February 25, 2009


Danger Diabolik (Mario Bava 1968) Underground Lair. Art Director/Flavio Mogherini (Satyricon, Mamma Roma, The Thief of Bagdad), Costume Designer/Production Designer (La Dolce Vita, Juliet of the Spirits, 8 1/2). Imagine clicking your garage door opener on a mountain road, engaging a giant clam-shell door, and driving into a series of electronic hatches and elevators down (deep deep down) to a cavernous lair that sports a fleet of E-type Jaguars, Sci-Fi gadgets, a Habitrail-like network of tubes and chambers, glass "see-through" showers, and a giant revolving bed with futuristic technology and television monitors. I’ll give you a moment to recover. You’re right- it’s simply the coolest pad any spy, criminal mastermind, or lounge cat could crave (they had me at Jaguars). Add Marisa Mell, John Phillip Law, and a score by Ennio Morricone to the mix and you can see why this Mario Bava cult classic jumps right to the #1 spot on the list. There are wonderful adventure conventions in the film, including a trap door... in an airplane!

The film is based on the popular Italian comic Diabolik, created in 1962 by two sisters from Milan. Diabolik is an anti-hero, a kind of Fantomas-meets-Golgo 13-meets 007 in a Sci-Spy crime adventure, and he is a great example of the European tradition of weaving adventure stories around master criminals-as-heroes. Comic and film maestro Steve Bissette suggests that this reflects a post-war skepticism of authority and a spirit of late-60s counter-culture. Where 007 works for queen and country, Diabolik relishes in high-stakes heists and acts of destruction against the state. His other passion is to enjoy a life of pleasure with his partner Eva. Celebration of the individual perhaps taken to the extreme, yet Diabolik remains empathetic and ultra-cool. One infamous scene shows Diabolik and Eva making love in piles of money on his giant revolving bed. As the detective mentions just before this image hits the screen, Diabolik has a use for the money that only a mind like his can conceive of:

The counter culture influenced not just the notion of the hero, but notions of aesthetics, lifestyle, and values. Somehow, I don't see the Rat Pack generation choosing a Lair like this. Designer Verner Panton is once again an influence. His "total environment" installation exhibits, such as Visiona (1968) and Visiona II (1970), were room constructions of fluid, organic forms. Here is Panton's design followed by Diabolik's vault room.

The sets have a fantastical feel of the late 1960s and the dynamics of a comic page.
Originally given three million dollars to make the film, Bava stuck with his familiar bag of budget-conscious tricks to create one the greatest comic book adaptations in movie history for a mere... $400,000. Actor John Phillip Law recalls seeing most of the sets piled up in a corner of the studio. Steve Bissette adds, "Bava did it with collage of photos glued to glass! He was a magician! Bava really understood the magic of "the frame" as the essential cinematic illusion, and within that frame worked wonders." Like all of Bava's work, Danger Diabolik crackles with atmosphere, imagination, and sensuality. The director (a former cameraman himself) made great use of wide-angle lenses, forced perspective, mattes, and foreground design to create a stylized look- one which Video Watchdog founder, Tim Lucas, says shows "a fantastic view of the 1960s that only existed in the movies and in Playboy magazine perhaps." It's groovy, stylized, smart, sexy, and action-packed; I call it the Spy Vibe!

For more info about Danger Diabolik, see Steve Bissette's excellent documentary, "From Fumetti to Film" on the 2005 Paramount DVD release (which also features John Phillip Law and Roman Coppola), and this review from DVD Verdict.


Check out Spy Vibe's production set series, an event that gathered together many writers to celebrate the best spy sets from cold war-era film & TV. Guest Set Lists: Lee Pfeiffer, Jeremy Duns, Armstrong Sabian, Steve Bissette, Roger Langley, Matthew Bradford, Wesley Britton, David Foster, Matt Kindt. Spy Vibe's Set For Adventure here, Set Countdown #10, #9, #8 ,#7, #6, #5, #4, #3, #2, #1.


  1. I knew it! I knew it! I knew Diabolik would be your number one pick!

    When you do your follow-up post on the awesomeness of the Jaguar XKE as the ultimate secret agent-car, let me know...I have some additional stuff to add....

  2. ... how did you know I was planning that? :) yes, send me Jag stuff!

  3. Thanks :) And I hope you enjoy the 10th Victim- you'll have to post your review.

  4. Brilliant -- one of my favorite flicks.