If ever a film sacrificed plot, characters and coherence to highly stylized mise en scène, it’s likely the Italian-French co-production Danger: Diabolik (1968). A few other films come pretty close (see below).
The film is based on a comic book, and as such, doesn’t aspire to much more than two-dimensional characters, balloon-captioned dialogue, and sub-Bond chase and shoot-out scenes.
Director Mario Bava spent his budget wisely, refusing to compete with the U.S. spy genre on its own terms. So…we get sped-up, cartoon action, poorly synced dialogue, and – in an ironic/meta mood -a ‘real-life’ Bond villain, that is, the actor – Adolfo Celi – who played Bond villain Emilio Largo in Thunderball – is now Ralph Valmont, who must save his criminal empire by turning in uber criminal Diabolik (surname unknown).
Diabolik is far from a super hero. He has few admirable qualities, a poor sense of humor, doesn’t seem especially bright and, as portrayed by John Phillip Law, conveys emotion through eyebrow configurations. His sidekick is Eva Kant (Marisa Mell), a beautiful, in-shape young woman who is inexplicably drawn to Diabolik and his tiresome activities.
But it’s the director’s style (think Dario Argento with Suspiria (1977) or Roger Vadmin with Barbarella (1968) or Elio Petri with The Tenth Victim (1965)) that has made the film a cult classic. There’s a pervasive surrealism to these films, inspired by lighting and sets that both accentuate and celebrate the artificiality of the cinema: it’s a delicate balance, and when it works, it becomes the plot itself, somehow transmogrifying what is silly into that which is cleverly absurd.
You don’t watch a painting, you look at it. In the same way, films like Danger: Diabolik ask us to sit back, turn off our minds, float downstream – and look, but don’t watch.