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.

ll Marchio Di Kriminal/The Mark of Kriminal (1968)

Il_Marchio_Di_Kriminal_(1968)‘Why don’t you take off that stupid costume?’

After escaping from prison in Istanbul, super crook Kriminal has re-established himself in London as head of a care home, whose heavily insured residents have a habit of dying. A chance reveals that a fortune worth millions is buried on an archaeological site in the Lebanon, but a map showing its exact location has been split into four pieces and hidden in identical statuettes of Buddha…

It’s business as usual for the skeleton-suited master villain as he becomes embroiled in a plot that owes a heavy debt to the Sherlock Holmes tale ‘The Six Napoleons’ and pretty much every ‘hidden treasure’ tale since. Most of the principals return from the original ‘Kriminal’ (1966) with handsome Glenn Saxson thinking on his feet to stay one step ahead of nemesis Inspector Milton (Andrea Bosic), now head of Scotland Yard. On his way, Saxson beds the usual quota of beautiful women, and removes anyone who stands between him and his objective; in this case two ‘lost’ old masters by Rembrandt and Goya. Helga Liné also returns as our leading lady, playing a completely different part from the first film, although her character is much the same. There’s the usual whistle stop tour around continental Europe too; although credit must be given to the location manager who came up with some very impressive ruins in the Lebanon to be used for the film’s climax.

The sleek, expensive look of the film is also assisted by the excellent crisp colour photography by Emilio Foriscot and Angelo Lotti. What is lacking, as in the first outing, is any sense of a real personality; to either proceedings in general, or our leading man in particular. Saxson isn’t bad in the role by any means, but a bit of charisma would have gone a long way, although perhaps it was a conscious decision to ‘play down’ any emotional traits, given the amoral nature of the character.

Il Marchio Di Kriminal (1968)

‘Hi Honey, I’m home.’

Saxson’s only other role of note was as western anti-hero Django in 1966 but, after a few parts in minor films, his career fizzled out in the mid-1970s. Director Fernando Cerchio specialised in ancient Egyptian epics, including ‘Nefertite, regina del Nilo/Queen of the Nile’ (1961), which starred Vincent Price as the villain.

There were lots of masked supervillains coming out of Italy in the 1960s; so many in fact that it’s difficult to pinpoint who came first, although the origins of all lay in the country’s popular comic book culture. Kriminal made it onto film twice, which was more than most, although a leading character whose main claim to fame was the faintly ridiculous notion of committing crimes while disguised as a skeleton probably didn’t help his longevity on the silver screen.

Worth a look if your expectations are not too high.

Kriminal (1966)

Kriminal_(1966)‘As a woman, I do not have the habit of accepting diamonds, Mr. Boss…’

International master thief Kriminal is about to meet the hangman’s noose in London after stealing the Crown Jewels. lnstead, the Inspector in charge of the case arranges a dramatic escape, in the hope that the villain will take him to the stolen crown. But Kriminal outwits him and flees to the continent…

There is a long tradition of masked super villains in Italian comic books and Kriminal was one of the most popular. Created by artist Magnus and Max Bunker, he was amoral, ruthless, and brilliant. He also dressed in a stylish one-piece skeleton suit, was quick with a gun, and even quicker with the ladies. Given the global success of James Bond, and the myriad of copycat agents running around continental Europe in the mid-1960s, it was probably inevitable that Kriminal would get in on the act, copying the popular formula of ‘girls, gadgets and guns’ but with an emphasis on crime, rather than espionage.

We begin with Kriminal escaping the gallows thanks to the intervention of Inspector Milton (Andrea Bosic), who is soon looking for new job opportunities when the mastermind slips through his fingers. Fortunately, Kriminal returns the stolen crown by parcel post anyway, presumably having only stolen it for a bit of a lark. It’s is an excellent opening, exhibiting a sense of playful fun and quirkiness that promises for an entertaining ride. On the continent, Kriminal gets involved with a pair of beautiful twins, both played by Helga Liné, and a plan to relieve the rich husband of one of them of his stash of diamonds.

Unfortunately, despite a series of ongoing plot twists, the tale is never very gripping and rather humourless, the potential of the main character never realised. Our blonde, chiselled hero is Glenn Saxson, a Dutch born actor who made few features; his only other notable turn being as Django in ‘He Who Shoots First/Django Sparo Per Primo (1966). There’s a suspicion that it may have been his good looks that got him these roles, rather than any great acting ability. He’s not exactly bad, but brings little personality or star quality to the table, and that’s rather a drawback when he’s so heavily featured. Thankfully, Liné is certainly pleasant to look at, and Bosic provides a halfway decent foil as the perennially frustrated policeman, chasing Kriminal halfway across Europe only to be regularly outwitted.

Kriminal (1966)

‘How many rounds of toast would you like for breakfast, dear?’

Double cross piles up on double cross, there’s real diamonds, fake diamonds, disfigurement, disguises, and even an unpleasant type of aftershave that comes out of a spray can, but it all fails to ignite, making for a very middling film that doesn’t linger long in the memory. The signature skeleton suit gets only a brief workout, although it is hard to establish credibility for it as a disguise, given that it’s almost exclusively used at night. It’s not exactly great camouflage.

Copyright law was not strictly enforced in mainland Europe back in the 1960s, so there were similar characters taking on Interpol in both comic books and on film during the period; ‘Diabolik’ for example. So many were there, in fact, that there are different schools of thought as to who came first, and who was a copycat! An obvious rip off of ‘Kriminal’ was Turkish super fiend ‘Kilink’ who never appeared without his skeleton suit, and appeared in a series of movies all the way into the 1970s. They were cheap, cheerful productions, and very, very silly, but had a sense of style and humour that would have helped ‘Kriminal’ no end.

A sequel ‘The Mark of Kriminal’ (1968) followed.