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.

One On Top of The Other/Perversion Story/Una Sul’altra (1969)

One On Top of The Other (1969)‘You drop in for a few bumps and grinds, or maybe a few kicks?’

After the sudden death of his invalid wife, a handsome young doctor finds himself suspected of murder by the police. There seems no evidence of his guilt, beyond a financial motive and his playboy lifestyle. Then a mysterious phone call takes him to a club where he meets a stripper who looks almost exactly like his dead wife…

This is one of the best of the early Giallo films, that species of horror thriller that helped to inspire the American Slasher movies that took the world box office by storm in the early 1980s. Although this example bears little resemblance to the knife-wielding antics of that generation of masked killers, it’s still an engaging and excellent mystery that comes complete with a satisfying denouncement. That’s quite a surprise considering there are not only three credited writers, including director Lucio Fulci, but another three who don’t receive acknowledgement. So many cooks can make for an uneven result, and, although it is true that the film does ramble a little over the 108-minute length, for the most part, it remains tightly focused on its central puzzle and is a fine exercise in audience misdirection.

Doctor Jean Sorel runs a private clinic with his brother Alberto de Mendoza. Whilst the latter does all the actual medical work, Sorel is the public face of the business; a ruthless self-promoter and publicity hound. He spends most of his time tapping up investors with unrealistic promises and screwing around with photographer Elsa Martinelli. Yes, he has a wife at home, played by Marisa Mell, but it’s a marriage in name only; she’s a virtual recluse who suffers from chronic asthma. When she dies, he’s surprised to discover that she’s taken out some heavy insurance policies and made him the sole beneficiary. Of course, that puts him in the crosshairs of police inspector John Ireland, but there’s no evidence of murder and he was out of town on the night in question anyway.

One On Top of The Other (1969)

Rushing the costume fitting had not been a good idea.

Things begin to unravel for our leading man when an anonymous telephone call takes him to a local night spot. Naked girls hang from the ceiling on swings covered in flowers (it was the 1960s) and the floor show features a motorbike and a stunning blonde. The odd thing is that stripper Monica (Mell, again) is the spitting image of Sorel’s dead wife.

Compelled to investigate, he ends up sleeping with her (not creepy at all!) before he’s satisfied that it’s all just a coincidence. But is it? The insurance company have remained suspicious of Sorel and, when their investigator gets a look at his new girlfriend, he goes to see flatfoot Ireland. A quick toss of Mell’s swinging pad turns up a scrap of paper where it looks like she’s been practising the signature of Sorel’s dead wife, and the plot has more than its fair share of twists and turns before it reaches its conclusion.

If this sounds like the template for dozens of erotic thrillers that went direct to video in the 1980s, then there is a definite resemblance, but it owes more to the work of hard-boiled thriller writer James M Cain, who created ‘Double Indemnity’ and ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’. Yes, we have the handsome, morally flexible alpha male and the seductive femme fatale, and a cash prize at the end of it. But who is playing who? And is it really all that simple? Pleasingly, when the answers come, the solution is both surprising and credible.

One On Top of The Other (1969)

The ‘Hart To Hart’ reboot was taking a slightly more adult tone…

However, it is worth mentioning that the film is very rooted in its era, and is a little dated in some respects. It’s not just the fashions and occasional psychedelic trappings, but some of the story developments wouldn’t hold water in more modern times, but it’s fine if you’re prepared to suspend a little disbelief.

It’s also an interesting signpost on the Giallo’s developing journey for a couple of reasons. Here, we get two American stars, even if neither was no longer at the top of their game. Ireland had notable supporting roles in some of the biggest movies of his day; working with John Ford on Oscar-winning westerns like ‘My Darling Clementine’ (1946) and ‘Red River’ (1948) and was nominated for the Academy Award himself for classic noir ‘All The King’s Men’ (1949). Faith Domergue, who plays Sorel’s sister-in-law, had a less stellar career but is fondly remembered for a trio of cult items made around the same time: ‘Cult of The Cobra’ (1955), ‘It Came From Beneath The Sea’ (1955) and ‘This Island Earth’ (1955).

Perhaps a more significant sign that the Giallo was growing in stature is that a large part of the film was shot on location in San Francisco, a fact which director Fulci seems keen to remind us of at every possible opportunity! He was a typical member of the Italian film community, making musicals, comedies, crime capers, Spaghetti Westerns and whatever other commercial product was required at any given moment. Inevitably, there were further Giallo pictures after this, including ‘A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin’ (1971) and ‘Don’t Torture A Duckling’ (1972). Greater fame, and notoriety, came his way at the end of the decade when he unleashed the controversial ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’ (1979), and followed it with continued attempts to bother the British Board of Film Classification. Stylish horrors such as ‘City of the Living Dead’ (1980), ‘The House By The Cemetery’ (1981) and ‘The Beyond’ (1981) may not have made a lot of narrative sense, but they certainly delivered on the gore and possessed a strange, nightmare-like quality all their own.

This is a fine thriller and a step-up in quality for the burgeoning Giallo movie. Somewhat ironically, however, it would prove to be one of the last of the bloodless ‘murder-mystery’ examples; a touch more horror was just a few months around the corner.

Secret Agent Super Dragon/New York Chiama Super Drago (1966)

Secret Agent Super Dragon (1966)‘Tell me, have you ever had a bath in electricity?’  

An ex-secret agent comes out of retirement when one of his old colleagues dies in a mysterious road accident. Taking over the operative’s last assignment means investigating some strange goings on a college campus in Michigan…

This week’s ‘Bond on a Budget’ running around continental Europe (well, Amsterdam and Michigan actually!) is U.S. actor Ray Danton, who tangles with guns, girls and gadgets in his efforts to thwart the dastardly schemes of super villain Carlo D’Angelo. The fiend has been road testing a behavioural modification drug called Synchron in small town, USA and it’s sending the kids like wild, man. Well, getting them to beat each other up if you want to be more specific, rather than something of a more psychedelic (or interesting) persuasion.

Danton recruits convicted lifer Babyface (Jess Hahn) as his bodyguard, which proves an astute choice as he turns out to be a kind of mobile ‘Q’ Division, furnishing our underwhelming hero with a series of gadgets, including a bulletproof vest, a model mini-submarine and a watch that activates inflatable buoyancy balloons (handy when you’ve been put in a coffin and dumped in the canal). Oh, and there’s a little torch, which allows him to read messages written on a mirror in what looks like lipstick (but probably isn’t). That’s about it on the gadget front, but Danton does get to tussle with a fine selection of lovely Euro-babes including Margaret Lee (England), Marisa Mell (Austria) and Adriana Ambesi (Italy).

Apart from that, it’s the usual round of double crosses, semi-convincing fisticuffs, and undercooked story elements. There’s some silly malarkey about a bunch of guys in silver masks buying Ming vases at a charity auction, and a rather muddled climax that arrives suspiciously quickly, probably due to the influence of an over-enthusiastic American distributor. Unfortunately, the film has absolutely no sense of dynamism or style, an accusation which could be easily be expanded to include Danton himself, who’s certainly no Sean Connery (or Tony Kendall, or Roger Browne for that matter!) On the plus side, it is better than Jess Franco’s ‘Lucky The Inscrutable/Agente Speciale L.K.’ (1967), another EuroSpy which starred Danton, although that’s not saying very much! What really sinks this enterprise is the unmistakable feeling that no-one’s trying very hard, including director Giorgio Ferroni.

Secret Agent Super Dragon (1966)

The Green Hornet suspected that Kato had been skipping his sessions at the gym…

Danton began his career on TV in the 1950s and graduated quickly to supporting roles in big studio movies, such as ‘I’ll Cry Tomorrow’ (1955) with Susan Hayward, and ‘Too Much, Too Soon’ (1958) with Errol Flynn. He also took the title role in Allied Artists’ factually dubious ‘The George Raft Story’ (1961), but the film was not a success and he decamped to Italy a few years later. There he made a string of films; several in the EuroSpy genre. In the following decade, he headed back to the States, and many guest slots on network TV shows.

Mell sealed her place in film history as John Phillip Law’s leading lady in Mario Bava’s cult classic ‘Diabolik’ (1968), but also featured in Joe D’Amato’s appalling ‘Quest For The Mighty Sword’ (1990) at the twilight of her career. Sadly, she lost her fight with cancer just a couple of years later, at the age of just 53. Despite combining beauty with bags of screen personality, Lee never made it out of continental genre flicks, despite appearing opposite her namesake Christopher in ‘Circus of Fear/Psycho-Circus’ (1966). She also made a good showing in the brilliantly trashy ‘Dorian Gray’ (1970), which is still one of the best versions of the Oscar Wilde classic, but probably not a film to include on your CV if you’re trying to make it as a serious actress!

These half-hearted EuroSpy shenanigans are really for die-hard fans of the genre only.