REVIEW: Danger: Diabolik

[Foreword note: Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik is such a significant and influential film — having inspired other films like CQ; being not so much lampooned as venerated in the Beastie Boys video “Body Movin'”; and having the, some might say, dubious but noted honor of being featured in the last episode of MST3K — that writing of it now is made all the more poignant with the passing of Dino De Laurentiis. He is the latest of names involved in the project to pass on, including stars John Philip Law, Marisa Mell, and director, the Maestro himself, Mario Bava. May the legacy they have collectively left us in this film continue to shine.]

Danger: Diabolik (1968) is a politically charged comic-book action thriller based on the fumetti [Otaku, think of it as Italian Manga] of the same name. The title character, Diabolik (portrayed by John Phillip Law), is a black-clad, masked antihero, with striking eyebrows, who terrorizes the government (mostly because he can) of some Western power or another. Itís probably European; likely Italy, since it was shot on Dino De Laurentiisís dime at his studio in Rome, and that is where the director, Mario Bava, lived and worked. The Italian flag can also be seen flying in the background occasionally. Though it could even be the US, with all the American currency Diabolik literally rolls in.

The authorities do everything they can to elaborately ensnare him, but he gets away every time in novel ways (once most memorably from a castle using a catapult as part of a diversion), despite their best efforts — stealing money and emeralds, a giant ingot of gold, and even cheating death along the way. He does all this with the help of his sultry accomplice Eva (Marisa Mell), who often facilitates his escapes, and shacks up with him at his hideout — which looks like a cross between sets from other Bava films (they likely were) and Moonraker. She eventually puts herself in peril when she is IDíed by the mob who want Diabolik dead, naturally.

After a public humiliation of a prominent official, the government grants law enforcement “special powers” to crack down on crime, which put the mafia inordinately in the crosshairs. So, they cut a “bargain” with the cops to bring in Diabolik “on behalf of law and order.” The mobsters use some harsh tactics — including the requisite “cutting out” of the competition and execution of snitches — but Diabolik manages to outsmart them and turns his attention back to the regime. Thinking a million-dollar reward for his capture will bring him in faster, the government is felled by crippling bombings of their financial agencies. They lose the power to enforce taxes and are forced to melt down 20 tons of gold into the ingot mentioned earlier, thinking it impossible to steal, to buy currency. What this really serves to do is draw out Diabolik, who yet again manages to purloin the goods in grand fashion. However, he unknowingly leads the police to his lair, where he’s caught in an explosion while trying to melt the ingot — leaving him in suspended animation after a backwash of molten gold.

With such a grandiose, subjectively cartoon plot, it may be a wonder to some how any political messages can be gleaned from the film, but it’s actually quite rife with them. The foremost of which is that authority figures, particularly those in government, are inept, corruptible, and overreaching. They are out of touch, behind the curve — no one has the right strategy because nobody really understands Diabolik. They have an unusual problem on their hands with a nihilistic rationale they cannot conceive. They institute drastic measures because they fear their power is being threatened; and align with people, beyond the bounds of the law, you cannot possibly trust to ensure that their ends are met, even if that means by force. The only way to deal with all this, the movie contends, is with a similar methodology — fight fire with fire. Diabolik fights a morally ambivalent, authoritarian bureaucracy with unconventional tactics. He does it for the thrill of it, with reckless abandon (he was nearly caught in the catapult incident), but he believes in what he is doing enough to carry out his activities without compromise. He sends a letter to the appropriate minister hinting he is going to attack the money supply and tax system, and he does it. Diabolik is a man of his word, something implicitly lacking in the politicians.

There is a breadth of political concepts and perspectives exercised in the above: namely anarchy, realpolitik, and the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Anarchy — or disorder and, in particular, the lack of a government — is practiced by Diabolik, and his decided goal. Causing mass chaos is the most apparent consequence of his activity, but his attack on the tax and monetary system is a testament that he thinks the government must be brought down. He even states in his note to the police concerning his intentions that the system is ineffectual. So, arguably, regime change is the centerpiece of his mission. Even after humiliating political figures on TV and wrecking currency and government revenue, he is still the only person “rising up” — so to speak. And he does so with some force, but not as much as his enemies are willing to employ.

This brings us to realpolitik, a policy of power, especially through force. This notion is typified in both the government authorities, i.e., the police, and the mafia — respectively and in their cohesion. The police corner the market on this one: they can mobilize forces, and procured leeway legally with those “special powers.” Plus, they love their power; they unabashedly enjoy it. Before being embarrassed by Diabolik publicly with laughing gas, and resigning, the official constantly in question — the Minister of Finance (played by Terry Thomas) — announced with glee that they had reenacted the death penalty. It is that kind of alacrity that makes it no surprise when the police force brokers a deal with the mob. However, the cops’ authority and behavior pale to the savagery of the mafia in this film. When the mob boss Valmont (Adolfo Celi) makes Diabolik his number-one priority he shows no remorse. He holds a meeting with the other mobsters, and those who don’t join him either shoots or throws them from his plane — through a handy-dandy trapdoor. He riddles a snitch, who denied knowing Eva, with bullets — “crosses off” as he puts it, shooting in an x pattern. And, when he captures Eva, she is bound and tortured.

That is not to say there are not people for whom probity matters, someone who will do what is right, and uphold the law. That someone comes in the form of the character Inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli), the policeman in charge of catching Diabolik. He is the reflection of Hobbes’s thinking, that a state exists because people need protection from the harsher things in life — like anarchic thieves. That is all Ginko wants to do: protect. Although he is the one who demands those
“special powers,” he does it to get tough on all crime; and when Valmont calls him to make the deal, thinking he can buy Ginko off with money and women, Ginko says, “Three weeks and you’ll hang.” In his mind, Ginko is doing what is best to
serve his country.

In serving the audience, and the political messages, director Mario Bava did what always worked for him cinematically. He indulges the eye with a lot of color, starting with smoke in the opening scene that is tinted blue and yellow; and then transitioning into a swirling, kaleidoscope-like opening-credit sequence. A little later, after the police begin their crackdown on crime, they raid a club that is a front for drugs where people are getting high and dancing amidst a mod dimly primary-colored decor. The camera even fades in and out of a trippy, similarly colored haze as it pans across the room. It is a scene that is pure ’60s. Danger: Diabolik was very much a product of its time, and so certainly was its music. Bava employed Ennio Morricone to compose a very groovy, psychedelic score, one that resonates in your head long after you have seen the film; and that complements the color scheme quite well. Morriconeís music also provides a sense of urgency — and, well, danger — to Bavaís visuals. The first time we see Diabolik is a close-up shot, and Morricone, as much as Diabolikís stern stare, gives us a feel for the rebelís gravitas.

However, as keen as Morricone’s work is, he is only a small part of what gives the film its edge. Diabolik is also a product of his medium, the comic book, and Bava was not shy about reminding us of this. He put his genius of cinematography to work peculiarly, framing actors to look confined, like in the panel of a comic page. Throughout, we see Marisa Mell blocked between the railings of bedposts; swimming underwater in a large circular pool; up close wearing a diving mask; and next to Diabolik in the rear view of his Jaguar, most notably. Diabolik himself can be seen near the beginning through the perspective of what looks to be a smoke detector. Lesser characters appear standing behind bookshelves and so on. It is a way of paying homage to the source material without making shots static and motionless — a lesson unlearned in Barbarella. Everything about the movie feels like a comic book, right down to the hand-drawn sketch of Mell.

Being pulled straight from the comics page is something Diabolik shares with another picture of intense, and subversive, political merit: V for Vendetta. In the ultra-bloody, Wachowski-produced action yarn based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore, a masked vigilante seeks to bring down his totalitarian government with guerrilla-style tactics, bombings, the help of an attractive female accomplice — sounds familiar — and a pair of trusty daggers. It could be said that V is just Diabolik with Guy Fawkesís face, but there is a marked difference in tone between the two films. V delivers its message in a much bleaker manner. In one way, politicians in the film are humorless. When humor is employed, in a satire of John Hurt’s autocratic character on TV, it is followed by a Gestapo-style home invasion, and a bullet to the head. Diabolik, on the other hand, is more camp, with little blood (even when Eva is tortured it amounts only to bondage and a few cigarette burns). The world it puts forth is bright and colorful, and with its antics — like literally “crossing off” someone when shooting them to death, reminding of one example — can be construed as much more of a straight political satire.

When Bava wants to portray dopey, impotent politicians he casts the smarmy-looking, gap-toothed — not to mention stereotypically English — Terry Thomas. With this in mind, perhaps Dr. Strangelove is the better comparison, at first glance. But Strangelove is about nuclear war rather than terrorism, and, though its characterizations of world leaders are equally as ridiculous, does not share much with the other two thematically. Diabolik and V share many parallels: both concern the toppling of empires through drastic regime change something Bava and his countrymen who worked on the film would understand well, having lived under Mussolini decades prior to production. [Bava and his family, in fact, knew Mussolini personally, having worked on State-sponsored films at the InstitutoLUCE. So, this is an exceptionally meaningful theme for him, and a recurring one. Cursed and tragic families portrayed in The Whip and the Body and Black Sunday are meant to symbolize fallen dynasties.]

The two films protagonists are of questionable morality, but not motives. They are both resourceful and well-prepared. There is, again, also their tactics, lovely assistants (who are as resolute as they are), and so on, but the ties are more than superficial. Each film is a commentary on a certain time and place — Italy in the 60ís for Diabolik; contemporary Britain for V — yet can be fitted to suit a variety of world views, circumstances, and time periods. Diabolik is particularly flexible because of the ambiguity of its setting. [I could go on ad nauseum about the sundry analogies made about V for Vendetta, but thatís a whole other topic entirely, and could take up its own essay. Besides, it would take too long, and Iíve already wasted enough of your time.]

Diabolik is a film for many audiences, namely comic fans. Italy set the trend for comic-book-based material ten years before the craze began when Reeve donned the red cape in Superman. Then there are the Bava completists (such as yours truly), but its message is far deeper, as are its merits. It is a chance for those who want to be privy to quality thrills and thought-provoking cinema most moviegoers have never heard of. Hopefully it winds up on the shelf among your favorites. Of course, you have to see it first, and by all means…please do!

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