The late 60s pop art/spy fad produced some of my favorite films ever. Sure, they’re very much of their time, but they’re also rich with ideas, sumptuous design and color and great looking men and women risking life and limb to protect (or steal from) the world. From Batman to James Bond to Matt Helm, In Like Flint and Barbarella, there’s a lot to choose from. But for my money, there’s no better choice than Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik.
Based on the Italian comic series Diabolik by Angela and Luciana Giussani, this is the tale of a master criminal and thief who confounds the police and the mob at every turn. Along with his girlfriend Eva Kant, they travel the world to try and steal the biggest jewels and treasures.
The original production of this film was — charitably — a mess. Producer Dino De Laurentiis saw the footage that had been already been shot and canceled the film to hire a new director, cast and screenplay. After all, Diabolik was a huge character in his native Italy and there was tons of buzz about the film. Bava was hired to direct with a much lower budget, with any of the more well-known actors taking small roles. Some of the cast and crew came directly from Barbarella, as the film had stalled due to technical issues.
Bava brought along editor Romana Fortini and cinematographer Antonio Rinaldi were also brought in, as they’d had success with him on Planet of the Vampires and Kill, Baby, Kill.
Sets were designed by Carlo Rambaldi, who worked with a veritable who’s who of directors — Fellini, Spielberg, Pasolini, Argento, Paul Morrissey, Ridley Scott and so many more. Just a brief overview of his career is awe inspiring, with everything from the two Andy Warhol horror films to the special effects that nearly landed Lucio Fulci in jail (the dog mutilation scenes were thought to be real) for A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and Oscars for Alien, E.T. and King Kong.
This is a film of pedigree — with no less a talent than Ennio Morricone providing the soundtrack. From comedy work for films like La Cage aux Folles and Pedro Almodóvar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! to Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, Argento’s giallo work, John Carpenter’s The Thing, Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven, even Butterfly, Exorcist II: The Heretic, Red Sonja and the string section on Morrissey’s song “Dear God Please Help Me” — you’re talking about one of the finest and most diverse sonic artists there is. His score for Danger: Diabolik is playful and will stay in your head for a long time. I often find myself singing it to myself, pretending that I could be a famous thief. Then I realize I have no coordination at all.
The film looks like nothing else — pop art colors, strange sets (no accident, the sets were recycled from the currently in hiatus Barbarella), strong leads and outlandish action. I prefer it to Vadim’s take on comics, but obviously I’m always going to choose Bava over almost any other director.
Throughout the film, John Phillip Law shines as Diabolik, much more than he would get the chance to as the angel Pygar in the ad nauseam aforementioned Barbarella (I love the film, but it’s a mess that just barely holds together and cannot hold a candle to this work of genius and art). He does so much in the film with just his eyes and laugh. Marisa Mell is the most stylish and sexy women perhaps ever as Eva Kant, whether she’s setting up a crime or rolling around nude on a giant circular bed of money. If you think Austin Powers movies have ridiculous set pieces, you haven’t seen anything yet. In fact, between this film and the Dr. Goldfoot films, Mike Myers owes the Bava estate some serious money.
Diabolik cheats death throughout, even faking his demise via a technique taught to him by Tibetan monks (no need for Derek Flint’s heart restarting wristwatch here!) and being ejected out of a plane. It’s almost like an old movie serial — with case after case, set up after set up and death trap after death trap. It’s also a ton of fun. Plus, there’s a quick Terry-Thomas cameo as the Minister of Finance that makes me smile every time I watch this.
The film was initially seen as a failure, with poor box office and critical disdain. In the 90s, the Beastie Boys used clips of the film for their song “Body Movin'” and the last episode of the original Mystery Science Theater 3000 riffed on the film. It deserved much better. And thanks to critics finally recognizing the skill of Bava, it gradually has been seen in a whole new light (the breakdown of how the film works so well as a comic translation by Stephen Bissette is worth a watch on the now out of print DVD). And Bava made this film for around $400,000 — well under the budget of (again, I have to mention it) Barbarella.
I can’t see it as anything other than a success. A film that’s all style, with a flashy couple that steals things because — hey, why not? — and battles the mob and the police because — hey, why not? I’ve seen reports that De Laurentiis had budgeted $3 million for this and Bava came in so low, he was offered the chance to do a sequel (this kinda conflicts with other reports that Dino was unhappy with the returns). Bava didn’t want to work with Dino again, even when offered the chance to work on King Kong.
Just watch a few minutes of the film and you’ll realize there has never been anything before or since like it. It’s probably my favorite comic book movie ever — the closest a movie will ever get to simulating the reading experience without slavishly copying panels ala Sin City.