Danger: Diabolik [DVD]
Director : Mario Bava
Screenplay : Adriano Baracco, Mario Bava, Brian Degas, Tudor Gates, Dino Maiuri (story by Angela Giussani and Luciana Giussani)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1968
Stars : John Phillip Law (Diabolik), Marisa Mell (Eva Kant), Michel Piccoli (Inspector Ginko), Terry-Thomas (Minister of Finance), Adolfo Celi (Ralph Valmont), Claudio Gora (Police Chief), Mario Donen (Sergeant Danek)
Danger: Diabolik is best known now as a candy-colored campfest, particularly after its popularity on Mystery Science Theater 3000. As a fragment of the psychedelic ’60s, it is clearly a fascinating historical object, but all the ironic jabs and biting jokes made at its expense in recent years (not to mention the Austin Powers effect of rendering anything related to swinging European culture ridiculous) have obscured the film’s undeniable creativity and artistry. It was clearly made on a limited budget, and there are parts of it that are patently ridiculous, but pound for pound Danger: Diabolik is a more thrilling and clever cinematic joyride than the vast majority of what Hollywood produces today.
The film was based on a popular series of fumetti (Italian comic books) that began in 1962. Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis got ahold of the rights at just the right time when Europe was beginning to pour out highly stylized comic book adaptations. Although Roger Vadim’s chintzy Barbarella (1968) is probably the best known of the bunch, there were a number of others that paved the way, including Umberto Lenzi’s Kriminal (1966) and its sequel, Kriminal’s Four Buddhas (1968), as well as Piero Vivarelli’s Mister X (1968) and Satanik (1968).
The best move De Laurentiis made was hiring Mario Bava to direct the film. A prolific and trend-setting cinematographer who began lensing films in the late 1930s, Bava had developed into an assured director in the late 1950s making fantasy and horror films. His budgets were always tight and his scripts were sometimes lacking, but he always made up for it with his baroque stylishness.
Bava was perfectly suited for adapting a comic book, as his aesthetic sensibilities were intricately bound up in the garish use of color and visual exaggeration. Danger: Diabolik is filled with gaudy crayon colors, rapid zooms and quick cuts, and an often brilliant use of extreme wide-angle lenses to create a sense of scope and depth where, in reality, there was none. Bava effectively deployed matte paintings, foreground miniatures, and forced perspective to give the movie a startling sense of grandeur that fits perfectly with its relentless pace and cheeky tone.
The main character is Diabolik, less played than embodied by John Phillip Law, who got the job because he was also starring opposite Jane Fonda in Barbarella, also produced by De Laurentiis. Diabolik is a master thief who spends all his time pulling off grandiose heists (his three big scores in the film are $10 million in cash, an emerald necklace, and, most improbable of all, a 20-ton block of melted-down gold the size of a car). His partner is a model-beautiful blonde named Eva Kant (Marissa Mell), and the tone of their hyper-sexed relationship is set after the first heist, when they spent an evening making love on a giant rotating bed covered with piles of money.
The movie gives us virtually no information about Diabolik -- his history, where he comes from, his family background, why he got into crime -- but little is needed. Diabolik is, like James Bond, a fantasy figure, albeit one who operates on the other side of the law. In true European counterculture fashion, he’s a criminal antihero who steals from the rich not to give to the poor or even so much to enrich himself, but simply to stick it to those in authority. His chief rival is Inspector Ginko (French actor Michel Piccoli, a veteran of Jean-Luc Godard and Luis Buñuel’s films), a dogged, Javert-like police officer whose every plan to capture Diabolik is thwarted at the last minute. Even when Diabolik has apparently been killed, there’s still a daring escape.
True to its genre, much of Danger: Diabolik is structured around big action setpieces -- Diabolik outrunning a helicopter in his signature black Jaguar, the destruction of a railroad bridge, Diabolik climbing up the side of an enormous tower using suction cups, the demolition of several government buildings (the terrorist associations of this particular gesture are admittedly a bit unnerving in today’s climate). Yet, much of the film’s true visual pleasure lies in its gaudy sets, such as the enormous underground lair where Diabolik and Eva plan their heists. Of course, everything in the film, from the sets, to the costumes, to the action sequences, are punched up by Ennio Morricone’s elaborate, imminently copied musical score, which uses everything from jangly guitar chords, to a sitar, to discordant avant-garde keyboards and trumpets, not to mention the stylized wailing so familiar to viewers of Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy.
Not surprisingly, much of this plays as high camp now, and there is infinite pleasure to be found in watching Danger: Diabolik from a comfortably ironic distance. So much of it simply begs to be laughed at, as when Diabolik and Eva disrupt a press conference by filling the room with “Exhilaration Gas,” but not before protecting themselves by taking “Anti-Exhilaration Gas Pills,” which are clearly marked as such. Yet, at the same time, the movie deserves to be appreciated for its clever production and genuine originality. If it seems derivative now, it is only because so many other movies and TV shows have copied its best elements.
|Danger: Diabolik DVD|
|Audio||English Dolby Digital 2.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||Paramount Home Video|
|Release Date||June 14, 2005|
|This DVD has been long in coming, as it was originally announced for release several months ago and was then delayed. For many years it was difficult to obtain prints of Danger: Diabolik, and most video copies, with exception of Paramount’s laser disc, have been lacking, to say the least. Thus, Paramount should be applauded for digging into their vaults and presenting this cult classic on DVD. The new anamorphic transfer is certainly the best it has ever looked on home video, and while there are some definite imperfections, most of them look to be inherent to the original elements. For example, all the optical shots in the film tend to have a significant amount of white speckling (see, especially, the opening sequence with the multicolored smoke). Otherwise, though, the film is generally clean and clear, with good detail and excellent, deeply saturated colors that maintain the film’s gaudy comic-book appearance.|
|The Dolby Digital two-channel soundtrack sounds very good, although understandably limited in scope and depth.|
|The screen-specific audio commentary by star John Phillip Law and Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas is definitely worth a listen. Law has some fun anecdotes to tell about the film’s production, but it is really Lucas that makes the track worthwhile. As one of the leading authorities on obscure movies and the biographer of Mario Bava, he has tons of information to impart about Bava’s career, the movie, and virtually everyone who worked on it. Also on the disc is a nice 20-minute retrospective featurette “Danger: Diabolik: From Fumetti to Film,” which is a very good introduction to Danger: Diabolik. It features interviews with comic book artist Steven R. Bissett, actor John Phillip Law, Roman Coppola (director of 2001’s CQ, which was heavily inspired by Danger: Diabolik), and Beastie Boy Adam “MCA” Yauch. Why, you might ask, is a Beastie Boy interviewed? Because in 1998 they used scenes from Danger: Diabolik in a video for their song “Body Movin’,” which is included on the disc with or without commentary by Yauch. There is also a teaser and theatrical trailer included, both in anamorphic widescreen.|
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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