Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Danger: Diabolik (1968): or, "Groovy" Begins with a "D"

I flatter myself that, by this point in my film-reviewing career, I've seen more than my share of groovy movies. From the off-the-hook soundtrack of Naschy's Vengeance of the Zombies to the Bond-parody sex-rompiness of the unassailable Zeta One, from the psychedelic kaleidoscope of All the Colors of the Dark to the booty-shakin' credits of Die Screaming, Marianne, on through the brain-melting bananary of the Russ Meyer ouvere, I feel that by now I should know from Da Groovy. I've put in the time, and I've reaped more than ample rewards.

But leave it to a maestro like Mario Bava to show me how barely I have scratched the surface when it comes to cinematic grooviness, what worlds of psychedelic wonder still wait to be explored. My novice-stature in this arena became embarrassingly clear to me earlier this week when I sat down to view Bava's masterpiece of comic book-y, super-villainy goodness, 1968's Danger: Diabolik.

What we have here is basically a master class in Doing It Right, late-60s version. Bava's impeccable visual style, applied to a source material to which it is perfectly, uniquely suited? Check. Hip-wigglin' score by the man who invented Soundtrack Cool, Ennio "Fookin'" Morricone? Check. John Philip Law in the role he was BORN to play? Check. Marisa Mell as one of the most gorgeous femme fatales EVAR, not to mention prototypical James Bond villain Adolfo "Thunderball" Celi? IT'S ALMOST TOO MUCH GROOVY!

Based on the wildly popular (and still going strong) fumetti created by sisters Angela and Luciana Giussani in 1962, Danger: Diabolik recounts the adventures of the master criminal and mystery man known only as Diabolik (John Philip Law). Leaving the origin story for those with the resources and inclination to track them down (or else trusting his audience to know already), Bava presents Diabolik's exploits as a series of distinct capers, each one more incredible and dangerous than the last. With apparently unlimited financial and technological resources, a ruthless, cunning, amoral intelligence, and the assistance of his equally capable lover Eva (the completely stunning Marisa Mell), Diabolik steals millions from the private sector and the government alike, always several steps ahead of his hopelessly outmatched adversary, Inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli).

The opening episode finds Ginko charged with protecting the transfer of $10 million in hard cash from one bank to--well, somewhere else. Since it's "The largest single shipment of dollars ever made...at six in the morning!" Ginko is worried that Diabolik will jump up to make an impromptu withdrawal. Thinking to outwit the Master Criminal, Ginko sends a heavily armed motorcade complete with motorcycle escort and rooftop sniper protection out the front door, carrying sacks and sacks of BLANK PAPER! The real shipment is stashed in a fake diplomat's car--a Rolls Royce, natch--which will take an alternate route to the harbor where the cash will be loaded on a ship, for some reason. The old bait-and-switch--that NEVER FAILS!

Eyes on the Road

Except when it does, as is predictably the case here. Once the shipment arrives at the seaport, an array of stylish chrome nozzles lays down a multicolored smokescreen, throwing Ginko's well-practiced plot into disarray. The men fall out of the Rolls and start flailing uselessly at the smoke until Ginko tells them to knock that shit off, at which point they realize that the Rolls itself has disappeared! Looking up, the men see the car being magnet-craned out over the water, a lone figure in black leather striking an iconic pose on the hood. Brandishing the sacks full of money and letting loose one of the great eeeeevil laughs of cinema history, Diabolik leaps into the bay amid a flurry of gunfire, having outsmarted, outplanned, and outplayed Ginko once more. Roll credits!

And when I say roll, I mean ROLL. The credit sequence here really sets the tone for the whole flick, with a whirling psychedelic kaleidoscope spiraling out of control under comic sans serif lettering, all to the strains of radio hit and unofficial Diabolik theme song "Deep Deep Down." (Check it out here [youtube, audio only]: you'll be glad you did.) Once the names have been called we join Diabolik in mid-getaway, dodging machinegun fire in his trademark black Jaguar before ducking into a tunnel to evade the cops. Inside he meets Eva in her trademark WHITE Jaguar, switches cars, and sends the untenanted black Jag outside and over the cliff. While Ginko and the cops investigate the wreckage, Diabolik and Eva double back and head toward the supervillain's AMAZING underground lair.

You should see the basement!

On the DVD commentary track, John Phillip Law and Bava biographer Tim Lucas talk a lot about the director's amazing use of matte paintings on glass panes to create sets that weren't there, and according to them, very little of Diabolik's RAD Cave actually existed. Part of me wants to tell them, "The HELL you say!" because the effect Bava achieves here and elsewhere throughout the flick is nothing short of astounding. The lair looks real and expansive, with cavernous rock walls, futuristic walkways and parking pods, and a million other details that make the whole thing come to life. (A scene in which Eva walks up some stairs and across the fake set is so seamless, it puts modern CG-created set work to shame.) This "glass pane" technique had been used in Hollywood at least since the 30s (those famous castle shots in the Universal Horrors made extensive use of painted mattes over real, partial sets), but if anyone ever did it better than Bava did, you didn't hear it from me. A real visual feast.

Diabolik parks the white Jag in a garage-cum-elevator, and having nothing better to do, he and Eva make out most sensuously while the car descends to the lower levels. Yes, they're making out in a JAG, which in turn is IN AN ELEVATOR--why settle for one makeout fantasy when you can have two? Then, after a truly groovy "duelling showers" scene shot through psychedelic glass, we find out why someone as rich as Diabolik REALLY wanted all that cash: to spread it over a gigantic, circular, rotating bed so that he and his amazing blonde girlfriend can have SEX on it, of course! As though there could be any OTHER reason...

Back in London, the Powers that Be are not enjoying being made fools of, least of all the Minister of Finance, played to stuffy British broad-comedic perfection by Terry-Thomas, the lovable gap-toothed comic of Dr. Phibes fame. At a press conference the Minister announces that in view of Diabolik's wanton disregard of decency and the law, Parliament has reinstated the Death Penalty in hopes of deterring further embarrassment. Of course what neither the minister nor Ginko realize is that Diabolik and Eva are in attendance at that very press conference--Eva especially keeping it very low key in a BANANA YELLOW overcoat and UH-MAZING EUROTRASH SUNGLASSES. To show their disdain for the government's attempts to reign them in, Diabolik and Eva release "EXHILARATING GAS" on the Minister, police, and attendant press, and the resulting exhilaration is enough to get poor Terry fired and Ginko in hot water with his boss once again.

Since it was Italy in the 1960s, they actually blended right in.

For me this scene really established the character of Diabolik in the film--not only is he a brilliant criminal, but he also has a playful streak that plays in to everything he does. There's no reason for him to pump the party full of laughing gas other than as a sort of "Nyah-nyah" prank, for which the potential downsides--i.e., getting caught and HANGED--are nowhere near the provisional gain. And yet he does it anyway, because that's just how he rolls. (Also, I think, to make his beloved Eva smile; again, WHAT BETTER REASON?) Though he later racks up quite the body count with his trademark throwing knives and terroristic explosives work, I could never see him hereafter as anything more than a mischievous, playful, very horny kid.

Next, in my favorite totally extraneous scene in the film, we get to see a psychedelic nightclub party in full swing--complete with a Hippie playing a Xylophone Stairway, a Nature Nymph in repose, Go-Go Girls with Bilo-Tatts, Mamas and Papas-style music, rampant drug use, and some of the most athletic fruuging you'll ever see outside an Olympic venue. The police raid the party and we never see it or hear it referenced again, but some things are so awesome that they need no justification. They just ARE.

Taking a different tack, in the next episode Ginko decides to bring down the hammer on organized crime, in hopes that the added pressure will lead the gangsters to join in the hunt for Diabolik in order to get the fuzz off their tips. (Oooer.) An awesome spinning headline montage and some groovy animated map raids attract the attention of crime lord Ralph Valmont, played with wonderful oily menace by Adolpho "Thunderball" Celi. Valmont wastes no time establishing his awesomeness, dropping an uppity underling out the trapdoor of his in-flight aircraft and hosting a party at his pad with a priceless emerald necklace as the guest of honor. Watching the announcement of the party on television in between makeout sessions, Eva asks Diabolik for the necklace as a birthday present. And we're off!

A horrified Valmont realizes he left his Viagra on shore.

The Caper of the Emerald Necklace is better experienced than read about, but highlights include: an awesomely animated Identikit sequence; Valmont calling an underling a "DUMB-HEAD!" as well as delivering the immortal line: "San Francisco crossed you out of the medical register--but I'll drop you out of the HUMAN register!"; Diabolik taking out guards with his patented throwing knives and changing skintight leather outfits to blend in with different colored walls; an amazing escape involving a catapult that had me grinning like a chimpanzee; skydiving interrogation techniques YOU can use; and a method for recovering the jewels that I'm just going to go ahead and call the COOLEST EVAR.

Enough cannot be said about the visual style of the entire flick, and that's all Bava, baby. A recurring mirror motif becomes more noticeable and awesome as the movie goes on, and the brilliant, absolutely clear blue skies in every single exterior daytime shot just open up the frame like all outdoors. The mise-en-scene is never less than painterly (no wonder, since Bava *was* an artist), and the groovy colors and creative compositions mean there's always something wonderful to look at.

The actors are fantastic as well. John Philip Law is an imposing blank slate for much of the film--in fact he has no dialogue at all for nearly 35 minutes, and afterwards his deadpan delivery is less wooden than it is cool and collected--Diabolik never loses control, is never flustered, and seldom needs to raise his voice. Piccoli as Ginko is also good, conveying the capable, intelligent inspector who's nonetheless out of his league, doing particularly well when he's forced to admit his grudging respect for his adversary. Celi owns every scene he's in. Marisa Mell would be hypnotic if she never said a word--therefore, her wonderful portrayal of the playful, completely devoted partner to Diabolik's strong silent-type is an added bonus, and their chemistry is fantastic. (And, according to Law's commentary, very very real.) And even though the most flesh Mell shows is a long, luxurious shot of her smooth, bare back (zang), the sexuality she exudes along with the implication that for Diabolik and Eva EVERYTHING IS SEXY (the capers could be interpreted as complex, dangerous sessions of extremely satisfying foreplay) make this movie seem a lot dirtier than its retro-conned PG-13 rating.

You know, when you wear a mask that EXACTLY conforms to your facial features, it's pretty obvious you're just fucking with people.

In the final caper of the flick, after Diabolik destroys all the buildings housing tax information for the entire British Empire (shades of Fight Club more than 20 years earlier), Ginko takes the extraordinary step of converting a large part of the British gold reserves into one 20 ton ingot, reasoning that even Diabolik couldn't steal something THAT large. Alas, he's predictably, tragically wrong again, and watching Diabolik foil him one last time is nothing but 100% fun.

The commentary track with Law and Lucas is informative and worth a listen, if for nothing else than Law's obvious and contagious joy about the whole thing. They have some interesting observations about the problems with bringing Diabolik back today (he is, after all, basically a terrorist), and how even in '68 Bava dialed back some of the character's cruelty from the comics. Also interesting is the stated fact that Dino de Laurentiis apparently gave Bava $3 million to make the flick, and Mario brought it in for an amazing $400K--when you see the finished result, you'll wonder how even $3 mil could cover it. It's no wonder that the movie has been called one of the greatest comic book adaptations ever, and is still considered so by some, if their purview stretches beyond Spider-Man and The Dark Knight.

So for beautiful camera work all the way through, amazing low-tech special effects, inventive plotting, a spectacular score by Morricone, and no shortage of gorgeous groovy-girls, I give Danger: Diabolik 3 thumbs. Deep, deep down, I think you'll dig it.


Many thanks to Empress Kate of the Tenebrous Empire for providing the pixels and impetus!


Tenebrous Kate said...

Liebling, your review has me grinning like an eedjit! I am so super-pleased to've spread the Diabolik gospel to the Vicarage. *Now* you understand why I've immortalized the King of Crime in tattoo form on the Tenebrous Shoulder, yes? Deep, deep down, ALL good people dig Diabolik. Or... not-so-good people. You understand what I mean, I'm sure ;)

Thanks for a most excellent post!

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite movies and a great review. An interesting footnote s the whole staying under the budget story - apparently this was Bava's big chance to cross over into the American market, but rather than applaud his economic style of film-making, American producers apparently felt that he simply wasn't thinking "big enough" to be a suitable director for a bigger (US) studio production. The same thing happened reportedly to Corman too, who never understood that his approach caused producers to worry that a movie directed by him would lack sufficent prodution values and thus also failed to move on to bigger and better things.

Anonymous said...

This is quite possibly the nerdiest comment I've ever left on a movie blog, but here goes: The hippie nightclub raid is not extraneous; it's critical to the plot. Ginko's plan is to get Valmont to aid him in catching Diabolik (it takes a thief, yada yada). The nightclub is one of Valmont's operations, and a known den of illicit drug use and underage tomfoolery. The cops raid the nightclub and threaten to throw the book at Valmont -- unless he cooperates with them, in which case the charges will be dropped.

I guess my knowing this indicates that this is a film which rewards multiple viewings.

(Also: freeze frame on the GI Joe doll.)

Anonymous said...

Great review, makes me want to watch it again, which I probably will. One comment though, Terry-Thomas was never in a Carry On film.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Thanks for the comments, everybody!

Empress--thanks so much for winging this one my way. I'll have to return the favor by foisting some Naschy upon you in the near future.

Anonymous 1--that is indeed an incredible double-standard. And like I say, this movie looks much more expensive than even its projected budget, let alone what Bava actually spent. I can only assume he saved money by having Law and Mell provide their own costumes--because I've GOT to believe they both dressed like that in their day to day lives as well.

Howard--I didn't make the connection between the Hippie Den and the gangsters; they seemed to exist in different worlds. But I fully support whatever excuse was necessary to bring such a beautiful thing into existence.

anonymous 2--Apparently John Philip Law thought Terry-Thomas was in Carry On!, as he mentioned it on the commentary, and I took that as gospel without checking it out--mea culpa. Thanks for the catch! I will duly expunge my mistake from the article, and then tell everyone I don't know what you're on about. ;P

Miss Kolleen said...

last episode of MST3K. Anyone?

"Is that stud coming?"

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