Studying Mario Bava's work is a reminder of how short his directorial career really was. He directed films under his own name during the period 1960-1977. Compare that to Alfred Hitchcock, who died the same week as Bava but made over 50 films in a career that began in the silent era. Bava is perhaps best known for his Gothic horror films, as he made his mark with those and that was the only genre he returned to. He nevertheless worked in an impressive variety of genres over that short time, often with a single visit to each, but he tended to make very interesting contributions.
Danger: Diabolik is one such film. Bava technically visited the spy genre with the supervillain farce Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs, but that was a throwaway effort. Diabolik puts Dr. Goldfoot's sense of fun into a more substantial film. DC Comics artist Stephen Bissette has praised this as the greatest-ever film adaptation of a comic book. Roger Ebert called it a "superior" example of its genre and felt that it succeeded where Barbarella failed.
The film begins with a high-security operation to transport $10 million. Officials create a complicated ruse intended to thwart Diabolik (John Phillip Law), but he is on to their scheme. He sets a sophisticated trap and goes away $10 million richer.
It's quickly obvious that Diabolik is not your ordinary comic-book superhero. He's technically not a spy but a master thief, and he would be a supervillain in many comics. Here he steals from the corrupt rich and...keeps the money. This is no goody-two-shoes Robin Hood. The $10 million? He and Eva (Marisa Mell), his gorgeous girlfriend, use it to line their bed. Then they roll in the cash like a couple of decadent tycoon hamsters.
Some viewers may wonder: Why should we sympathize with a supervillain thief who engages in terrorist acts like causing an economic collapse by blowing up the nation's treasury building? It's important to look at this through the paisley-colored glasses of the revolutionary sixties. Diabolik is not a rogue criminal, he's an antiestablishment activist who rebels against a restrictive society and enjoys the ultimate level of freedom. This is a bigger threat than if he were a common crook, and the government responds by reinstituting the death penalty. Diabolik couldn't be less concerned: He releases hilarity gas at the press conference at which this is announced.
Crime bosses who are also now eligible for that death penalty don't share Diabolik's amusement, so they take a page from M and scheme to catch Diabolik and hand him over to the police. They capture Eva and leave her as bait to attract him. He evades their trap, and every attempt the government makes to raise the stakes is met with an even more audacious retaliation. His actions soon bring the government itself to its knees.
The movie shares the jet-setting feel of the early James Bond movies, but it depends less on budget and effects. Diabolik has a few gadgets, but they tend to be lower-tech than those of his British counterpart. The big thing here is Diabolik's cleverness and ability to stay two or three moves ahead of his enemies. He goes through a few disguises, which play into the film's sense of humor and style.
Diabolik is massively stylish, even more so than the Bond films. The visual style of Bava's gothic horror films is not entirely abandoned, especially in Diabolik's underground lair, where saturated colors are set against a dark background. That an underground lair exists is itself a gothic element, and there are scenes set in castles as well. Diabolik recognizably comes from the same director who made Planet of the Vampires, and reflections of its relentless stylishness and sexiness show up in more recent films such as The Fifth Element.
The feel is swinging '60s. Ennio Morricone's groovy, loungey soundtrack matches the film's seductive tone. There's a certain air of camp to the movie, but it doesn't seem as though that was intentional. It may be that we've by now seen so many campy films made or set in this era that we've come to associate the period with camp. Diabolik is very much a product of its time and has a strong element of humor, but that humor is not based on irony or self-parody, even when John Philip Law's acting is taken into account. He fortunately doesn't say very much, but he is good in the action sequences and has a good villainous laugh. Which probably defines camp. Law also has fantastic onscreen chemistry with Marisa Mell. She is more effective, although her dialogue is similarly limited and she doesn't need to do much but stand there and breathe. If you like long legs, you're in for a treat.
I'm unfamiliar with the comic series, or "fumetti" as they're known in Italy, but my guess is that the "crime boss" plot is a story arc intended to tie together the plots of several individual issues. There's a loosely plotted feel, as though this were a stitched-together series of sketches. That's a minor complaint, but the movie feels somewhat incomplete. There's no real ending. It would have been great as the first in a series.
The DVD includes such interesting extras as a Tim Lucas commentary and a discussion by Bissette of the film's comic book aspects. Bissette's explanations are illuminating, as he points out specific ways in which Bava was successful at recognizing which aspects of the comic book would translate well to film. Bava also wisely avoids the common mistake of trying to render the scenes as two-dimensional. He takes full advantage of depth and keeps a sense of motion throughout. This kind of approach points to why Bava has been named by so many directors, and by directors who are acclaimed in their own right, as an influence. He truly had the eye of an artist.