On the one hand, Mario Bava’s Diabolik (1968) is an unmatchable pop art masterpiece – a fusion of the surreal thrills of Louis Feuillade’s silent serials with the sado-erotic fetishist frenzy of the stylish sixties. On the other hand, thanks to its streak of not-always-succssful comedy, it could be lumped in with the camp likes of Leslie H. Martinson’s Batman, Joseph Losey’s Modesty Blaise and Roger Vadim’s Barbarella – just one take on a comics property that has a long, complicated, still ongoing history. Batman, an American franchise, has moved on from Adam West and been repeatedly reinvented in comics, on film and on TV, but the others have only had a few minor, stuttering relaunches. I didn’t even notice there was a Diabolik animated series in the late 1990s. Antonio and Marco Manetti, who first tackled an Italian comics adaptation in Zora la Vampire, have gone back to a specific, early run of Angela and Luciana Giussini’s comic and bring the enigmatic-even-when-not-masked master crook back as a big-screen icon in what seems to be the first entry of a probable franchise.
The setting is the late 1960s in an imaginary country – capital city Clerville, outlying coast town Ghenf – that blends elements of Italy, France, Belgium and the US (Bava’s version had some English aspects thanks to Terry-Thomas). Diabolik (Luca Marinelli) has a secret identity which is also an alias – as did the Shadow – but is really only himself, plotting and executing a series of heists and outrages. He has built an extensive lair under Clerville, and drives a black Jaguar. In this story, he meets his eventual nemesis, the canny Inspector Ginko (Valerio Mastrandea), and his soulmate, the blonde and cool Lady Eva Kant (Miriam Leone). He is also captured, tried, condemned to the guillotine (spoiler – he escapes) and attempts the robbery of a safety deposit box inside a theoretically unbreakable bank. John Philip Law’s Diabolik was demonic, whereas Marinelli’s is almost a zombie – unbending only in response to Eva’s presence. It’s an origin story for Eva, but tells almost nothing about the leading man.
Much of Diabolik takes place in eerily depopulated night-time cities, where that Jaguar and a few pursuing police vehicles (hopelessly outclassed) are the only cars on the road … and it occupies a late-sixties style zone removed from anyone’s reality, with an array of clothes, accoutrements, furnishings and even faces that seem like magazine layout ideals of the period. It’s relatively leisurely, with stretches of intrigue and contemplation between the bursts of action and the meticulously-executed crimes. This Diabolik is true to the spirit of Fantomas – an expert, casual killer who throws knives – but we see glimmers of the more rounded character he might become. And Leone’s Eva Kant has a perfect Novak-Deneuve look.