DIABOLIK (Italian-French co-production, 1967)
Director/Cinematographer: Mario Bava
Story: Angela and Luciana Guissani, Dino Maiuri, and Adriano Baracco
Screenplay: Mario Bava, Dino Maiuri, and Tudor Gates
Camera operator: Antonio Rinaldi
Editing: Romana Fortini
Music: Ennio Morricone
Main players: John Phillip Law (Diabolik); Marisa Mell (Eva); Michel Piccoli (Inspector Ginco); Adolfo Celi (Ralph Valmont); Terry-Thomas (Minister of the Interior / Minister of Finance); Claudio Gora (Police Commissioner); Mario Donen; Federico Boido
Alternate title: Danger: Diabolik
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Based on the popular comic strip, the film details the adventures of super-cool super-thief Diabolik, a criminal mastermind who has managed to remain completely anonymous.Together with his sensuous lover Eva, Diabolik manages to outwit the police, represented by the affable Inspector Ginco, at every turn as he amasses a fortune in pilfered goods. The film opens with a daring daylight robbery. Though Ginco takes every possible precaution to ensure that a one million dollar shipment reaches the bank, Diabolik is always one step ahead of him. When the Minister of the Interior hears of the theft, he calls for a press conference.
During the conference, the minister promises that Diabolik will soon be behind bars. To that end, he reinstates the death penalty. The power of authority is much diminished at this point, however, and the minister finds himself to be the butt of a joke that finishes his career. Failing to recognize Diabolik among the crowd, the minister continues to preach to the reporters. Stating that he is not to be made a fool of, the minister is reduced to just that when Diabolik sets off some "exhilarating gas," reducing everyone in the room to hysterical laughter.
Following the disastrous conference, Ginco attempts to resign, but reluctantly agrees to stay when the commissioner gives him total authority over the case. With tireless precision, Ginco and his men "clean up the city." Mobsters are put behind bars, and then executed. A drug den is raided, and the jaded hippies and drug addicts are carted off. The scene in the drug den is one of the film's most memorable vignettes, though curiously Paramount cut the scene from the original U.S. theatrical release. Bava employs psychedelic lighting and image-distorting lenses to create a completely over-the-top atmosphere, which is complemented by Ennio Morricone's music. People strut about in colorful costumes, their faces painted and liquor bottles dangling from their bodies. A monstrously long marijuana joint is passed from hippie to hippe, as a silent mobster -- dressed in the standard pin-stripe suit -- watches in the background. The scene is broken up by the police, who enter with the standard, "All right boys, the place is surrounded. Everybody's under arrest!" A brilliant parody of the image of jaded hippies brought to justice by the heroic police force popularized on shows like DRAGNET, the scene pokes fun at those who buy into the one-dimensional logic of such programs.
The only two big objectives left for Ginco are Diabolik and Ralph Valmont, a syndicate head who is actually responsible for most of the crimes and drug trafficking on the police books. In order to save his own skin, Valmont agrees to help trap Diabolik. Living the high life and surrounded by beautiful girls, Valmont is also typical of the James Bond-style villains, a connection strengthened by the casting of Adolfo Celi, who had previously played Bond's nemesis, Largo, in THUNDERBALL (1965).
The turning point occurs when the British finance minister and his wife are honored at a gala party. The press, encouraged by Ginco, play up the wife's recent acquisition of an emerald necklace, which is to be unveiled at the celebration. Ginco knows that Diabolik will be unable to resist stealing the necklace, so he and his men lay in wait to spring their trap. Diabolik does indeed show up, but he manages to escape with the emeralds.
Finally, Valmont's men kidnap Eva. Diabolik promises to hand over the necklace to Valmont if he gives Eva back, so they arrange for a meeting aboard Valmont's private plane. This is all part of Ginco's plan, as he and his men are waiting on the ground. Once the plane reaches the designated spot, Valmont is to release the trap door, literally dropping Diabolik into the inspector's lap. Once again the plan backfires in a big way. In the subsequent shootout, Diabolik frees Eva and kills Valmont.
With no other alternative open, the government offers a one million dollar reward for Diabolik's capture. Enraged by the "bad way" the government is squandering the public's money, Diabolik blows all tax offices, federal banks and treasuries to smithereens.
DIABOLIK was designed by producer Dino De Laurentiis (later responsible for the infamously mammoth remakes of KING KONG and HURRICANE), and enabled Bava to work with a much larger budget ($3,000,000) and a more prestigious cast than he was accustomed to, but he remained true to his principles, relying on imagination rather than money, and brought the film in massively under budget at a mere $400,000. De Laurentiis was so thrilled, in fact, that he offered Bava the opportunity to make a sequel with the left over money, but Bava had by then tired of working with the megalomaniac producer and decided to pass.
DIABOLIK is especially interesting for the way it covers different territory than Bava's horror films and gialli, while at the same time remaining true to the tone of his overall body of work. The character of Diabolik is, like the protagonists of most Bava films, an outsider who is unable to abide by the standard codes of "moral" behavior. In common with these other protagonists, he is literally governed by greed. Regardless of the overall pessimism exhibited by Bava's work, the director nevertheless reveals a concern for delivering an appropriate come-uppance on the heads of his anti-heroes. In Bava's world, things are not particularly up-beat or "fair," but those who willfully exceed the boundaries of rational, decent behavior are eventually punished, in all but a few ironic exceptions. Diabolik is no exception. Though still alive at the end of the film, by trapping him in gold -- a deliciously blatant realization of the idea of being consumed by greed -- Bava robs the character of any means of escape. By refusing to helm a sequel, Bava thus forces Diabolik to undergo a long, agonizing death.
DIABOLIK remains the definitve big screen "super hero" epic; not as childish as the Christopher Reeve SUPERMAN films, it also skillfully avoids the excesses of Tim Burton's BAT MAN pictures. The pace is sprightly, the dialogue snappy and the performances are a joy to behold. Bava's inventive visual sense is also readily apparent: the odd camera angles, quick machine-gun edits and glossy lighting make it a dry run not only for many contemporary MTV videos, but also for Quentin Tarantino's enormously successful drive-in homage PULP FICTION (1994).
Above all else, DIABOLIK is an enormously entertaining and captivating film. For those only familiar with the Bava of LA FRUSTA E IL CORPO or SEI DONNE PER L'ASSASSINO, this film is bound to come as a surprise. From beginning to end, Bava adopts a style that is playful and just out-and-out fun. Such an approach can also be seen in LE SPIE VENGONO DAL SEMI-FREDDO, but -- unlike that disaster -- DIABOLIK is not at all forced. It is a live action cartoon distinguished by its endless imagination and resourcefulness.
DIABOLIK succeeds admirably as a witty, creative romp, but it equally addresses the thoughtful. The idea of the generation gap runs throughout the film. The police force and the Mafia represent the established order of the "old society," so it is perhaps not surprising that they should join forces to protect the world they have helped to shape. Diabolik and Eva, by contrast, are young rebels. The Minister of the Interior (delightfully played by the great Terry-Thomas) refers to Diabolik as "a manifestation of exaggerated delinquency." To the Minister, and the other authority figures, Diabolik represents a threat to the old order of things. Diabolik is imaginative, sexually dynamic and iconoclastic. In short, he is everything that the more tradition-bound characters are not. By virtue of their way of life, Valmont and Diabolik would seem to have much in common. They are both thieves who live luxuriously off of the things they steal. Yet Valmont feels that Diabolik is a threat, not only to himself but to the Mafia. In his refusal to conform, Diabolik cuts off his ties to the normalcy of society and to the "security" of belonging to the syndicate. Rather than risk Diabolik cutting into his share of the looting, Valmont allies himself with the police department. This allegiance simplifies things for both organizations. Apart from saving Valmont from being executed with all of the other mobsters, this move also insures that his rival will be put out of the picture. For Inspector Ginco, it allows him the satisfaction of capturing the allusive Diabolik alive. Valmont's cunning does bring Ginco one step closer to his goal, but Diabolik is able to outwit both of his pursuers. The mobsters, dressed in their pin-strip suits and posing with tough guy ease, seem anachronistic in a 1960s setting. The more trendy Diabolik is the wave of the furture, at least so far as crime is concerned. He makes full use of modern technology to defeat his opponents. Valmont, on the other hand, relies on slow-witted thugs to carry out his orders. At the same time, Ginco is hindered by his inept superiors and underlings. It is the lone Diabolik who emerges victorious, at least until the very end. Ginco does differ from the others, in the sense that he exhibits some real compassion and understanding. Unlike the arrogant and ineffectual police men that populate Bava's thrillers, Ginco is very sympathetic. He does not bask in his eventual defeat of Diabolik, and when he finally apprehends Eva, he does so without histrionics. Ginco is the exception to the rule. Rational and cool-headed, he makes genuine progress when he is allowed to work without constant supervision. Though Bava sees Diabolik and Eva as being liberated on certain levels, he nevertheless recognizes that the way in which they are rebelling is not the answer. By making the sympathetic Ginco the victor, he allows the old order to win out by virtue of its only sensible member.
Another aspect worth noting is the wonderfully bizarre score by the legendary Ennio Morricone. Sadly this was the only time that the prolific composer (still best known for his collaborations with Dario Argento and Sergio Leone) collaborated with Bava. Best described as a psychedelic fusion of rock and jazz, Morricone's trademarked use of twangy strings, screeching vocals and thundering percussion helps to drive the film along at a furious pace.
Few films evoke the period in which they were made better than DIABOLIK. Bava's expert use of the ultra-hip decor, costuming and music, combined with over-the-top humor, literally crystallizes everything that the pop art movement was about.Inevitably bracketed with Roger Vadim's BARBARELLA (with Jane Fonda, David Hemmings, and Diabolik himself, John Phillip Law) as a prime example of pop cinema, there is no question but that this is superior to Vadim's tiresome soufflé of a movie (the films were shot simultaneously). The brilliant realization of this ultra-mod milieu also proves to have a profound impact on Bava's subsequent work in the late 60s and early 70s. It can be seen quite clearly in IL ROSSO SEGNO DELLA FOLLIA, QUANTE VOLTE. . . QUELLA NOTTE, and in particular, in CINQUE BAMBOLE PER LA LUNA D'AGOSTO, which even goes so far as to reuse the revolving bed from Diabolik's boudoir, though in each case the realization would be hindered by mediocre scripts and increasing boredom on Bava's part.
Review © Troy Howarth