Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Danger: Diabolik (1967)

Fetish fashion has been around for centuries (probably about as long as there's been clothing). However, it didn't become more accepted by mainstream culture before the 1960s (at least, not to my knowledge). Up until then, it was considered almost exclusively the province of homosexuals, "perverts," and "weirdos." Personally, I think its acceptance came about through music. Rock n' Roll was big and getting bigger, and the youth culture of the time (as it always does) wanted to distance itself more and more from their parents and authority figures. Leather pants became fashion shorthand for identifying rockers. So, of course, the leather catsuit wasn't far behind. Most notably worn by Diana Rigg on "The Avengers," the catsuit was the uniform for a cadre of superspies, supercriminals, and superheroes. And, then, funny enough, fetish gear fell back out of fashion and back into the realm of the socially unacceptable. But not before Diabolik rocked the shit out of it.

Danger: Diabolik opens (as it must) with a heist. The police, led by Inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli), attempt to stay one step ahead of the titular thief. Trying to keep millions of dollars of Treasury money safe, they send an armored car loaded with fake bills out along with a car holding the real cash and several policemen in disguise. Needless to say, Diabolik (John Phillip Law) outwits Johnny Law (note: not an actual character) and makes away with the loot to his high tech hideout and sexbomb moll, Eva Kant (Marisa Mell). After the police interfere with the narcotics operations of mafia kingpin, Valmont (Adolfo Celi), the gangster decides to collude with the authorities (sort of) and get rid of the leatherclad thorn in both their sides.

By all accounts, Diabolik is not a hero in any sense of the word. He is vain, avaricious, and petty. He is not above killing (and killing police, to boot) in the course of his work. Yet we, as the audience, root for him. He is an antihero, but not in the tradition of, say, Conan or Snake Plissken, who, while certainly criminals, will still (sort of) do the right thing in the end (though often under duress). No, Diabolik is a criminal antihero in the sense of Hannibal Lecter or Tony Montana. We don't approve socially of what he does, but we want to see him accomplish his goals. It is complete wish fulfillment on the audience's part to be an outlaw in this way, to have the power, the smarts, and the drive to not only be outside society but to thumb your nose at it. It is, in fact, one of the reasons fiction exists at all. 

And this is why Diabolik, as a character, is never developed. He does not exist outside his costume. Sure, he takes it off, but that's how he is defined. We never get a real name for him nor any background. He is a cipher intended for the viewer to project himself onto. This is also why Mario Bava and company (wisely, I think) don't spend much time with him as a person. Instead, the main narrative drive of the film is on the machinations of Valmont and Ginko to capture and/or kill our protagonist. Our involvement with Diabolik and Eva is primarily either when they're at leisure (notably making love on a rotating bed/bedroom covered in stolen money, equating money and sex) or pulling a job. Yes, at one point the argument can be made that Diabolik takes on a socialist/anarchist role, essentially accomplishing what Tyler Durden would attempt decades later. But he doesn't do it for the sake of the downtrodden or the lowly taxpayer. He does it because the authorities offer a huge reward for his arrest, and he needs for that to not happen (if he values his freedom). 

Like all good heist films (Rififi, Topkapi, several of Jean-Pierre Melville's films, and so on), the heists are what interest the viewer most, and they are the most detailed and exhilarating portions of the movie. From a movie of this sort (and especially after seeing his futuristic lair setup), one would expect Diabolik to whip out all sorts of cutting edge, high tech gadgets to pull off his crimes. Even so, his jobs are performed in a decidedly low tech fashion. He uses stealth (including what I call the "Storm Shadow" suit), agility, suction cups, cranes, boats, nothing really out of the ordinary or that we would associate with that era's view of next-step technology. In fact, aside from a large, highly-reflective metal sheet and the means he uses to steal and move a massive hunk of gold, all of the tools in Diabolik's toolbox are rather ordinary. Interestingly, it is Valmont and Ginko who have the high tech gear in the field, and yet with all their resources, they cannot catch this one man.

It's also of note to look at how Bava shot Danger: Diabolik. The first establishing shot of the film gives us an idea of the scope of the film, and he employs this symmetrical style of composition often throughout when showing the world outside Diabolik's hideout. Inside the hideout, the frame is allowed to be a bit off-center, the lair's style accentuated by shooting through natural apertures created by the architecture. Bava uses a wide angle lens at many points throughout, and the deep focus that it furnishes gives the film a three-dimensional feel. The most noticeable example of Bava's more traditional filmmaking style is in the club scene. Aside from a few quick zoom-ins and zoom-outs, the camera is kept level. When the clubbers pass a doobie (I'm not sure if the kids still call them that) down the line, Bava uses a blurred out fisheye lens and his signature brilliant color lighting. However, the motion of the joint from toker to toker is captured via a very smooth, controlled tracking shot. Can we assume from this that while the filmmakers wanted to be "down with the youth," they couldn't give in to other filmmakers' tendency at the time to go sloppy and incoherent in attempts at atmospherics and psychedelics? Whichever, the film looks great, and Bava does a fantastic job keeping things visually striking but also solidly grounded. 

Constant emphasis is placed on Law's captivating eyes, in costume or out (and interestingly, he covers them most times he's out in public). This accentuation is a callback to the comic book the film is based on (created by Angela and Luciana Giussani), where oftentimes Diabolik's eyes and the area around them are the only spots of white on a panel or page. Also, as has been commented on by many others, Bava composed frames within the film frame to simulate comic book panels, but there are more self-reflexive elements included as well. As Ginko is trying to determine how to catch Diabolik, Ginko looks at a map of the city before him. The streets become highlighted in red and animation creates an emphasized section of the city to focus on. Later, a prostitute is asked to describe Eva to a mob henchman using a high tech "identikit" sort of machine. Again, there is an animated sequence (reminiscent in many ways to Saul Bass's popular and influential design work of the time) that filters through facial features until a drawing of Ms. Kant emerges. Plus, direct address is employed not only by Terry-Thomas (in a small but memorable role as Minister of Finance) but by Diabolik in a wink directly to the audience. It's this sense of fun, adventure, and ultimately escapism, then, which makes the film not only one of my favorite Bava films but also one of my favorite comic book films. 

MVT: The design style of the film, while definitely of its time, is charming and oh-so-satisfying to immerse yourself in. This is in spite of the ironic, kitschy way most folks look at this type of thing. I love it.

Make Or Break: Without giving anything away, Diabolik comes up with an absolutely brilliant way of getting away with the emeralds he's just stolen. This is the most memorable bit in the movie and exquisitely summarizes why this is such a great film (but you probably already knew that).

Score: 8.25/10

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