Danger: Diabolik

MovieSteve rating:
Your star rating:

Arsène Lupin, Fantomas and James Bond all come together in Danger: Diabolik, the first screen appearance of the Italian masked master criminal. A flop on its initial release in 1968, it’s now regarded as something of a cult classic.

The reasons for that are hard to ignore. This is prime mid-1960s kitsch, a psychedelic, phantasmagoric, frequently silly, almost always entertaining dollop of schlock elevated by the superb eye of director Mario Bava and a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone at his most poptastic – twangy guitars, wordless choirs, drums thrashing, a harpsichord, the sonic equivalent of Bava’s colour-soaked, bright, stylish and slightly demented visuals.

Italian audiences were familiar with Diabolik (also the film’s original title), from the “fumetti neri” pocket-sized comic-book series his character launched and made popular. Which helps explain the slightly bewildering opening – a bank job, carried out by Diabolik (John Philip Law) and his girlfriend Eva. He drives a black E Type Jaguar; she drives a white one. There’s no explanation as to who these people are or what’s going on – Italian audiences already knew – but it only takes a few minutes for the newcomer to work out that he’s some kind of anti-hero villain, that he’s fiendishly clever and that we’re meant to be on his side.

There is a Batcave-style underground lair, a lot of high-tech gadgetry, a lot of groovy-dude posing, and in Marisa Mell’s Eva, Diabolik has the ideal foil – think Brigitte Bardot and you’re most of the way there.

Early on there’s a scene after the successful heisting of $10 million where Diabolik and Eva make love on a bed covered in stolen cash. It was objecting to this scene that got Catherine Deneuve – the original Eva – fired from the movie. (Apparently there’s a snippet of Deneuve still in the movie somewhere, in long shot, but I couldn’t see it/her.)

Michel Piccoli as Inspector Ginko
Michel Piccoli as Inspector Ginko

The film was produced by Dino De Laurentiis back-to-back with Barbarella, which is why Law is here (he also starred in Barbarella) and so are many of the Barbarella crew and even the sets. They are sister movies, in many respects. If I mention that Catherine Deneuve had been the partner of Barbarella director Roger Vadim, the connection becomes even tighter.

It’s three stories in one, really. Three heists – first the money, then a necklace of priceless emeralds and finally a gigantic amount of gold – with cop-on-the-case Inspector Ginko as a link between all three. He’s played by Michel Piccoli, the stoic and intensely likeable French star whose presence points up the film’s two real problems – are we meant to be on Team Ginko or Team Diabolik? The character of Diabolik is hard to warm to. And the second one – John Philip Law doesn’t have enough charisma to flesh out his underwritten character, something Piccoli has no problem doing with his.

All the characters are a touch wan. But Mario Bava makes up for that with superb visuals and driving direction. Things move at caper speed. Bava also has a real budget here, but even so he brought the film in on the cheap. Some of the visual strokes he pulled to do that looked corny as hell back in the 1960s – overlays where the background and foreground are crazily out of sync – but look intensely stylish now.

What else? It’s set in a strange European country where everyone speaks English, the sun shines and they drive on the right (so not the UK, in spite of what it’s faintly pretending). The dubbing is terrible. There is a scene set in a nightclub that’s everything you want from a 1960s nightclub scene – girls on podiums, earnest long-haired men strumming guitars, flowers, the smoking of marijuana, psychedelic lighting, with a Europop tune by Morricone jangling away.

Judging by the ending a sequel was planned but it never happened. Poor reviews and bad box office saw to that. Unless you count the 2021 Diabolik in which the masked villain is played by Luca Marinelli and Eva is played by Miriam Leone, sister of Sergio Leone. No, not that Sergio Leone, she’s no relative. That would be too cute.

Danger: Diabolik – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2023

Leave a Comment