March 8, 2021
1 Hr., 41 Mins.
anger: Diabolik (1968), the first adaptation of the Italian comic series created by sisters Angela and Luciana Giussani, is more than anything concerned with capturing the look and feel of a comic book. At times it suggests a fashion magazine’s idea of pulp storytelling. This isn’t meant to be backhanded. Directed by Mario Bava, and produced by Dino De Laurentiis at about the same time he
did the better-known space farce Barbarella (also released in 1968), the movie is little more than a succession of bold robbery sequences and their aftermaths. Master jewel thieves-slash-lovers Diabolik (John Phillip Law, who also co-starred in Barbarella) and Eva Kant (Marisa Mell) are the ones pulling off the spectacular filchings. We will see in the course of the film the roadside swiping of $10 million in transit from one bank to another. The taking of a socialite’s prized emerald necklace at a castle party. The sneaky snatching of two tons of melted gold. The police (led by Michel Piccoli, playing Diabolik and Eva’s arch-nemesis Inspector Ginkgo), as well as a high-powered gangster (Adolfo Celi) assisting the law as a quasi-get-out-of-jail-free card, are ever-hot on their trails. (But those looking for justice are never as close as they think they are.)
The dialogue in Danger: Diabolik strikes us as a non-necessity — like, akin to
any of its added visual flourishes, an extra garnish. You don’t watch this kaleidoscopically colored movie and think to listen to what anyone is saying. (The line readings are distractingly overdubbed anyway; conversations sound like robots reciting the cheesy, stilted lines we’d read in a comic strip.) Only being clear on the stakes of an action sequence really matters, though even making sure you’re doing that is sort of insignificant. All you want in this movie is to see these preternaturally cool thieves insouciantly trick the law that by now isn't so confident about its outsmarting capabilities. It isn’t that big a deal that Diabolik and Eva are mostly just ciphers who look good — make it seem appealing — doing bad. This movie operates in an “I dress up this way; therefore, I am this way” mode. Law and Mell don’t have any trouble convincing us they’re these audaciously sly people. The tan and lissom Law is a physical platonic ideal of a light-on-his-feet, hard-to-detect prowler. Mell doesn’t have to do much to make us think the most fitting descriptor for Eva is “cat-like.”
Interior lives and backgrounds for any person in the ensemble are irrelevant. One-dimensionality is pointed. Diabolik and Eva in particular are designated
fantasy objects — alluring personifications of the fantastical idea that you can take advantage of the rich rather than the typical other way around. We admire them for seemingly reaping more pleasure from the joy of knowing they have gotten away with something than luxuriating in what their stolen goods can now afford them. They aren’t averse to momentarily celebrating with a rich person’s showiness the inevitably fickle reality of being above the law, though. In one early scene set inside their underground lair (the interior design suggests what might have happened if a caveman had a swinger's aesthetic values), Diabolik and Eva have sex on the piles of cash enveloping their spinning bed.
Danger: Diabolik reimagines the comic-book movie as an art object. When it offers comic-book aesthetics and stock characters, it’s like we’re getting fetishistic variants. We're drawn more to simplistic essences than their surrounding nuances; we derive fun just from looking. Ennio Morricone's mischievous, guitar-driven score is like a glossy coating. The movie’s thrills arguably lie completely in finding out how Bava, the most pop-art-evoking visual stylist in his peer group, will not only stage a scene but present it visually. (The movie suggests an intricate storyboarding process that behind-the-scenes trivia surprisingly indicate it didn’t have — you could pause it at any moment and what you’re seeing appears as carefully laid out as a comic-book frame.) Danger: Diabolik never slows down — it’s almost all thriller highs — and so you don’t notice its 100 minutes passing by, the same way you might lose track of time reading a comic book that has done an especially good job pulling off its escapism. When Danger: Diabolik literally ends with a wink, it’s the film's
equivalent of putting on the one item that unquestionably brings a stylish outfit together. A