Danger: Diabolik

Movie Information

The Hendersonville Film Society will show Danger: Diabolik at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 27, in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville).
Score:

Genre: Comic Book Action
Director: Mario Bava
Starring: John Phillip Law, Marisa Mell, Michel Piccolli, Adolfo Celi, Claudio Gora, Terry-Thomas
Rated: PG-13

I had high hopes that Danger: Diabolik (1968) was going to be the Mario Bava film I could finally wholly embrace. It certainly stood the best chance. Well, maybe my hopes were too high, or maybe I had heard too much about how great it was—and maybe if I’d seen it when I was 12—it would be different, but it was a disappointment for me. I understand why people think it’s great, but it didn’t do it for me for a lot of reasons. I felt like I was laughing (to the degree I did) at the movie and not with it. The cheese factor was too high. The main characters—super criminal Diabolik (John Phillip Law) and his girlfriend Eva (Marisa Mell)—have virtually no personality beyond being pretty, and are frankly pretty loathsome in the bargain. All in all, it felt way too much like something left over from the Adam West Batman series to impress me the way it was supposed to.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no beef with the idea of a sociopath or megalomaniac super villain as a main character or as the most interesting character. After all, nobody ever read a Fu Manchu novel or watched a movie featuring the insidious doctor because they were just wild about Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie (face it, they were little more than Holmes and Watson knock-offs). The problem I have with Diabolik on that score—apart from it wanting the viewer to take the villain as the actual hero—is that its super villain is so utterly drab and mundane. Is he out for something worthwhile like world domination—or even something amusingly absurd like Dr. Noah’s Bacillus in Casino Royale (1967)? No. He’s just greedy or out to impress his vapid girlfriend. This doesn’t do it for me.

I suspect part of my problem with the film’s concept lies in the fact that—unlike so many of its ardent supporters—I was there at the time and I understand why it wasn’t a big hit in 1968. It’s not just that American audiences had no familiarity with the character—though that certainly didn’t help, especially since Diabolik just assumes the viewer has that familiarity. The bigger problem was that it landed in the wake of not just the actual James Bond movies, but their campier spoof relatives like the Matt Helm (Dean Martin) movies—The Silencers (1966), Murderer’s Row (1966), The Ambushers (1967)—and the Derek Flint (James Coburn) pictures—Our Man Flint (1966) and In Like Flint (1967). There had even been European spoofs like Philippe de Broca’s That Man from Rio (1964) and Claude Chabrol’s Blue Panther (1965). And, of course, the year before Diabolik came out there’d been Casino Royale—the critically savaged, but immensely popular ultimate Bond spoof (hell, it even spoofed The Silencers). Regardless of how you feel about Bava’s film, it added very little to an already saturated spoof market

Of course, the film Diabolik is most compared to is Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968). Both were based on European comics, both were fantasticated—and both were on the cheesy side. I will happily concede that Diabolik is far more successful than the crashingly disappointing Barbarella. Bava’s film—though it often reminds me of one of those unintentionally funny episodes of the Japanese TV show The Space Giants (1967)—has a grasp on the basic idea that this can’t possibly be taken seriously, while Vadim’s film can’t seem to make up its mind. (It’s probably a wash in terms of pointless zoom shots, though.) Should you see it? Oh, yes. It’s an interesting artifact of its time. Whether it’s actually a great film is another matter.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

12 thoughts on “Danger: Diabolik

  1. DrSerizawa

    I saw D:D on the old Mystery Science Theater 3000 show and even still have the tape. It’s much better seen that way. While D:D isn’t as incoherent… er I mean… as full of dream logic as most euroexploitrash, it’s still pretty typical of that genre.

    I simply don’t understand why so many people think D:D is great. (Or why Fulci or Argento are great either for that matter, but that’s another subject). If an American director had made D:D the same fans would hate it, I’d bet. I saw plenty of eurospy flicks in the 60s on late night TV. This isn’t much better than most of them. I do find the schlocky Italian spy/caper flicks pretty entertaining usually. But great cinema it ain’t.

    I don’t think D:D would have been much of a hit even if it hadn’t been preceded by so many similar films. In none of those were the protagonists out-and-out thieves and murderers. Those aren’t traits that would have drawn large audiences in 1968. It’d have been pretty good on the Drive-In circuit though. But you are right that this would be good viewing for film buffs. It’s pretty fun in it’s own unintentional way.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I really expected to catch some heat over my lack of appreciation for this one. So far, the only actual defense I’ve heard is that it’s more coherent than most Bava movies.

  3. Jim Donato

    What can I say? I’ve made it known that I consider the Adam West Batman series one of the four TV series I would deign own on DVD, if it ever got released. The other three? The Prisoner, SCTV and Slings + Arrows. I like DD because it posits a world where James Bond, instead of being a lap dog stooge to the status quo, is a decadent sociopath. More or less. He steals just to make the government look stupid. It’s a cynical thrill for me, but wrapped up in its mod garb it succeeds. By the way, the actual Diabolik comics are worthless! They don’t come with Morricone’s most eccentric soundtrack. Never have I heard such over the top erotic obsession captured better than in that theme song.

  4. Ken Hanke

    I’ve made it known that I consider the Adam West Batman series one of the four TV series I would deign own on DVD, if it ever got released.

    That may make the difference. I didn’t care the Adam West Batman when it was new and I ought to have been the perfect age for it.

    I like DD because it posits a world where James Bond, instead of being a lap dog stooge to the status quo, is a decadent sociopath.

    My problem keeps coming back to the fact that I find him a boring decadent sociopath. I find the apparent terminal ennui of both he and his girlfriend induces a similar ennui in me. I’m glad I finally saw it, but I don’t imagine I’ll find a repeat viewing necessary.

  5. I really expected to catch some heat over my lack of appreciation for this one. So far, the only actual defense I’ve heard is that it’s more coherent than most Bava movies.

    Should I come to debate you on Tuesday?

  6. Ken Hanke

    Should I come to debate you on Tuesday?

    While I’d be cool with that, I think it would be kind of peculiar at a screening of Shanghai Express.

  7. While I’d be cool with that, I think it would be kind of peculiar at a screening of Shanghai Express.

    Great! I’ll get ready then. Should befuddle the audience a little bit.

  8. Ken Hanke

    Great! I’ll get ready then. Should befuddle the audience a little bit

    I’m sure I’ve befuddled them before. But anyway, whatever became of “no one else can work Tuesday night?”

  9. Chip Kaufmann

    IMO Ennio Morricone’s score for Sergio Leone’s DUCK YOU SUCKER with its grunts and chorus of “Sean, Sean” is more eccentric than his score for DD.

  10. Ken Hanke

    Do you suppose that’s where they got the idea for the chorus singing, “Salt! Salt!” in Salt.

  11. Chip Kaufmann

    My doctor told me I needed to cut down on “Salt” so I haven’t seen it to make a comparison.

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