Danger: Diabolik (Mario Bava, 1968)

Hands up who likes Austin Powers? Well, I know I do! Not the wretched sequels of course, but the first film in the series, which was an incredibly smart and rather heartfelt parody of a period of filmmaking stretching from the mid to late 60s. With the Cold War approaching its 20th year, international espionage and patriotic derring-do were still popular motifs in the movies. As the aesthetic influence of the psychedelic era began to seep into the mainstream, however, many spy films and television series’ were given a brand new zany and surreal coat of paint. James Bond led the way in Cold War fiction, and references to that franchise are easy to spot in Austin Powers, but there are many nods to other, less well-known big and small screen staples of the 60s which belong to a rather more kinky and flamboyant stable; Modesty Blaise, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, The Avengers, Adam Adamant Lives! etc. What makes the cinematic debut of Mike Myers most enduring creation so enjoyable is its blatant, goofy joy at recreating everything that made these films and TV shows so memorable. It is a parody dripping with love and nostalgia, as opposed to mere ridicule, and just as well, as those very films it sets out to parody were already more than aware of their own ridiculousness; witness Our Man Flint or Dean Martin’s Matt Helm series. It truly was a cheeky, crazy and unique age in cinema’s recent history.

My favourite film of that era (one that admittedly doesn’t get a direct reference in Austin Powers, at least not one that I can spot) is also directed by one of my all-time favourite directors, Mario Bava; it is the downright dazzling Danger: Diabolik. Appropriately enough many of these visually rich and cartoonish creations of the late 60s were themselves based on comic books (including the aforementioned Modesty Blaise, while the successful Batman TV series ran from 1966 to 1968), and Danger: Diabolik was already a long-running and phenomenonly popular comic book serial in Italy before someone decided to turn it into a film. That someone was legendary uber-producer Dino De Laurentiis, who had recently captured the zeitgeist perfectly with the highly influential Barbarella, which was also adapted from a comic title. The Italian enlisted his compatriot Bava (who had just overseen a Dr. Goldfoot sequel) to take care of the directing duties, and he really couldn’t have found a better man for the job.

Mario Bava brings Diabolik to the screen brilliantly in an episodic film essentially comprising of three tall-tales torn directly from the pages of the original comic books themselves. Unusually for the central protagonist from a colourful adventure romp of it’s era, Diabolik himself is neither superhero nor super-spy; rather he is a dastardly master villain. Despite this he does contain definite elements of both Batman and Bond, being a suave, hi-tech cave-dwelling, master of disguise and gadgetry. Unlike messrs Wayne and James, however, Diabolik employs his physical skills and fancy contraptions for pure unadulterated naughtiness, possessing a particular predilection for nicking stuff of extraordinarily high value. In the film’s first third he steals $10 million, in the second act he nabs a priceless emerald necklace, and for his grand finale he single-handedly capsizes the Italian economy and pinches 10 tonnes of gold! It has often been noted that, in stark contrast to the righteous and noble stars of the American comic universe, the Italian equivalents were often shady and, well, frankly diabolical types. The theory is that, post-World War II, the Americans saw themselves as champions of justice and upholders of peace, traits reflected in the likes of Superman and, most notably, Captain America. The Italians on the other hand, defeated in the war under the guidance of an evil, fascist government, were finding themselves attracted to the antics of anti-heroes; characters who could shake up the establishment and challenge government goons, two things that Diabolik accomplishes with dark panache in his film debut.

There is an oft-told anecdote concerning the working relationship between Mario Bava and Dino De Laurentiis at the start of the making of this film. De Laurentiis had spent the then still lavish amount of $4 million on the same year’s Barbarella and offered Bava, who was more used to the frugal world of low-budget filmmaking, the same amount to bring in the Diabolik film. Super Mario declined this offer and ended up completing Danger: Diabolik for the bargain price of $500,000; an even bigger bargain when you take into account that Diabolik is actually considerably more than just eight times more visually stunning a film than Barbarella is, and vastly superior all round, to boot. I can’t really decide if Danger: Diabolik is my favourite Bava film or not, but it would definitely make my top three. In terms of direction, it’s definitely one of the most quintessentially ”Bava” films he ever made; an entrancing tableaux of jagged framing, fish-eye lenses, foggy filters, and ravishing lighting. It is astounding that it cost so little to make as Diabolik’s subterranean lair alone knocks anything in the modern Batman franchise into a cocked hat. A true master with early special effects, Bava realised many of his elaborate and impressive sets using matte painting techniques. The entire film is a daring and inventive dream, with memorable sequences coming thick and fast; a futuristic identikit machine renders perfect pop art pictures during a groovy musical interlude, Diabolik beats a mid-air confession out of an opponent after falling from a plane, and the brilliantly orchestrated climactic scene which out-Goldfingers even Bond himself in terms of grotesque and grandiose comeuppance. Bava is often congratulated by hardcore comic book fans for Danger: Diabolik being the one adaptation that is truest to the nuances of the art form. It should be no surprise, then, that the great man himself was a talented and respected comic book artist in his life outside of film (similarly the great Federico Fellini began by illustrating comics, a passion which remained with him throughout his life. What is it with these Italians?), although disappointingly he would turn down the offer to helm a Diabolik sequel, citing annoyance with the imposing De Laurentiis as his reason.

Danger: Diabolik is a perfectly cast film as well, with the seriously sharp and instantly recognisable features of the late John Philip Law glaring out from behind the title character’s trademark fetish mask. Law also made an appearance in Barbarella, and starred in a handful of other cult favourites, including Roger Corman’s Von Richtofen and Brown, and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Another of Diabolik’s notable dissimilarities to James Bond is that, unlike the misogynistic state-funded murderer, the Italian super-thief is not a dirty shagger, in fact he is a surprisingly settled one-woman man. That woman is sidekick Eva Kant, whose all-too easy catchability proves to be a rare chink in the Diabolik armour. Mega-star Catherine Deneuve was originally cast in this role until Bava surprisingly sacked her, paving the way for Austria-born Italian genre veteran Marisa Mell to make Eva her own, and the chemistry between her and Law is undeniable. Deneuve’s erstwhile Belle de Jour co-star Michel Piccoli fared better under Bava, however, and his performance as Diabolik’s police nemesis is a deadpan joy. Piccoli is one of my favourite actors of all-time and his filmography boasts several iconic high points, including Godard’s seductive satire on filmmaking, Le Mepris, and mental modern day caveman caper Themroc (check it out, it’s fucking insane!). King of the cads Terry-Thomas (Oh, yes! One of everyone’s favourite actors of all-time, surely) also appears as a bungling politician, and Bond’s Thunderball villain, Adolfo Celi, tries his luck here against Diabolik as a rival crook. It is worth noting that every actor in Danger: Diabolik plays their part admirably straight, and the sensuous, surreal vibe of the film is enhanced by the fact that it never slips into lazy camp, unlike many of it’s close contemporaries (hello, Barbarella!).

It’s not just Austin Powers that successfully channels the kaleidoscopic kookiness of the late 60s, and I would recommend Roman Coppola’s overlooked and underseen 2001 film CQ to any Danger: Diabolik fan. Francis Ford’s son’s only film so far, it covers the making of a fictional, Danger: Diabolik-style romp, entitled Codename: Dragonfly, and contains many clever homages to Mario Bava’s film. Another notable recent appearance of Diabolik in the mainstream media came with The Beastie Boys’ video for their 1998 single ‘Body Movin”, which features actual footage from the film with their track laid over the top. They needn’t have bothered, frankly, as the only musical accompaniment Danger: Diabolik needs is it’s own superb Ennio Morricone soundtrack, perhaps surprisingly the only time Il Maestro ever collaborated with Bava. Here comes Aneet to tell us all about it…