The film opens with Diabolik (John Phillip Law) stealing $10 million in a dockland heist, under cover of a multi-coloured cloud pumped out of his smoke machine. His getaway involves diving into the sea from a crane before escaping with the cash in a speedboat. The chase continues by road, where his trademark E-type jag comes under machine-gun fire from a pursuing helicopter. He sacrifices this black E-type as a decoy, by sending it over a cliff after cunningly transferring to a white E-type driven by Eva Holt (Marisa Mell), his beautiful muse and lover.
When the figure of Diabolik emerged from that colourful smog, his black skintight costume and latex face mask would’ve been instantly recognisable to the audience. People knew him from the hugely popular comics of the same name, which outsold Batman and Superman in the news kiosks of Italy.
Diabolik was already a national (anti)-hero and this wasn’t the first attempt to develop the comics for cinema. In 1965, legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis obtained the rights and Seth Holt, the director responsible for Hammer films Scream of Fear (1961) and The Nanny (1965) took on the project. It was even cast, with Jean Sorel as Diabolik and George Raft his adversary. However, shortly after filming began, Raft was taken ill and production collapsed. De Laurentiis retained the rights and started putting a new package together…
The Diabolik comics were created by sisters Angela and Luciana Giussani, who identified a potential readership in train commuters and came up with a more portable, pocket-sized comic format—a very similar marketing concept to Japanese manga. They noted that lurid mystery thrillers, known as giallo (due to their yellow-edged pages), seemed to be the commuters’ genre of choice, and so included many similar characteristics: overtly adult themes, stylised violence, and underworld sleaze. Their character wasn’t to be a superhero, he would be an anti-hero that the reader still identified with and found themselves rooting for.
The first issue of Diabolik was published in 1962 and within two years it had grown into a sub-genre of its own. Another comic with a masked master thief as its central character, Kriminal, was its most notable imitator. The original Italian comic books, known as fumetti neri (noir comics) were so-called because of their black-and-white printing—though it’s also a play on the term cronaca nera, meaning ‘dark news’ that chronicled crime and criminals.
Now, whilst De Laurentiis was putting together his new production deal and looking for a suitable director, two other Fumetti Neri made it into cinemas: Umberto Lenzi’s adaptation of Kriminal (1966), and Piero Vivarelli’s Mister-X (1967), based on another lesser known crook-in-a-mask.
De Laurentiis finally put the production in the capable hands of Mario Bava, best known for his Gothic horror and seminal gialli, but who was also an incredibly prolific and diverse filmmaker. If you include his work as cinematographer, he has around a hundred productions to his credit. In Italy he’s just as respected for his westerns, Viking adventures, and Greek myths. He was a great choice to direct Danger: Diabolik.
This new treatment was adapted by Dino Maiuri, who was then joined by Brian Degas and Tudor Gates, both of whom were already under contract with De Laurentiis studios and writing Barbarella (1968) at the same time. The duo had co-created the BBC TV series Vendetta (1966-68), about a vigilante pitching himself against the Maffia. so they were on familiar ground. Degas had also written for The Saint (1965). Gates would soon join Hammer, writing some of their saucier films: The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971) and, a personal favourite of mine, Twins of Evil (1971). Bava, of course, also made a significant contribution to the screenplay. In opposition to De Laurentiis, who wanted Diabolik to become a more likeable gentleman thief, he insisted on remaining faithful to the amoral nature of the character.
John Philip Law landed the lead role because he was also under contract for Barbarella, which had been delayed in pre-production leaving him with time to fill. He did most of his character research for both roles directly from the original comics—Hawkman and Barbarella for his part as the winged Pygar, and Diabolik for his lead role. He was perfect for the part, not only due to his striking good looks, but his ability to use his eyes and eyebrows very expressively—often this is the only part of his face not immobilised by the mask. He also used his body to add a dynamic energy to the character, and even when standing still he manages to imply imminent motion. The camera also maintains this kinetic energy, panning and zooming in a way that mimics the close-ups, cut-aways, and extreme angles in the frames of a comic-book. Often the screen is divided deliberately into smaller panels by shelving, doorways, windows, mirrors.
Within Bava’s extensive filmography, Danger: Diabolik could be viewed as an anomaly. It was a bigger budget venture, that turned into one of his biggest box-office disappointments. It worked for Italian audiences and had a successful theatrical release there, but it wasn’t the international hit De Laurentiis had hoped for. He couldn’t seem to arouse the interest of foreign distributors and when he finally did, they decided to cut 17 minutes from the film—presumably to make it suitable as a B-feature. Not surprisingly, the drastically cut version didn’t do too well in the US or the UK, where it wasn’t even released until 1969.
De Laurentiis would’ve been very pleased that Bava brought the project in for about half its allotted budget. Thing is, this underspend really doesn’t show on screen and for the most part the film looks great. You may wonder how those huge sets were built so cheaply. Well, knowing Bava’s working methods, it comes as no surprise that those sets weren’t actually there at all. Like his filmmaking father before him, he was a pioneer and master practitioner of low-cost special effects. Diabolik’s cavernous base is a combination of models and matte paintings. Wide angle lenses are used extensively, giving the film its distinctive visual character, and making the sets look much larger. There’s an exotic cliff-top chateau in one scene, which was a picture from a magazine ingeniously lined-up on a sheet of glass.
For me, the production design of Danger: Diabolik is its most appealing aspect, and of course Law and Mell are also both very easy on the eye. Bava kept the black-and-white motif of the fumetti neri in the visual code for Diabolik and Eva, their cars, costumes and, of course the distinctive rubber suits. But, just as Bava defined the use of colour in the horror genre during film’s transition from a black-and-white medium, so he devised the whole colour palette for the world of Diabolik that somehow felt faithful. The décor and design was all very modern and inspired by pop art. In fact, I would consider the film to be an important piece of that artistic style, in its own right.
It’s been criticised as style-over-content, and I can’t really argue with that. It’s also accused of being a James Bond rip-off. Now, that I don’t get… I suppose Diabolik could compare with a Bond villain, but to me it has far more in common with something Gerry Anderson may have come up with. Gadgets, a vast underground secret base, a section of road that elevates to reveal a secret entrance… even the central character acting primarily through eye-movement! But instead of International Rescue, it’s more a case of a Personal Accrue.
As for being a Bond a pastiche? Admittedly casting Adolfo Celi as the gang boss, Valmont, is a nod to his role in Thunderball (1965) as a similar antagonist. But apart from that, it would seem that Diabolik had a pretty clear influence on the modernisation of the Bond franchise in the 1970s. A plot device used in Diamonds are Forever (1971), where a corpse is used to smuggle a cache of gems, is almost directly lifted from Danger: Diabolik. It seems too close to be coincidence, especially when that idea was never in Ian Fleming’s novel. Also, during the ’70s, Bond films become more dependent on gadgets and developed more of a sense of fun.
Danger: Diabolik is so full of fun, considering its central character is a thief who kills without compunction—police, security guards, gangsters, or anyone who gets between him and his booty. Well, I suppose they would think nothing of killing their nemesis, in fact they openly relish the prospect. Diabolik is a master crook who’s already stolen so much that he can afford to live in a high-tech underground super-stylish lair, decorated in the best ’60s style. He has a so many E-type jags that one area of his hideout looks like a sports car dealership. There are certainly more than a dozen on show in one scene, all either black or white, of course.
Diabolik is cold and calculating—you can see that in his eyes. He doesn’t seem to value the lives of others but is equally willing to put his own on the line. He does seem to genuinely care for Eva and his redemption as a character comes from this love and her reciprocating devotion. Their on-screen chemistry is electric and, in his commentary for the 2005 DVD release from Paramount, John Philip Law admits to a romantic entanglement off-screen too. Their relationship, between a mad genius anti-hero, with a secret lair and a loyal female ‘sidekick’, really reminds me of Doctor Phibes and Vulnavia, surely they must have been under the Diabolik influence—only Phibe’s lair was decked out with art nouveau and Diabolik favoured a more post-modern vibe, though does also house a massive organ! Of course, the great British character actor, Terry Thomas, who plays the Minister of Finance, also appears in both Phibes films.
Having recently reviewed Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017), it occurred to me just how much stylistic influence Danger: Diabolik exerts on many recent transitions of comic-to-screen. Mark Millar (writer of Wanted, Kick-Ass, Kingsman) produced a little love-letter to the film with his comic Nemesis (2010). His anti-hero even looks a lot like Diabolik, particularly when wearing his tight white body suit, and the series was published with variant covers in the style of fumetti neri. Of course, being Millar, the idea has been repurposed and made into something altogether more violent, callous and less likeable.
To some extent, Bava was right to keep the callous, amoral aspects of to the original character and not tone them down as suggested by De Laurentiis. It may not have appealed to the Yanks and Brits of the time, but it pleased the home audience of fumetti fans.
The Italian public saw political corruption and organised crime all around them and still remembered the war when their elite had led them into fascism. Initially, their Prime Minister, Benito Mussolini, had aligned them with Nazi Germany and effectively lost the war. As a result, there wasn’t a lot of respect for authority and the upper-class. By today’s standards, Diabolik could be considered a terrorist. Back then, he was perceived as more of a revolutionary. He was sticking it to the rich, like Robin Hood, only keeping the takings for himself.
The film’s narrative reflects this underlying attitude. When the government reintroduces the death penalty and then offers a massive reward for the capture of Diabolik, his response is to bomb the inland revenue and tax offices. This destroys the nation’s centre of finance and erases everyone’s tax records, causing chaos and economic instability. The government have to sell-off some of their gold to buy foreign currency, but as the giant ingot is being transported… you guessed it, Diabolik seizes the opportunity and steals it! However, it is tracked to his secret base and the police close in for the finale…
The film remained obscure outside Italy and took three decades to earn a well-deserved cult status elsewhere. It was finally confirmed as a bona fide work of cult cinema in 1998, when The Beastie Boys made their mini-movie pastiche as a video for a re-mixed version of “Body Movin’”, perfectly matching outtakes from the film with their own crazy narrative about the theft of a fondue recipe. Genius!
The below video, with a commentary from Adam Yauch, is included as an extra on the 2005 DVD release. So now you can watch their promo for a quick injection of Diabolik on days when you can’t find time to watch the whole film.
Other extras included on the disc, which was the first time the uncut film was made available in North America and the UK, is a short documentary hosted by comic creator Steve Bissette, who cites the film as one of the most effective adaptations of the comic medium for the screen. There are contributions by director Roman Coppola, whose film CQ (2001) is set in the European film world of the 1960s and openly acknowledges its Diabolik influences. There are also comments from Dino De Laurentiis, John Phillip Law, Jane Fonda and Ennio Morricone, who composed the mellow-jazz soundtrack that was well ahead of its time. For the main feature, John Phillip Law is joined by Bava biographer, Tim Lucas to provide an informative and entertaining commentary.
Cast & Crew
director: Mario Bava.
writers: Dino Maiuri, Brian Degas, Tudor Gates & Mario Bava (story by Angela and Luciana Giussani, Dino Maiuri & Adriano Baracco, based on ‘Diabolik’ by Angela and Luciana Giussani).
starring: John Phillip Law, Marisa Mell, Michel Piccoli, Adolfo Celi & Terry-Thomas.