Saturday, December 31, 2005

Danger: Diabolik: Honor, Romance, and Sensory Overload Among Thieves

Sometimes calling a movie 'stylish' seems like damning with faint praise. But Danger: Diabolik earns bragging rights as one seriously, sublimely stylish pop art explosion. It plays at Seattle's Northwest Film Forum until January 5, and its marriage of comic book zing and paisley-hued trippiness couldn't be more irresistible.

Based on a popular Italian fumetti (comic book), this 1968 opus details the adventures of Diabolik (John Phillip Law), a world-class thief who defies authorities with increasingly courageous (and outrageous) jobs. There really isn't a plot to speak of; just a succession of heist sequences and eye-popping hues and imagery as Diabolik slinks his way into and out of scrapes.

Danger: Diabolik was directed by Mario Bava, a humble but extremely talented Italian with an uncanny knack for sculpting ostensibly formulaic films (horror movies, crime flicks, action programmers) into distinctive works of visual art. He found an ideal avenue for his palate in the vividly inked panels of the Diabolik fumetti, and--true to its era and Bava's style--this movie sports a kalaiedoscope of psychedelic colors.

The sixties brimmed with scores of movies cut from a similar pop culture cloth, but Danger: Diabolik possesses an eccentric charm all its own. It's broad and colorful, yet it never topples into the outright campiness of the Batman series. It possesses several thrilling chase and heist scenes, but occasionally slows to an alluringly languid pace that's downright immersive. Bava utilizes the pretty colors of a good comic book here, but more importantly he captures the pulsing life upon those inked pages better than any other director of the era. And it's no storytelling tour de force, but Danger: Diabolik possesses that unique alchemy of effortless cool that other directors of the era fought strenuously (and often vainly) to attain. It's telling that much of Danger: Diabolik plays without dialogue; Bava conveys volumes visually. Compare Roger Vadim's better-known (but wheezingly dated and static) Barbarella to Bava's cinematic comic book, and it's no contest: Diabolik leaps from the screen.

Bava's good work receives major elevation from his two leads, both of whom play things with just the right balance of earnestness and over-the-top melodrama. Law doesn't just rest on his chiseled good looks and piercing blue eyes--his gaze and body language course with spidery energy. And as Diabolik's lover Eva, pillow-lipped Marissa Mell makes for a hypnotic and exotic foil. The chemistry between these two infuses this exercise in playful stylishness with some genuine romantic heat.

Add to this already fab mix an unimpeachably fabulous score from the unimpeachably cool Ennio Morricone, and you have a heady and bold mod-era brew that possesses that rarest of paradoxes: substantial style.

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