Monday, November 23, 2020

Danger: Diabolik

John Phillip Law as Diabolik.
Made in 1968, Danger: Diabolik is both a psychedelic ode to the movie industry's grooviest decade and one of the first big-budget adaptations of a comic book. The title character was the subject of hundreds of popular comic books in Italy, with the first volume being published in 1962. Diabolik was not a superhero, but rather a master thief who typically stole from criminals. When working, he wore a skintight black suit that only exposed his eyes. He drove a black Jaguar, which was housed in an elaborate gadget-filled hideout. And he was assisted by his lover, the beautiful Eva Kant.

Marisa Mell as Eva Kant.
All those elements are on display in Mario Bava's movie version, which stars John Phillip Law as Diabolik. It opens with his ingenious theft of $10 million, which he accomplishes by using a fog machine and stealing the car containing the money on a dockyard pier. After Diabolik snatches an invaluable emerald necklace right out from under police protection, Inspector Ginko takes desperate measures. He applies pressure on underworld kingpin Ralph Valmont (Adolfo Celi) to broker an agreement in which the gangster will deliver Diabolik to the police. Valmont focuses on Diabolik's only weakness:  His love for Eva Kant.

Producer Dino De Laurentiis had to overcome numerous challenges to bring Diabolik to the screen. His first choice for director was Seth Holt, who made two fine suspense films for Hammer: Taste of Fear (1961) and The Nanny (1965). However, De Laurentiis did not like Holt's completed film, which starred French actor Jean Sorel as Diabolik and Gilbert Roland as the villain (he replaced an ailing George Raft). So, he fired Holt, commissioned a new screenplay, and hired Mario Bava as director. He couldn't have made a better choice.

Bava's masterful use of color is on full display in Danger: Diabolik and the supervillain's  elaborate lair inside a mountain is a visual wonder. Bava occasionally goes over the top, as exemplified by a bizarre drug-fueled sequence inside a nightclub. Still, it's a small price to pay for such visual delights as Diabolik and Eva cavorting on a bed covered with $10 million or Diabolik scaling the wall of a castle tower with suction cups.
Diabolik and Eva covered in millions!
In place of Sorel, De Laurentiis cast John Phillip Law as Diabolik. Law was considered an up-and-coming actor, having co-starred with Michael Caine and Jane Fonda in Hurry Sundown (1967). Knowing that only his eyes would be visible in many scenes, due to Diabolik's costume, he practiced conveying emotions using only his peepers. The result is one of his best performances. Personally, I found Law a bit bland in later, better-known roles in Barbarella (1968) and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973). It's too bad he didn't get a chance to reprise Diabolik for a sequel or two.

Catherine Deneuve was initially cast as Eva Kant opposite Law. However, she and Bava allegedly clashed and she was replaced by Austrian actress Marisa Mell. Looking fabulous in colorful outfits, the blonde-haired Mell projects the required "cool factor"--even if Eva doesn't have much to do in the film. By default, she is the strongest female character in what comes across a chauvinistic film by contemporary standards.
Diabolik scaling the castle wall.
Danger: Diabolik was not a commercial or critical success at the time of its release. It has even been the subject of an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Still, it has gained fame over the years and now holds a "fresh rating" on Rotten Tomatoes. We thought it was wacky fun, right down to the Europop theme song composed by--of all people--Ennio Morricone.

8 comments:

  1. Morricone, eh? The maestro could do it all.

    I like the idea of wacky fun and I like the idea of something completely new (in that old kind of way). I certainly didn't expect to read about Gilbert Roland and George Raft when I saw that title and year.

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    1. Agreed! You can't go wrong with wacky fun. Sign me up!

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  2. Bookmarked this on Amazon where, by the way, they have the original theatrical trailer :). Also, not a big fan of MST3K. Have some insider info that would love to share in private, some time.

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  3. This is an interesting combination of James Bond-ish spy stuff and the traditional comic-book superhero/villain (and certainly a departure from the usual Mario Bava fare). Very representative of its time. Apparently Bava brought it in so far under budget De Laurentiis offered him a sequel, but he'd had enough and passed on the project.

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  4. This sounds good! Thanks for - once again - putting me on the scent of a "new" title. Too bad Catherine Deneuve isn't in the film, that would have made it extra special.

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  5. The main thing I remember about Danger: Diabolik is how put-off I was by the main character's total disregard for human life. I also recall how some fans of of the movie were upset about it being featured on MST3K, though I don't necessarily think it was the insult they possibly perceived it to be. While the conceit of the show was that the characters were forced to sit through bad movies, not all of their "experiments" were on the same level of Manos or Pod People; a few were actually semi-decent. And as Rifftrax has shown, freed from the constrictions of copyright, those guys have no compunctions about also taking the mickey out of higher quality films like Casablanca, Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, Charade, etc., all of which are a hell of a lot better than Danger: Diabolik.

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