Danger: Diabolik is a film with 1968 splashed all over it. 1968 writ large, with swirling pop art colour, Ennio Morricone music and a European setting complete with fast cars on looping mountainside roads. John Phillip Law stars as our hero – a cartoon man in a cartoon world peppered with glamourous girls, space age hideaways, bombs and snarling baddies.
Diabolik is an unstoppable leather clad jewel thief, living in an underground lair that appears to share the same architect and technical advisers as the Batcave. It’s full of huge flashing computers, plastic domes and walkways; the 60s vision of how everyone might live in the year 2000. When not involved in crime, Diabolik and his girlfriend Eva (Marisa Mell) take showers and romp around in a bed full of money. It’s not a bad life, although our hero can’t resist that irresistible urge for danger. At one point, after Diabolik wakes after sleeping for 20 hours, Eva confesses that she slipped him a pill – otherwise his leisure time would simply make him too bored. As Law’s acting rarely goes beyond eyebrow-raising that would teach Roger Moore a thing or two, it’s unkind yet true to observe that it’s difficult to tell the difference between the sleeping and waking Diaboliks.
Although a joint French-Italian production (and produced by Dino de Laurentiis), Diabolik appears to be set in the generic “Europe” of 60s films. It’s exotic, sexy and exciting, most probably Italy but never actually named. It doesn’t matter who’s who and from where, as the best parts of the film are where nobody speaks at all. Law, an American, has so few lines he makes Clint Eastwood look overworked. Terry-Thomas turns up, the archetypal Brit official, for a welcome turn although the film is almost ruined by the terrible dubbing into English of all the other actors. The plot is hardly worth going into at all. It’s simple comic stuff, in the days before this sort of thing began to take itself either too seriously or became bogged down with in jokes. This is a film without pretence or irony.
Despite the silliness, the director Mario Bava does claw back some credibility with the action scenes. The sight of Diabolik climbing up the sheer stone face of a tower is very well done, as is his subsequent escape from said tower. The car chases and gadgetry is also fun, as is the film’s totally absurd ending, where an unfortunate accident leaves Law encased in gold. I wouldn’t worry, though, as it doesn’t appear to faze him, and he appears perfectly happy reduced to mere eye acting. I would have probably advised against some of the other stunts in the film, such as a leap from an aircraft and a train wreck, simply because the budget doesn’t stretch to it.
At times Diabolik comes across as a weaker version of Joseph Losey’s 1966 Modesty Blaise. This is almost like the B-side of Modesty Blaise, cheaper and dafter. And where Terence Stamp and Monica Vitti, the leads in Losey’s film, can at least act a bit, there’s not much evidence of it here with Law and Mell. But Diabolik does always feature in must see film lists of obscure movies that are bandied around. It certainly is very obscure, and it’s likely that the dubbing issue has caused tv schedulers to keep it at arm’s length. Worth seeing though, for the very good soundtrack, and it’s kind of sad to see Law and Mell together, now both no longer with us. And as Mell eventually descended into obscure porn films, this is probably the only film of hers even remotely available.