Friday, September 27, 2013

Slick. Suave. Gentle. Brutal. Wild.

From time to time, I plan to use this space to repurpose film reviews I wrote for several local independent newspapers during the previous decade:

THE OCTOPUS: 1999-2000
THE PAPER: 2003-2004
THE HUB: 2005-2006

During my tenure as a professional (re: paid) film critic, I wrote about both new releases and cult classics. The date provided below is the date the newspaper issue containing the review hit the streets.

This review has been slightly edited from the original published piece.

Directed by Mario Bava
Stars John Phillip Law, Marisa Mell, Adolfo Celi, Michel Piccoli, Terry-Thomas

Alfred Hitchcock is credited with saying that an audience will always root for a character, no matter how rotten he may be, as long as he is good at his job. That was reportedly his justification for casting Cary Grant as a cat burglar—and the hero—in TO CATCH A THIEF. The quote may be apocryphal, but it may explain the enormous popularity of the Italian comic book character Diabolik. As portrayed in Paramount‘s 1967 release, DANGER: DIABOLIK, Diabolik is a thief, a vandal, a murderer, and a cop killer. Quite frankly, he’s a terrorist. But he’s also a damn good one, and he performs with such √©lan that it’s difficult to resist the charms of Mario Bava’s pop art classic.

Two sisters from Milan, Angela and Luciana Giussani, created Diabolik in 1962 as a greedy, materialistic thief and killer who steals from the rich…and keeps it. Aided by his accomplice and lover, the scrumptious Eva Kant, Diabolik became so popular to Italian readers that a movie version of his exploits seemed like a natural progression, considering the immense popularity of fantasy films in Italy at the time. Dino de Laurentiis financed the Italian/French co-production and hired the great cinematographer and special effects artist Mario Bava to direct the film. A master of creating illusion on film using intricate lighting, inventive camera angles, and inexpensive, though effective, visual effects such as glass mattes and forced perspective, Bava had directed a handful of successful genre pictures, but this was his first film with a major studio budget.

The movie opens with Diabolik, portrayed by American actor John Phillip Law (BARBARELLA) in a skintight leather bodysuit and mask, playing the Italian cops for suckers and making off with a huge bundle of cash, which he takes to his enormous underground headquarters that makes the Batcave look like a tool shed. Who says crime doesn’t pay? There he makes love to the stunning Eva (Austrian sexpot Marisa Mell) on a bed covered with money and plans his next caper: the theft of a valuable emerald necklace as a birthday gift for Eva.

Meanwhile, police inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli) makes a deal with mobster Ralph Valmont (Adolfo Celi, just off playing the villainous Emilio Largo in THUNDERBALL) to take it easy on his illegal business dealings if he’ll capture Diabolik for him. As proof there are no limits to Diabolik’s treachery, the hero not only attempts to steal Italy’s entire gold supply, but he also blows up government facilities containing the country’s tax and financial records, in effect, bankrupting the country.

Bava directed DANGER: DIABOLIK for about 1/5 of the $2 million budget granted him by producer Dino de Laurentiis, but it still appears as though every penny of that $2 million is on the screen. Nearly every shot contains a visual treat, ranging from the spectacle of Diabolik’s massively complex, gleaming underground hideout, bursting with golden detail, to Mell’s eyepoppingly sexy wardrobe choices. The American BATMAN TV series, which premiered on ABC over a year before DANGER: DIABOLIK began production, appears to have been a great influence on Bava, who approximates that show’s trademark Dutch camera angles, multi-colored gas attacks, and propensity for marking the hero’s outlandish gadgets with elaborate labels. Ennio Morricone’s ear-jangling score punctuates the film’s playful mood and arresting action sequences with such precision that it’s perfect for a movie based on a comic book.

DIABOLIK also shares BATMAN’s tongue-in-cheek relationship with its audience, as we root for Diabolik to pull from his rear end another outrageous escape from the latest death trap. Most of us are predisposed to pull for the underdog anyway, and Bava stretches that allegiance as far as it will go, so far that Diabolik’s destruction of Italy’s economic infrastructure plays like a big joke, particularly when the Minister of Finance (Terry-Thomas) asks the citizenry to use the honor system to mail in their fair share of tax.

DANGER: DIABOLIK was not originally a hit in the United States, where it was likely viewed as either another spy spoof along the lines of the Matt Helm series or a ripoff of BATMAN. Surprisingly, the ‘60s counterculture doesn’t seem to have embraced Diabolik’s virulent anti-government stance, an important character trait that would certainly guarantee that the film couldn’t be produced today.

It is not a film about politics, however. DANGER: DIABOLIK is merely an adventure fantasy and a love story about a beautiful woman and a man who would do anything to please her. Even if he has to bankrupt all of Europe to do it.

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