The Dangerously Diabolikal liberties of adapting comic strips for film

Danger Diabolik poster

Last night I watched Danger: Diabolik. It’s a 1968 adaptation of an Italian comic strip about a masked master criminal (uh, called Diabolik) who specialises in imaginative high-end heists, and features American actor John Phillip Law (the blond angel dude in the Barbarella movie) in the lead.

Mario Bava directs it all with a nice eye for comic book-style dynamism (dollies float across scenes to frame different elements; the camera spins round, disorientating, implying movement, bridging scenes; freeze frames capture single moments like line drawings on the page, often with actors holding near-still life poses, the camera close in on their facial expressions), and avoids going down the over-saturated colour route, instead choosing a nice muted palette with strong contrasts.

Diabolik (composite)

Plotwise the cupboard is rather more bare, though: Diabolik steals some government cash, escapes with his accomplice Eva Kant (Marisa Mell) – who is unfortunately flattened out into leg-flashing, helpless screen candy – earns a policeman arch-nemesis, and ends up duelling both the plod and a mob boss. Too much of the action is repetitive – sports car chases back and forth along what appears to be the same stretch of coastal road – and neither Bell nor Mell seemed to have been asked to act much, just become live-action poseable dolls with mugged looks on their faces. The camera instead acts around them. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the glimpses we have of them in character are tantalising, and it feels like we’re being cheated of an extra notch on the performance.

There are some nice star turns around them though (Terry-Thomas for one), and the digs at Italian inflation are rather amusing. The production design is wonderful, with a Thunderbirds-style lair, gorgeous gadgets and some marvellous non-CGI effects. And Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack – as un-Morriconean as you could get, all swinging guitars and computer game hooks – is definitely in the spirit of things. It’s just a shame the film drags so much. But it’s more enjoyable than Modesty Blaise.

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