Danger: Diabolik (1968) - Possibly The Best Comic Book Movie Ever Made! September 06, 2018 08:00
With the suffocating influx of CGI infused comic book films, and the never ending Marvel Cinematic Universe, it's hard to believe there was a time when these films weren't overpopulating the silver screen. Lets look back at the good old 1960's where the closest America saw to a comic book film was the incredibly campy Batman: The Movie, a film most known for the scene where Adam West is spraying a shark that's latched onto his leg (fifty feet in the air) with Shark Repellent Bat Spray! Yet one film two years later manages to prove that a well crafted film from a comic book series can be done with no CGI, stay loyal to the lore, and do it on a budget that is less than what a modern day film likely spends on craft services. And in the end be one of the most underrated top comic book films ever made.
Danger: Diabolik is regarded by many comic book writers as one of the best and most loyal comic to film transitions. The character of Diabolik was created in the winter of 1962 by the Milanese sisters during a time in Italian history where the people where growing weary of government rule. Even though Diabolik was a criminal, and in some regards a terrorist by today's standards, he had an established code of ethics that many criminals did not have and his targets were always the corrupt police force, the crime underworld, and a government that was constantly bent on abusing it's citizens through taxation and other regulations. So in this era of Italian history when this type of government abuse was going on a character like Diabolik was welcomed, even though he wasn't a Robin Hood type by giving his ill gotten gains to the poor he was "sticking it to the man", something most of the country's poorer citizens welcomed.
Danger: Diabolik takes a series of serial adventures from the Italian comic and intertwines them into one fantastically well paced euro-spy action film. It all kicks off when Inspector Ginco comes up with the "brilliant" idea of transporting $10,000,000 in a Rolls Royce to attempt to throw off Diabolik from the scent. But as the viewers quickly learn Diabolik is no dummy, he is not deceived and securing the money turns out to be fairly easy as he and the lovely Eva Kant (Marisa Mell) make a quick getaway and return to their underground hideout for one of the film's memorable moments, a nice "romp in the cash". This scene happens to be one of quite a few on the fly inserts by director Mario Bava that never appeared in the actual script.
In response to the robbery the Minister of the Interior holds a press conference to announce the reinstatement of the death penalty, but the conference is quickly turned into another farce by Diabolik, when he and Eva sneak in and release laughing gas into the room. Made to look the fool on so many occasions the Minister orders Ginco to put an end to Diabolik's reign, therefore Ginco sets up a plan to turn the underworld upside down. He makes a deal with notorious crime boss Ralph Valmont for his help in bringing Diabolik out in the open. Throughout the remainder of the film Ginco and Valmont attempt to outsmart Diabolik but ultimately it's them who seem to get outsmarted each time, that is until Diabolik potentially gets in over his head in his final plot to outsmart the police.
The original casting for Danger: Diabolik was rather interesting. Prior to Mario Bava's involvement in the film Jean Sorel and Elsa Martinelli were cast as Diabolik and Eva Kant, they would later go on to star in Perversion Story alongside Marisa Mell in 1969. That version of the film was mysteriously aborted and later re-approached with a recommended director by the name of Mario Bava. Bava was essentially the Roger Corman or Ed Wood of Italy, he had the ability to make films on a shoe string budget relatively quickly, the only major difference is Bava's films were actually very good, leaps and bounds above American B-movie quality that was put out by Wood or Corman.
Bava was used to making all the decisions, a big budget film (at least for him) was an entirely different can of worms as he was required to run everything by the production company for approval. Even with a budget of $3,000,000 everything had to be approved and accounted for, something Bava was not used to doing and therefore didn't bother using the full amount, amazingly he completed the film at around $400,000! This was accomplished by some amazing techniques that are barely noticeable, especially when you don't know about them before hand. For example Diabolik's underground lair was created using mattes attached to glass plates, the same technique was used on the deserted cabin where Eva Kant was being held, the cabin was a magazine cutout attached to a glass plate!
Under Bava's direction John Phillip Law was cast in the role of Diabolik, he was also scheduled to star in Barbarella shortly after filming wrapped. Law wanted to do the character justice and focused on the movement of the eyebrows, which were the only aspect of the character that wasn't hidden beneath the costume. This ended up helping him get the part as he held his eyebrow high during the interview and Bava frequently said "Look! It's Diabolik!"
The hardest character to cast was Eva Kant. Bava always wanted either Marilu Tolo or Marisa Mell to play the role, but once again his decisions were countered by the production company. Two girls were tested prior to Mell being cast, an unknown blonde who was a girlfriend of one of the Paramount executives (who couldn't act), and Catherine Deneuve. Deneuve was a talented actress but didn't get along well with Bava and ultimately didn't fit well in the part or seem to have much chemistry with Law. She refused to do the love making scene in the pile of money, and wouldn't even allow her calf or ankle to be filmed, all quite an ironic stance when right after she returned to France she starred in Belle de Jour where she appeared practically naked! Bava again lobbied for Marilu Tolo but the producer simply did not want her, so Bava's second choice of Marisa Mell eventually became the big compromise. But it was quickly evident that Marisa Mell was the best choice. The chemistry between her and Law was remarkable (in fact the two even lived together while shooting the film) and her seductive and mysterious charm was Eva Kant. The films' eventual release on video years later in the United States lead to Marisa Mell's stateside cult status.
Danger: Diabolik wasn't much of a success upon it's release, at least compared to Roger Vadim's Barbarella, which Law also had a role in. In the Italian box office it only brought in around $178,000 (Barbarella brought in three times that), yet expenditures to income made Danger: Diabolik the more profitable venture. Still it seemed to be successful enough in the eyes of the producer to request Bava return for a sequel, something he adamantly refused, and ventured back into directing films with even lower budgets where he was able to make all the decisions.
Often compared to the early James Bond series, the fact that Adolfo Celi (main villain from Thunderball) is one of the main adversaries for Diabolik probably doesn't help the sometimes numerous claims that Danger: Diabolik swipes a lot of Bond aspects. But the truth is it's more the other way around as it's a film that has done more of the influencing, including Bond films that followed. One film it definitely inspired was Roman Coppola's CQ, which featured a "film within the film", Code Name Dragonfly. Turns out Danger: Diabolik was the inspiration of that, and Mario Bava was the inspiration behind the character actor Jeremy Davies portrays who is a cinematographer turned director.
When it's all said and done Danger: Diabolik will always be mixed in with some of the similar style films of the 1960's, like Barbarella, but the fact is while it may not have gained the commercial success it's a superior film in almost every sense. From the non-static staged backdrops, superior story and acting, musical score by the famous Ennio Morricone, and the nothing short of amazing directing and style of Mario Bava who could create magic with a budget that wouldn't even cover a brief CGI sequence of a modern day film, Danger: Diabolik is easily one of the best cult films around, and I'd argue pound for pound one of the better comic book themed films ever made, and everyone ought to see it once.