Monday, September 14, 2009

DANGER DIABOLIK (1968)

Mario Bava is one of my favorite filmmakers but he's a difficult subject to cover. What, after all, can one say about Bava that others haven't said a million times? One ticks off the standard raves like items on a grocery bill: He's a masterful visual stylist, a brilliant special effects innovator, a veritable magician of the cinema who could take practically nothing and make it look like he had a Hollywood-sized budget. He made damn good movies. Over the years, he's become one of the most ripped-off filmmakers to ever sit behind a camera; if imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery, Bava has been flattered by some of the best.

When it comes to praise of Bava, it's all become boilerplate.

It's become boilerplate, though, because it's true. Bava was a great filmmaker. Having now offered the standard praise of the man and his talent, I can proceed with the business at hand, namely composing what I expect will be an adoring screed about one of his works I've recently revisited after too long an absence. One of my absolute favorite Bava flicks is DANGER DIABOLIK, an adaptation of an Italian comic that certainly ranks among the best comic book films of all time.

Diabolik, its protagonist, is a character after my own heart, an anarchistic anti-hero, a romantic rebel who robs from the rich, a master thief elevated to the level of a comic book super-villain, who does what he does for no other apparent reason than for the sheer fun of it. He's sharp, resourceful and never just one step ahead of the government goons who make it their mission to bring him in--he's always 20 steps ahead of them. They swoop down upon him like hawks after blood, but whenever it looks like his goose is cooked, he pulls a rabbit out of his hat and shows them to be nothing but a gaggle of turkeys. They have the entire government behind them, they're granted emergency powers, they bring back the death penalty to use against him, put a huge bounty on his head, ally with organized crime to bring him down, and they never even have a chance. He takes great pleasure in making fools of the lot of them.

In the broadest sense, DANGER DIABOLIK is about the joy of living life to its fullest. Diabolik, played with great flair by John Phillip Law, has cast off the soul-deadening drone culture that is most of so-called "civilized" society. He operates outside it and by his own rules and has a blast doing so, getting his kicks from forever testing himself with one impossible crime and escape after another then returning to his massive underground Bond-villain-style lair and the warm embrace of his luscious lady love and constant companion (Marisa Mell). The film, particularly in the scenes in the lair, offers a visual sensuality reflective of their passion for both one another and life itself.

The words "Bava" and "visual stylist" deservedly appear in the same sentence with great regularity and in Bava's filmography, DANGER DIABOLIK may be his most visually impressive. The director uses clever comic-book-inspired compositions to tell the story, and his trademark candy-colored lighting schemes work particularly well here, immediately invoking the brightly-colored pages of a comic.[*] He works in healthy doses of frenetic action, which are marvelously complimented by Ennio Morricone's typically brilliant music.

The film's plot consists of a series of increasingly elaborate heists and other difficulties for our anti-hero to try to overcome. His battle with the government hilariously escalates into a full-scale war, with Diabolik reacting to a large bounty being placed on his head by blowing up tax records in order to choke the government of funds and threatening to bankrupt it. He meets every challenge with a wink and the same mocking laughter. He doesn't have any grand scheme his purloined loot is meant to finance. He doesn't even need it himself. He does what he does because he enjoys it. At one point, after he's just ripped off several million dollars, police officials are sitting around contemplating what he'll do with it. One darkly assures the others he will use it in "a way no mind but his could imagine." Cut to Diabolik in his lair, the money spread all over his bed while he and his fine lady roll around in it, screwing like rabbits.

I've loved DANGER DIABOLIK since I first saw it some years ago and I find myself wanting to rave about it at much greater length but in the name of avoiding spoiling it for those who may read these words and haven't yet seen it, I'll resist the temptation and conclude only by saying the film is a funny, endlessly entertaining romp, a masterwork by a master and one of the finest productions of a very special age of Italian cinema. Do yourself a big favor and check it out.

--j.

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[*] Though not the Diabolik comics, which were black-and-white.