Friday, 24 August 2007

Danger: Diabolik! (1968)

There have been countless attempts to translate comic nooks to the cinema screen. The only completely successful effort to date has been Mario Bava’s 1968 Danger: Diabolik!. It succeeds partly through Bava’s visual magic. Bava of course had no CGI back in 1968, but what he did have was a superb visual imagination and a complete mastery of the art of film-making. He does things with old-fashioned techniques like matte paintings and glass shots and the use of miniatures that make most modern CGI-fests look puerile and boring. Danger: Diabolik! also succeeds because Bava understood that a movie based on a comic had to be dynamic, it had to be fast-moving and exciting. And the movie also works because it’s camp, but not too camp. Like the best of the 1960s Bond films it combines camp and cool.

Diabolik was an immensely popular example of the fumetti neri, Italian comic books that combined sex and violence with glamorous criminal anti-heroes. Diabolik is a criminal mastermind, but he’s no Robin Hood. He steals from the rich, and he keeps the money. And he has no compunction about killing anyone who gets in his way. John Phillip Law, who also starred in the adaptation of the Barbarella comic at about the same time, is Diabolik. While no-one would accuse Law of being a great actor he is perfect for the role – he’s sexy and very cool and he’s totally convincing as an action hero, without needing to resort to the macho posturing that we associate with modern cinema action heroes. Naturally Diabolik has a beautiful blonde girlfriend, Eva, played by Marisa Mell. Interestingly enough, although Diabolik is ruthless and often violent, his relationship with Eva is not quite what you might expect. It’s very erotically charged, it’s very romantic, but it’s also affectionate and it’s based on mutual respect - Eva isn’t just his girlfriend, she’s his partner in crime and a very active and useful partner. She is most definitely not portrayed as an airhead. Diabolik’s devotion to Eva makes the audience far more sympathetic to the character than we might otherwise be, given his other rather anti-social habits. The Italian fumetti are quite unlike American superhero comics, and Bava’s movie reflects this. Thief and killer he might be, but our sympathies are with Diabolik rather than with the forces of law and order. Danger: Diabolik! is enormous fun. It’s sexy, but it’s that 60s kind of teasing sexiness, with no explicit nudity or sex, but still very erotic. The acting is great – none of the actors try to make their characters real, just as Bava has no interest in making his movie look like the real world. The comic book feel is maintained in every aspect of the movie. The DVD includes a good short documentary on the movie and on the fumetti, and a commentary track by John Phillip Law and Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog. The picture quality is first-rate, and the film also boasts a wonderful Ennio Morricone soundtrack. What’s not to love? Buy this movie immediately!

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