Danger: Diabolik was a sister production to the more famous Barbarella. John Phillip Law starred in both. In Barbarella, he is Pygar, a blind, flightless angel cured by love. Here, he plays the title role of Diabolik, an anti-hero jewel thief with Bruce Wayne’s resources and Jesse James’s scruples.
Like Barbarella, Danger: Diabolik is based on a famous Italian comic series. Although American movie audiences know Barbarella better, Diabolik is the more popular Italian comic book.
As the movie begins, Inspector Ginko is overseeing an elaborate scheme to transport cash to the docks. The armored car convoy is a decoy; the bags within are filled only with blank paper. Meanwhile, police toughs dressed like ambassadors will transport the real benjamins in a Rolls-Royce. In this way he hopes to elude master criminal Diabolik, but Diabolik is onto him.
With the aid of brightly-colored smoke and a crane, he steals the Rolls right off the dock. He then transfers the money to a black Jaguar. Chased by helicopters, Diabolik switches into a white Jaguar driven by his girlfriend and accomplice Eva Kant (Marisa Mell). Having given the coppers the slip, they duck down the Bat-tunnel into the Bat-Lair. Eva heads off for a shower while Diabolik stows the cash.
That’s one plot down. For the rest of the nearly two-hour running time, we’re treated several more iterations of the same. Elaborate plots consecutively foiled by the already independently wealthy Diabolik. Terry-Thomas makes an unfortunate, unfunny appearance as a government minister. Adolfo Celi, who played SPECTRE agent Largo in Thunderball, plays essentially the same character here.
Like Largo, Valmont has trap doors he drops unfortunate underlings through. For his part, Diabolik is also not above killing police or security guards just to finish his birthday shopping. While Batman stands for justice and decency, Diabolik seems to stand for grand gestures of libertarian greed. In the current political moment, that’s bad enough. Still, when Diabolik blows up several government buildings as a tax protest, it’s clear the movie’s humor hasn’t aged well.
When I am working on these reviews, I usually write first, then collect screenshots. When I did this, the genius of Mario Bava’s work became apparent. Taking screenshots frees me from following dialogue, keeping up with the plot, or forming opinions about characters. I am released, even, from having to experience the movie in linear time. This is how I discovered that if you just turn the sound off and look, the movie is gorgeous. You could take stills from the film and turn it into a beautiful, golden-age comic book.
It reminded me of a criticism someone had of American novelist Philip Roth: he writes a great sentence, but the actual paragraphs are pretty bad.
Right-wing anti-government anarchist overtones aside, though, the movie felt like it lurched a lot. At one point, I was sure we’d wrapped everything up, and I kept waiting for the last scene. And waiting. And waiting. Finally, I paused it to see how much time was left --- nearly a half-hour. “Jesus,” said my viewing partner. There was yet one more full heist-plot to go. It was only much later that I realized the movie was structured like the classic serials. There are four acts in this movie, four plots, four resolutions. That was at least one more than either of us cared for.