Comic books are an ideal medium to adapt to the silver screen: the best examples of the form embody everything that is pure, beautiful and imaginative about visual-driven storytelling. The success of the Marvel movies are a testament to what great material comic books provide for the silver screen.
That said, superhero comics aren’t the only type of comic book – and celluloid comic adaptations can offer different sorts of rewards by tackling a different corner of this pop-art medium. For proof, no one need look further than Danger: Diabolik. It brings a distinctly European sensibility to the table that sidesteps a lot of the tropes one associates with superhero-driven fare.
The plot, adapted from a popular fumetti (Italian comic book), is zen in its simplicity. Diabolik (John Philip Law) is a smart, slick super-thief who lives for two things – (a) a challenging robbery and (b) making his Eva (Marisa Mell), his luscious partner in crime, happy. The authorities want to put an end to his criminal reign, leading Inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli) to coerce crime lord Valmont (Adolfo Celi) into flushing Diabolik out of hiding via the promise of a great heist. Diabolik takes the challenge but is smarter than they think, thus prompting an epic game of brinksmanship between Diabolik, the law and organized crime…
This is the kind of movie that hinges upon the viewer being willing to set aside typical Hollywood cinema viewing concerns for a pure visual experience. Like many an Italian genre efforts, Danger: Diabolik is more about the mood and the look of its story than its plot or its characters. The plotting stays at a simple, minimalistic ‘a to b’ level and performances are stylized in the extreme: Terry-Thomas vamps it up as a pompous, arrogant government official while Law and Mell communicate through facial expressions in a silent-movie style. The only one who plays it straight is Michel Piccoli, a fitting choice since he is the most down-to-earth character in the film.
That said, if you are willing to make this aesthetic leap, Danger: Diabolik is tremendously rewarding. The familiar territory receives a treatment here is unlike any comic book adaptation you’ve ever seen. Mario Bava draws on all his skills – director, photographer, visual effects designer, painter – to create a genuine sense of ‘plastic’ reality without losing the tactile feel necessary for a viewer to suspend disbelief. Using simple devices like matte paintings and camera angles that work more than one image into a single frame, he achieves a dazzling, sophisticated sense of visual imagination that better-funded Hollywood directors would give their eyeteeth to achieve.
Danger: Diabolik is also dazzling to the ear, thanks to a superb Ennio Morricone score. The maestro throws out all the stops here – fuzz guitar stings, jaunty orchestrations, frenetic instrumental rock and the wordless cooing of female voices. The lush sounds perfectly accent the surreal goings-on while also enhancing their potency.
It all adds up to a delightful continental confection. Those who associate Bava exclusively with the horror genre will be stunned by the playful and comedic mood he achieves here. Simply put, Danger: Diabolik is sophisticated and seductive eye-candy that proves there is more to the comic book movie than men in tights and saving the world.