Danger: Diabolik - The Cult Italian Spy Movie That Inspired Austin Powers

A clear influence on the Mike Myers series, this cult Italian film is a masterpiece of tongue-in-cheek spy caper camp
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A clear influence on the Mike Myers series, this cult Italian film is a masterpiece of tongue-in-cheek spy caper camp
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Allow me to take you on a groovy trip way back to the height of the swinging sixties and cult Italian director Mario Bava’s stylish, psychedelic adaptation of comic book anti-hero, Diabolik. Created by sisters Angela and Luciana Giussani, the Diabolik ‘Fumetti’ comic book was a huge success in their Italian homeland, spawning a TV and radio series as well as the film adaptation.

Danger:Diabolik was released in 1968, the same year as the more well-known Barbarella starring Jane Fonda and although both are comic book adaptations, there the similarity ends. Whereas the latter is a badly acted camp fest, Danger: Diabolik is a lush, Technicolor feast, boasting jaw-dropping sets, real visual élan and just about the coolest, sexiest, criminal couple in cult cinema history.

Master criminal Diabolik (played with cool insouciance by John Phillip Law) steals from the ultra rich to give not to the poor, but to his drop-dead gorgeous partner Eva (Marisa Mell) and no matter how hard his nemesis, Inspector Ginco, tries to foil his plans, Diabolik is always several cunning steps ahead of him. Like Bonny and Clyde released the year before, Danger: Diabolik taps into the counter-culture's deep mistrust of authority.

From the swirling, psychedelic opening credits to the groovy Ennio Morricone scored soundtrack, Danger: Diabolik is an acid-laced love letter to the swinging sixties. Ensconced in his cavernous, space-age, underground lair, Diabolik spends his time either plotting yet another dastardly heist or making love with Eva on a giant revolving bed, their lithe bodies swathed in a thick quilt of stolen dollar bills. 60s social realism it most certainly isn't.

What really clinches the film’s cult status though is the bizarre casting of the quintessentially British actor Terry Thomas in the role of Minister of the Interior (remember: this is an Italian film). Lord only knows what he must have made of it, but he does a fine job nevertheless as the befuddled, perplexed politician intent on bringing the impossibly cool anti-hero to book. When a stern-faced Thomas announces the return of the death penalty at a press conference, Diabolik releases ‘exhilarating gas’ into the air, reducing the entire room to fits of giggles.

Mario Bava was originally a painter, before moving on to cinematography and he brings qualities from both disciplines to the film’s visual design. His mastery of composition and perspective is evident early on, for instance, with a wide shot of a group of buildings graphically falling away into the distance. He also clearly has an appreciation of comic book conventions, framing action within panels (windows, book frames) so as to remain faithful to the genre’s visual aesthetic.

Although producer Dino De Laurentis budgeted the film at $3m Bava brought it in for a stingy $400,000. Employing all of his technical knowhow, Bava cleverly used foreground miniatures and matte paintings to create an illusion of scale. The incredible pop art look of Diabolik, created by top Production Designer Piero Gherardi (who also worked on Fellini’s 81/2) was undoubtedly a major influence on the Austen Powers films.

The movie’s admittedly flimsy plot revolves around three caper episodes, held together (just) by the device of Inspector Ginco blackmailing gangster Ralph Valmont (Adolfo Celi) into catching Diabolik for the authorities. What the film lacks in narrative complexity is more than compensated for by its bravura visual style, with Bava employing a range of wide angle lens to create a distorted depth, lending the film a fantastical comic book dynamism. Dressed from head-to-toe in black leather, Diabolik moves from a small figure on screen to extreme close up in rapid cuts, generally accompanied by a shrill blast of music from Morricone. The effect is electrifying.

Danger: Diabolik never takes itself too seriously and its tongue remains firmly in its cheek throughout the groovy 96 minutes running time

Danger: Diabolik also happens to features one of the most whacked out nightclub scenes ever committed to celluloid. As a spliff is passed from one blissed out flower child to another, Bava’s camera tracks the journey through a hazy, soft focus, barrel lens. The effect is genuinely trippy and evokes a more innocent time, when getting high was seen as a path to spiritual enlightenment rather than oblivion.

Not all of the performances are great and the dubbing can be distracting at times – a group of beautiful gangster’s molls aboard a glamorous yacht in the Adriatic sound more like Barbara Windsor than Sophia Loren for instance. Mercifully however, Danger: Diabolik never takes itself too seriously and its tongue remains firmly in its cheek throughout the groovy 96 minutes running time.

A superbly re-mastered version of Danger: Diabolik is available on DVD and contains some fine extras – most notably a featurette - From Fumetti to Film, containing interviews with lead man Law, director Roman Coppola (who directed the 2001 Diabolik homage ‘CQ’) and comic book artist Stephen Bissette. The DVD also features the Beastie Boys 1998 music video pastiche of Diabolik, ‘Body Movin’.