The suave, psychedelic-era thief called Diabolik (John Phillip Law) can’t get enough of life’s good-or glittery things. Not when there are currency shipments to steal from under the noses of snooty government officials and priceless jewels to lift from the boudoirs of the super rich.
The elusive scoundrel finds plenty of ways to live up to his name in this tongue-in-cheek, live-action caper inspired by Europe’s popular Diabolik comics. He clambers up walls, zaps a press conference with Exhilaration Gas, smacks a confession out of a crime lord while freefalling with him from an airplane, and pulls off the heist of a twenty ton gold ingot. Impossible? No, diabolical – Danger: Diabolik, to be exact!
eyelights: the kitschy/campy ’60s vibe. Diabolik’s leather suit. Eva.
eyesores: its nonsensical elements. the cheapo production.
I knew nothing about ‘Diabolik’ until recently. I knew of the film’s existence, of course, due to it being spoofed in the final episode of ‘Mystery Science Theatre 3000’, but I hadn’t seen it and -as with many of the MST3K spoofs- didn’t really care about seeing the original. It helps for appreciating MST3K’s riffs, but it’s often more painful than enlightening.
Then I discovered that it was a Mario Bava film.
I was stunned. Although he is the godfather of the giallo genre, Mario Bava has exercised plenty of other muscles, even going so far as to make Westerns and sex comedies. But I never imagined him making what looked like a European espionage cheapie – especially not one bad enough to be subjected to hot stinging sarcasm by Crow T Robot and Tom Servo.
I just had to see it.
Unfortunately, the DVD is out of print; finding it was almost impossible to do – nothing that persistence and patience can’t fix, but it was indeed a challenge. In the meantime, I read up on ‘Diabolik’, discovering that it was produced by the same people who brought ‘Barbarella‘ to the big screen, based on an Italian comic book character, and that it was not an espionage story, but the adventures of an ingenious amoral thief.
So, how does this translate to the big screen? Well, having never read the original comic paperbacks (which were such a phenomenal success overseas that they’ve been in circulation for over five decades and have sold an estimated 150 million copies worldwide!), it’s hard to truly say. But one does get the overall sense that this was indeed modelled after a comic book.
In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that much of what takes place on the screen was lifted directly from various of the original books; most of the situations are staged in such a way that would only make sense in comic books – it’s often only barely realistic, satisfying only the more broad-minded or forgiving of imaginations.
For example, there’s a sequence when, chased by the law, Diabolik stops by the side of the road, and, with the help of his lover and side-kick, Eva, he sets up a panel of reflective material across the road, so that his pursuers would see their lights reflected back at them and would panic, causing them to crash their car.
This device is a simple-minded one that only young children would accept as being possible; even the slightly more critical mind of a young teen would scoff at the notion. But this is the sort of ploy that was commonplace in comic books at the time, so it’s entirely in keeping with the nature of the beast – it’s just that it might be too silly for some audience.
Having said that, such ridiculous elements were part of almost all action-adventure films at the time: for instance, as of ‘You Only Live Twice’, James Bond movies were filled with major suspension of disbelief-defying acts of all kinds, including making Sean Connery look Japanese. In my estimation, there was an omnipresent naiveté to pop culture at the time, and ‘Diabolik’ may simply be representative of that.
Aside from some James Bond undertones, ‘Diabolik’ often plays like the terre-à-terre cousin of Adam West’s ‘Batman’ television show; it’s kitschy, but it takes itself seriously enough that it doesn’t go into full “camp” mode. Still, this dichotomy makes moments like the laughing gas sequence veritably hard to appreciate: at least ‘Batman’ purposely went over-the-top – something that ‘Diabolik’ doesn’t appear to be doing.
If anything, it seems as though it’s trying to be a combination of grit and mindless fun at the same time- on the one hand, allowing their anti-hero the freedom to kill (as with the original comics), but, on the other, letting him swim naked in stacks cash with his lover. The overall tone falls somewhere in the areas of ‘You Only Live Twice’ or ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, some of the more cartoonish Bond movies, but without the support of a massive production budget.
A perfect example of the production quality of the picture is Diabolik’s mask. From what I can tell, in the comics he appears to be wearing a mask that is thin enough for his features to show through – thus we see the outline of his mouth. In the movie, they made him a leather(ette?) mask with a mouth moulded into it. Granted, the rest of his leather suit was astonishing, and would have lost its allure had they used another material, but Diabolik lose all credibility with that mask – he looks like a clown.
Not that it matters: although the movie is named after him, Diabolik shares the spotlight with his foxy partner-in-crime, Eva, and Police Inspector Ginco. The film even starts with the Ginco, trying to devise a plan that Diabolik will not be able to outsmart; it takes a little while before we are introduced to the film`s namesake (and, even then, he remains evanescent, displaying very little personality or emotion). Eva, meanwhile, shares almost as much screen time as he does – no doubt partly due to her alluring curves.
The plot -if one can call it that- is pretty sketchy, comprising of a series of heists that Diabolik engineers along with Ginco’s attempts to prevent him. These segments are short enough that this could easily be an amalgamation of various comic books. As a feature film, it plays a little bizarrely, because it almost feels episodic, as though half hour television episodes could have been crafted instead of one long feature.
Still, ‘Diabolik’ is amusing enough and it can be a fun distraction for anyone who has the right expectations. It’s not especially crafty or clever, it’s not particularly serious, but it’s also not too goofy to be enjoyed – and it has plenty of mindlessly exciting moments to keep one’s attention. Frankly, I’m kind of surprised that this wasn’t popular enough (at least in Europe) to generate at least one or two sequels – or, even (given the source material), a television series or a few telefilms.
‘Diabolik’ will never be my favourite Mario Bava film, and I can’t even recognize his usual style, but it’s an amusing enough film that I know I’ll watch it again. It’s certainly more palatable than ‘In Like Flint’, ‘Casino Royale (1967)’, or any other film trying to be cool and cash in on the whole James Bond vibe of the ’60s. It’s by no means a great film, but I could easily see how it could be a cult classic. And, quite sincerely, it has made me curious enough to go seek out the comic books.
Hey, who knows? I might actually discover something new and exciting there; perhaps ‘Diabolik’ will have a stronger influence on me than I could ever have expected!
Post scriptum: Hmmm… if only to cool my fervour, I think that it’s high time for me to go watch the MST3K version of ‘Diabolik’ now: I have no doubt that they will have a grand ol’ time blasting it for all its weirdness, non sequiturs and inconsistencies. This should be a riot, and that alone was reason enough to watch ‘Diabolik’.
Date of viewing: January 27-28, 2013