Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)‘With this suit, I could swim through the centre of the sun.’

A notorious criminal mastermind steals 10 million dollars from under the noses of the police. The authorities escalate their campaign to apprehend him, forcing an underworld kingpin and his mob into taking action against the thief. Can the villain stay one step ahead of both the combined might of the forces of law and order and the criminal underworld?

Stylish and extravagant big-screen adaptation of the popular Italian comic book series from director Mario Bava. Unlike the maestro’s previous offerings, this was a big studio production with backing from well-known producer Dino De Laurentiis, big-name stars and shot on various locations, but mostly at his studio in Rome.

The film opens with the latest diversionary tactic employed by Inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli) to snare super heist merchant, Diabolik (John Phillip Law) and his lover and partner in crime Eva Kant (Marisa Mell). Instead of ten million dollars in banknotes, the cargo protected by a convey of motorcycle policemen is just blank paper. The real deal is going with him in an unmarked car with a much smaller escort. Law isn’t fooled, of course, and uses a smoke machine on a road bridge and a dockside crane to grab the swag. Piccoli is called in to face Minister of Finance Terry-Thomas but, after a humiliating press conference which Law and Mell disrupt with laughing gas, Piccoli gets special powers to end the Diabolik menace.
Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)


Squeezing local mobster, Ralph Valmont (Adolfo Celi) by raiding on his clubs and businesses, the detective strikes a deal with the crimelord: hand over Diabolik and the pressure will be off. Meanwhile, Law pulls off another daring heist; snatching an emerald necklace and escaping via a rise with a catapult. But Celi kidnaps Mell and offers Law an ultimatum: the ten million dollars and the emerald necklace in exchange for her safe return. Law accepts the deal, but still has a few tricks up his sleeve when they meet for a showdown.

Diabolik was a character created by sisters Angela and Luciana Giussani whose instant popularity created a whole new sub-genre of Italian comics known as the ‘Fumetti neri’ (‘black comics’). In his original incarnation, Diabolik was a ruthless criminal genius, who let nothing stand in his way but, over time, and after legal actions by an outraged ‘moral majority’, the character softened into more of a hi-tech ‘Robin Hood’. Fumetti neri in general split into two distinct camps, those targeted more at a juvenile audience and those ‘prohibited to minors’ which emphasised more adult themes, including far higher levels of sex and violence.

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)


A project to adapt the character to film had begun several years earlier with Jean Sorel in the title role and Elsa Martinelli and his lover and partner in crime, Eva Kant. However, the project collapsed quickly, and it’s unclear if anything more was shot than publicity stills. De Laurentiis acquired the rights and brought Bava on board, intending the film would accompany his production of Roger Vadim’ ‘Barbarella’ (1968) into theatres. Law was under contract to appear in that film, but delays caused by working with the SFX allowed him to take on the role of Diabolik first.

Bava was happy with his casting but less so with Catherine Deneuve who De Laurentiis selected for the role of Eva. As it was, she only lasted a week into filming before Austrian actress Marisa Mell replaced her. By all accounts, this was because Deneuve refused to disrobe for the film’s most iconic scene, where Diabolik and Eva make love naked on a revolving bed covered in money. However, given her subsequent filmography and the fact that the final scene is not explicit, it may be that Bava was able to use the situation as a way to get her released.

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)

 


The finished film is a kaleidoscope of 1960s pop culture, with bright, eye-popping colours and a wonderful mixture of striking production design and Bava’s genius for optical effects. Rather than presenting the action in a static way to reflect its comic strip origins, Bava keeps his camera moving, deliver a fast-paced narrative decorated with stylistic flourishes which give the film a feel of hyper-reality. Bava achieved the apparent scale and complexity of Diabolik’s underground headquarters by combining the actors with Bava’s matte paintings. Other visuals were created by cutting pictures of buildings, aircraft and other items from magazines, posting them on to a sheet of strategically placed glass and then shooting the action through it. Although it sounds like a terrible idea, Bava makes it work.

There are some other noteworthy touches too. Bava uses animation to draw lines on a map, and for a photo-fit device used by the police to try and identify Eva. He also employs his usual trick of foregrounding objects to give depth to scenes, sometimes shooting through some that break the image into squares approximating the comic book panels, such as empty bookshelves and a bedstead.
Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)


There’s a flamboyance and a real sense of freedom to the picture, fueled by a playful, liberated sexuality, displayed not by promiscuity, but the unfettered passion between Diabolik and Eva. It helps that Law and Mell have such sizzling chemistry and give note-perfect performances, sensibly resisting the temptation to play to the gallery. Celi is his usual, reliable self as boss of the criminal underworld and Piccoli underplays beautifully as our larcenous duo’s official nemesis. Thomas also provides a beautiful cameo as the government minister, begging the populace to pay their taxes voluntarily after Law and Mell blow up the tax office and destroy all the official records!

The cool 1960s vibe also gets a major assist from composer Ennio Morricone, who delivers a jazzy, uptempo score that’s an integral part of the film’s ambience. Sadly, the original tapes are no longer available, having been destroyed in a fire, and the only way to enjoy his work is to watch the film, although a re-recording from 2014 is available. Also on hand to deliver his expertise is artist Carlo Rambaldi who designed Diabolik’s iconic mask before going on to significant work in Hollywood, rewarded eventually with 3 Oscars, including one for ‘E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982).

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)

 

The character of Diabolik has his roots in older fictional masterminds, such as Germany’s ‘Dr Mabuse’ and the French ‘Fantomas’. Like those characters, in the source material, he plays with notions of identity, using lifelike masks to take on the appearance of anyone he chooses. This idea was dropped from the film, leaving him more in common with later villains such as ‘Kriminal’. He was developed as a direct rival to Diabolik but arrived on the big screen first in the form of Glenn Saxson. In a sly tip of the hat, the bank manager who hands the ten million dollars over to Piccioli at the start of this film is played by Andrea Bosic, who served as Saxson’s official opponent in those earlier ‘Kriminal’ pictures.

There are some flaws in Bava’s film, though. The process shots and rear-projection are so hideous and poorly done that it’s tempting to believe that it was a deliberate choice, made by the director to contribute to the comic-book aesthetic. If so, then it’s one of the few visual missteps in his career. The script, credited to several writers, including Bava, is a little scrambled and untidy, but that may have been intentional too, as it does lift some sequences directly from the source material and contributes to the freewheeling atmosphere.

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)

 

Diabolik’s return to the big screen any time soon seems an unlikely proposition, even though the global audience today shares some of the feelings of the public who first elevated the character to its iconic status in Italy after the Second World War. Specifically, a distrust of authority figures who increasingly excuse graft and political corruption by using the loopholes in a legal system designed solely for their benefit. This growing cynicism would embrace a subversive character such as this, but any new iteration would need to walk a very fine line. After all, a lot of his actions would be interpreted by most as aspects of domestic terrorism, even though he has no political agenda or desire to enforce change on the system.

Bava’s cut-price optical effects helped bring the film in for a cost of approximately $400,000 when it had originally been allocated a budget of $3 million. De Laurentiis offered him the chance to direct a sequel with the unused money, but Bava turned it down, unhappy with what he felt was interference from the studio during the filmmaking process. Perhaps the money would have been better used smoothing off some of the rougher edges of this film anyway.

A thoroughly enjoyable Sixties romp, tinged with psychedelia and filtered through the genius of Mario Bava.

Crimes At The Dark House (1940)

Crimes At The Dark House (1940)‘Dammit, sir, are you asking me to remove my trousers?’

A prospector kills his partner in the Australian goldfields and discovers that the man has inherited a title back in England. Assuming the dead man’s identity, he takes possession of the estate but finds it is heavily mortgaged. Fortunately, a standing arrangement means that he is betrothed to a beautiful young woman who is due to come into a lot of money when she gets married…

The final collaboration between producer-director George King and ‘blood and thunder’ barnstormer Tod Slaughter. It was six years since the duo had first assaulted the box office with ‘Maria Marten, Or The Murder In The Red Barn’ (1934). The string of similar pictures that followed in the intervening years presented Slaughter as the ultimate rotter, gleefully dipping his hands in murder and deflowering young maidens with a twirl of his moustache and a glint in his eye. This last project was a vastly simplified adaptation of Wilkie Collins famous 1860 novel ‘The Woman In White’.

The film opens down under with a sleeping man getting an offscreen tent peg in the ear, courtesy of our leading man. A quick root through his belongings delivers something even better than bags of gold dust, a letter from a family solicitor informing the dead man that he is now Sir Percival Glyde of Blackwater Hall. Slaughter assumes the title, of course (we never find out his character’s real name) and fetches up at the old pile to claim his fortune. Unfortunately, the solicitor in question informs Slaughter that there is no fortune, just a massive collection of debts.

Crimes At The Dark House (1940)

‘Feed my entrails to the pigs, would you?’

But rescue is at hand in the pretty form of Laura (Sylvia Marchant), niece of old family friend Frederick Fairlie (David Horne). There’s a long-standing arrangement that she will marry Sir Percival Glyde when he returns and then come into her fortune. She’s in love with penniless drawing master Paul Hartwright (Geoffrey Wardwell) and, for some reason, she doesn’t fancy a portly, middle-aged lecher who tries to force his attentions on her at their first meeting. But she’s a good little girl so she’ll do as she told.

The real Glyde left England when he was a very young man, so all is looking good for Slaughter’s impersonation, even though he doesn’t know the way to the Hall’s library. He also sizes up ‘delightful little baggage’ Jessica (Rita Grant) who’s willingness to show him the ‘shortcut through the fields’ gets her a promotion from parlourmaid to chambermaid. However, she’s soon in the family way, and a rendezvous at the ‘old boathouse by the lake’ is not a prelude to the kind of wedding ceremony she expects. There’s more trouble ahead for Slaughter with the arrival of Dr Isidor Fosco (Hay Petrie) who turns up on the doorstep with Mrs Catherick (Elsie Wagstaff) who was involved with the real Percival Glyde before his departure for the colonies. There was a child, now grown into Anne (Marchant, again) who Petrie keeps at his local asylum.

Crimes At The Dark House (1940)

‘You haven’t told anyone about the baby, have you?’

In Collins original novel, Laura and Anne are identical because they are half-sisters who share the same father. But if that’s the case here, then Laura is promised to the man who is her father and, although the Victorians were one of the most permissive societies in history, that’s going a bit far even for them! Sensibly, screenwriters Frederick Haywood, A Maltby and Edward Dryhurst chose not to address this issue at all, leaving the audience with the inescapable conclusion that the resemblance is just a happy coincidence.

Of course, Slaughter sees this an opportunity to get his hands on his new bride’s fortune and has her locked away with Petrie’s help. Because, yes, in an unusual development for films of this type, Slaughter and Marchant do tie the knot. This leads to a memorable scene where Marchant cowers in terror in the marriage bed while Slaughter climbs the stairs. Later on, when his plots start to unravel, he even tries to rape her sister Marian (Hilary Eaves).

Crimes At The Dark House (1940)

He’s behind you!

This film was the highest achievement of the King-Slaughter partnership. The actor gives his usual no-holds-barred performance but gets more to do here than usual, and the pace is relentless. The supporting characters also make for a pleasingly grotesque rogues gallery. Petrie is superb as the fawning little doctor, hardly less of a scoundrel than Slaughter himself, and the verbal sparring between the two gives their villainy a delicious twist of black comedy. Horne’s turn as Marchant’s chronically self-obsessed and hypochondriac uncle is also hugely enjoyable.

It may have been the changing public taste during the war years or the fact that this film did not receive an American release for three years, but King turned his attention to other projects. These included a role as co-producer, along with star Leslie Howard, on highly successful flag-waver ‘The First of the Few’ (1942). Slaughter, on the other hand, returned to his roots taking on a residency at Wright’s Little Theatre in Nottingham, hoping to recapture the success he’d enjoyed as an actor-manager in the 1920s. But the melodramas that were his bread and butter seemed hopelessly old-fashioned in the advent of ‘all-out war’ with Germany and, never prudent with money, he began to be dogged by financial problems.

A thick slice of melodrama, this rattling good thriller proved to be the high point of Tod Slaughter’s career and is still immensely enjoyable today if viewed in the right spirit. Sadly, things were never so good for him again.

Tod Slaughter would return in ‘The Curse of The Wraydons’ (1946).

 

Lost Planet Airmen (1951)

Lost_Planet_Airmen_(1951)‘You know, he was convinced you were insane trying to build an atomic powered rocket suit.’

Science Associates are plagued by a number of accidents, which Jeff King suspects are sabotage. Teaming up with the supposedly deceased Professor Millard, he dons a flying suit and becomes ‘Rocket Man’. His investigations reveal that mysterious supervillain Vulcan is behind it all…

If the plot sounds familiar, that’s because this is the retitled feature version of the Republic Studio’s serial ‘King of the Rocket Men’ (1949). It’s all set on Earth, which doesn’t seem to be lost, and there’s only one airman, but apart from that it’s a wonderfully accurate new title. The episodic nature of serials – with everyone usually after a new McGuffin each week – means that it is possible to squeeze nearly five hours of footage down to around 60 minutes, and retain some level of coherence in the storyline. It’s not perfect, of course, but it just about gets by. This was common practice for Republic in the early 1950s when the popularity of their serials was waning, and they were beginning to struggle with the balance sheet. Selling to television was the inevitable next step.

Lost_Planet_Airmen_(1951)

Who needs an iPhone 7?

But there is some fun to be had here, all the same. The pace never lets up, of course, which isn’t surprising in the circumstances, and there’s a pleasingly absurd amount of fisticuffs, explosions, and last minute narrow escapes. We still have the rocket suit’s wonderful control system — ‘Off/On, Up/Down, Fast/Slow’ — and a stuntman jumping on a trampoline just out of shot before flinging himself into the air.

Tristram Coffin usually played henchmen in movie serials, but he makes a good show as King and holds his own with newspaperwoman Mae Clarke. She was an excellent actress, particularly at comedy, who somewhat ironically will always be remembered for two straight roles; being menaced by Karloff as Colin Clive’s bride in ‘Frankenstein’ (1931) and having a grapefruit pushed in her face by Cagney in ‘The Public Enemy’ (1931). Her career would have probably maintained such a high level, but for ill health and an automobile accident in the mid-1930’s.

This is all good, undemanding fun, especially as it was one of the studio’s best later serials. Sure, this ‘new’ release was a rip-off and some young filmgoers might have felt cheated, but this is Hollywood baby, and the bottom line takes priority.

Watching this film in a rundown motel in the late 1960s, musician George Frayne thought this feature was one of the Commando Cody’s outings. He was another Republic hero who donned the Rocket suit. Frayne may have got slightly confused, both with the character and the spelling, but ‘Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen’ have released approximately 20 albums over the past 45 years.

 

Welcome to my blog

I can write absolutely anything I want to in this post because no-one’s going to read it, although perhaps if (and when?!) I get some followers they may scroll back to see how it all started. I’ll be blogging about my lifetime obsession with obscure cult b-movies (and reviewing a lot of them), about some of the murkier byways of 20th Century popular literature, my own humble literary efforts and whatever else takes my fancy. In short, the world as I see it, coloured by my experience, reasoning process and completely misguided ideas and notions. Welcome to the strange corners of my mind!