Friday, September 23, 2005

beta gets diabolikal

Never an expert on such things as Italian cinema, much less fumetti, or the trend in Europe post-WWII to root for miscreant anti-heros and supercriminals (I'll leave all that to my esteemed colleague and lending-library, Mort Todd), I have been an avid fan of Mario Bava's Danger: Diabolik for many years. No idea how it got lodged in my head so, but my gateway must've been the snaky, wacked-out, and swinging Morricone score, which would endear the movie on the revival circuit regardless (or for its notoriety as the last movie watched by the damned on MST3000), but it stands as much more than time-period curio.

As I mentioned above, the appraisal and popularity of the miscreant anti-hero intent on destroying the government, or exacting vengeance on society at large, or thieving for decidedly non-Robin Hood ideals, or just killing people in a sadistic manner (see Fantomas, Satanik, etc.) never made it to American shores, dealing instead with good vengeance and rightful punishment, and of course, support of the government's law and order. Only with the emergence of Alan Moore and Frank Miller in the eighties did darkness begin to encroach on squeaky-clean icons like Batman and Spider Man. Two Italian sisters drafted the comic book version of Diabolik.

So that strange, striking, black-clad figure of Diabolik (played by the excellent eyebrows and chilly stare of John Phillip Law) whizzed over the heads of American audiences (critics hated it) who mostly dug its "camp" aspects, drawing misguided parallels to Batman and Barbarella, as if that was the only thing funny-books were capable of translating to on celluloid. Okay, the escapades of Diabolik are absurd, as he steals "the largest single shipping of dollars ever" just so he can shag his girl, Eva, on a pile of dough, and then tops it by heisting the biggest lump of gold just to bankrupt his country. There's also the tossed-off one-man terrorist campaign, wherein Diabolik blasts the Ministry of Finance and Tax offices, or rather, the fancy engraved marble signs in front of their respective buildings. (This is mostly an excuse to just post the absurdly great Morricone theme for Diabolik when darting around in his sports car, all surf twang, maniacal laughter, and Green Hornet trumpet spittle, the guitar feedback threatening to capsize the whole thing into delerium.)

What pushes Diabolik to something beyond period-piece is the eye of Bava. Already a master of Italian horror and gialli (a forebearer to Dario Argento), this comic book adaptation was just one of many genres Bava dabbled in, like spaghetti westerns, softcore, and uh, viking films. Not content to just recreate panelling of his source material, he plays with it, revealing depth and balancing both the foreground with the back. The documentary comments on his lens in motion versus the staid, flat shots that riddle Barbarella. Other times, he sets up almost natural shots of borders, where characters are framed by shelves, bedposts, propeller blades, giving the illusion of the page. Aside from the craft, there's a fantastical backdrop of painted glass and subtle effects, crystal spires and glistening stalagtites that comprise Diabolik's lair, created with most of the actors just moving on soundstages. This was Bava's biggest budget, and the story went that he returned most of the extra money he didn't use (catering, dude) as he returned to low-budget horror for the bulk of his remaining career.

If Diabolik needs another selling point, the Beastie Boys ripped this movie off for their video "Body Movin'". So did one of Coppolla's kids, lazily, blatantly. Of course, the terroristic aspects of Diabolik are muted, as the natural American kneejerk is to play up its campy aspect.

Ennio Morricone - "Main Theme"

Ennio Morricone - "Driving Decoys"


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