heroine. Eva Kant at all times looks as if she were painted by Frank Frazetta. Her mod fashions still look fashionable: short-shorts, miniskirts and bizarre sunglasses. I’ve seen her ‘hooker guise’ aped more then once, most memorably by Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. We loved John Philip Law’s angel Pygar in Barbarella, but Diabolik was the role he was born to play. Law is physically amazing, spidery yet muscular and powerful-looking. His performance also shows that he understands the tone that the movie is going for. He gets the joke, and doesn’t mind being laughed at. Law showed a terrific playful quality in his first movie appearance in Norman Jewison’s The Russians are Coming The Russians are Coming.

Danger: Diabolik is graced with one of Ennio Morricone’s quirkiest, most effective music scores. Morricone + the art direction of Flavio Mogherini = sensory nirvana. Christy applies her vocal magic to the hallucinatory theme behind the titles, and Edda Dell’Orso provides the wailing solo voice for the underwater sequence. An all-purpose guitar riff gets a steady workout in any scene involving vehicles, and a psychedelic cue for the marijuana nightclub is too good to be a silly parody. Even in 1972, we college students thought the ‘pass the joint’ shot was hilarious — it just keeps going forever. The beautiful Italian language version of the title song Deep Deep Down! has sexy, provocative lyrics: “di stare più vicino a me!”

Seen in the right frame of mind, Diabolik blend of music and visuals works up to a moving finale. The ultimate materialists Diabolik and Eva remain committed to one another through thick and thin. “You’ll not be alone while I live” is a secular wedding vow, acknowledging that nothing is forever. When it looks like Diabolik’s goose is cooked encased in gold, the sitar begins to play. The distorting wide-angle view of his grotto hideaway pans to the left to find — Eva, in funereal black furs and veil. She steps forward, and sweet strings begin the Diabolik theme. When Eva reaches Diabolik, the sentiment she expresses is how much she misses her criminal mate’s body. Yep, love can be like that. Danger: Diabolik keeps us interested because it doesn’t forget to be a passionate love story.

 


 

I was hopeful that the new Blu-ray of Danger: Diabolik would do right by this core favorite, and Shout! Factory has not let us down. The transfer and colors are bright and punchy throughout. I didn’t find it necessary, but you might want to turn the chroma up a tad to be closer to the original suffused Technicolor look. Some formerly unsteady shots are now rock solid. The only scene that’s timed differently than what I remember are the night exteriors when Diabolik battles Ginko’s policemen in the quarry … the sequence is a little milky, when the original was sharp and crisp, just darker.

I think they got the audio right this time. The 2005 remaster located the original English-language audio, restoring its far better array of vocal talent. Adolfo Celi once again sounds like Emilio Largo and Diabolik is back to the pronunciation DIE-abolik instead of the Italian-inflected DEE-abolik. When Valmont grunts out, “Tough luck, Diabolik!” the right pitch of genre jokery is restored.

Best of all, this new disc fixes the one gripe I had about the old DVD. The old release’s audio track had a balance problem: the music was much too restrained against the Dialogue and Effects. Instead of serving as background underscore, the Morricone cues were meant to take over entirely, as in a Sergio Leone western. The cut to the money motorcade cues a heavy guitar riff, which now SLAMS in again, almost like a parody of traveling music. The same goes for the drug nightclub cue and the underwater gold recovery cue — they’re now ‘big’ again.

The new disc retains the slightly longer Italian cut, with the overhead shot of Eva and Diabolik making love on their circular bed, buried by their stolen U.S. currency. When that down angle on the revolving bed was trimmed for the 1968 American release we lost a terrific workout for Ennio Morricone’s main theme. I am assured that the original U.S. release was also shorn of the drug nightclub scene and parts of other scenes, like Eva Kant’s post-caper shower. The 35mm IB Technicolor print that first floored me at the 1972 midnight show was likely Paramount’s single, barely screened file print, and it was intact. 16mm prints rented from Films Incorporated prints were also intact except for the longer money-in-bed scene. Around 1982 I persuaded the Filmex festival to screen Danger: Diabolik in their fantasy marathon. But Paramount no longer had a print. We were told that it had been junked a few years before, and turned into ‘sound fill.’

 

The extras from the 2005 DVD are back, including the fine John Phillip Law / Tim Lucas commentary that wasn’t mentioned in initial announcement. The two dispense quite a bit of interesting trivia: how nice it is to hear such detail on a movie we really want to know more about. Law’s comments tend to be a little off the wall, but Lucas keeps the discussion on target.

The old featurette From Fumetti to Film covers the basics of the Diabolik cult, from the original Italian comic to a Beastie Boys music video. Main host Stephen R. Bissette gives his defense of the film’s appeal; I remember that The Monthly Film Bulletin’s review applauded Bava, saying that he had restored the quality of panache to filmic adventure. There are also good comments from producer Dino de Laurentiis and composer Ennio Morricone.

The Beastie Boys music video Body Movin’ shows us how bad a Diabolik costume might have been in a no-budget film adaptation. Adam Yauch provides a commentary. The older extras finish off with an American Teaser and Trailer that are pretty awful, that don’t ‘get’ the movie at all. The U.S. posters don’t even depict Diabolik with his mask on, indicating that Paramount’s marketers hadn’t enough faith in the movie to identify it as a comic book fantasy.

Tim Lucas’s contribution is listed on the disc packaging, but Nathaniel Thompson and Troy Howarth’s commentary track, the only new extra, is not. I’m really pleased with their effort. The track offers quite a bit of information about Danger: Diabolik’s production history. De Laurentiis partially filmed the show with a different director and cast; when Mario Bava took over, Catherine Deneuve almost played the Eva Kant role. Nate and Troy don’t overload their track with personal experiences (one of my crimes, for sure) or over-analyze each scene in an interpretive sense (put the cuffs on me, I surrender). They have a good handle on Bava’s filming techniques. And since I agree with most every value judgment they make about the movie, they must be geniuses.

Yes, this is a special picture for me. It’s one of the first films I showed my future wife (and she didn’t drop me). The only 16mm prints I ever acquired were copies of It’s a Wonderful Life, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, Major Dundee and this movie. I remember a 1978 gathering at Jim Wynorski’s apartment where we screened my print of Diabolik for the writer Harlan Ellison, who had expressed interest in seeing it. In 1972 the only way to see the movie had been a rental from Films Incorporated for a minimum of $35 dollars. Today that would be $215 dollars. Ellison loved the movie, and talked it up on the radio show he was hosting at the time.

More unsolicited personal memories, this time second-hand: my friends Steven Nielson and Wayne Schmidt spent the summer of 1981 in Salt Lake City editing some horror movies for Philip Yordan. One of them starred John Philip Law, who was around the shop quite a bit. One day Law passed the editing room and did a double take when he saw the Danger: Diabolik poster that Steve had pinned to the wall. Wayne remembers that Law shouted, “Great!” and stopped by to talk. He was jazzed that his movie was remembered and liked. Just as in the commentary, he praised Mario Bava’s camera genius. He also told Wayne and Steve,

“On the first day, Bava called me over and said, ‘I’m a dog with actors. You’re on your own.'”

When the subject changed to The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Law became self-effacing:

“Oh, you have to play that kind of role big. Otherwise nothing happens on screen but
a bunch of guys standing around, whining, ‘What do ya wanna do now, Sinbad?'”

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Danger: Diabolik
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: New audio commentary with Nathaniel Thompson and Troy Howarth; 2005 commentary with Tim Lucas hosting John Phillip Law; featurette From Fumetti to Film; Teaser Trailer; Theatrical Trailer; Music
Video Body Movin’ by The Beastie Boys, with optional commentary by Adam “MCA” Yauch.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
May 21, 2020
(6275diab)
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Here’s Edgar Wright on Danger: Diabolik:

About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.