My town has basically one landmark, you know the kind of thing people passing through take pictures of. It’s a water tower. An incredibly phallic water tower. It’s like a classical Hindu lingam. Actually, it’s more than a phallic symbol–it looks like a penis. And at Christmas, the city or whoever owns the tower decorates it with a white light up star shooting from its top. You would think that this water tower would be the source of constant jokes, but the resemblance is so blatant that there’s almost no way to be clever about it. The best people do is take pictures playing with perspective so it looks like they’re about to mount the water tower from above. Or tell people about that star. I’ve gotten some laughs from that star. I bring this water tower up, because I’ve been trying to think of a way to talk cleverly about something in Mario Bava‘s film Danger: Diabolik (1968). Having thought and thought, I can’t figure out an angle. I don’t know how else to say this, so I’m just going to say it straight out: Danger: Diabolik is the most vaginal action movie that I have ever seen. If you want to call it a crime or heist movie or a thriller, I will not dispute it, I will just add, “it is the most vaginal crime, heist or thriller movie I have ever seen.”
If we had a lesbian cinema that took Danger: Diabolik as its starting point, I, for one, would be much happier. More car chases, cat burglery, groovy soundtracks and fewer women crushing on their therapists, therapists concerned about the ethics of their crushes on their patients and cuts to waterfalls. A lot less angst and fewer tragic bisexuals. At Queer film festivals I have seen a lot of Lesbian films cut to waterfalls. And, I am ashamed to admit, I have snickered.
Instead of a woman arriving at the bus station in Reno, entering her therapist’s office or walking into her new house, Danger: Diabolik opens with a successful heist and a car chase. Laughing his diabolical laugh, super criminal Diabolik (John Phillip Law) makes his escape and dives into to the ocean–cut to red maelstrom with a blue center (which shifts into a blue one with a red center) and Christy croons, “Deep, deep down…” (Later we see the image is taken from the part of Diabolik and Eva’s lair that lets out into the sea, which is also remarkably vaginal). I smiled, but I didn’t laugh, at least not until super criminal Diabolik returns to shore, meets his special lady Eva (Marissa Mell) and drives her white jaguar into their secret lair. Usually action movies are a pretty phallic affair—often ostentatiously so, even in the 1960s. But not Danger: Diabolik. And it goes much deeper than a swirling maelstrom.
I laughed right at the moment that I realized I wasn’t reading too much into this imagery at all. It’s way beyond subtext: Christy again sings, “Deep Down,” Eva’s white jaguar slides down a dark cavern and waits while ragged walls open. Then Diabolik and Eva drive onto an opalescent car elevator. Diabolik and Eva make out as the huge moon light pulses and sparks of light pass them on every level. The elevator platform is getting the job done. By the time the car reaches their secret lair, Eva is flushed and wiping her mouth. This sequence is the best cinematic depiction of a female orgasm I have ever seen.
After that, there are an endless array of such images from the flashing red light over Diabolik’s head as he goes through his security, the security controls themselves to the slot leading in his vault. And almost any time Eva and Diabolik are in their lair, Ennio Morricone’s “Deep Down” is playing–whether they’re making love on their money, showering (with their lucite modesty panels) or even walking around their groovy, groovy pad.
And I’m being flip but not entirely so when I say that Diabolik and Eve have an excellent Butch/Femme relationship going on. They have matching jaguars. They work heists together. Diabolik’s primary motivation is his love for Eva. Eva’s primary motivation is her love for him. She’s not just an accessory or a fringe benefit of being a cool super criminal. The plot is relatively simple–Diabolik wants to get something for Eva’s birthday. Eva sees an enormous emerald necklace on the news and asks for it. Heist planned! Things go awry and Eva is kidnapped.
After rescuing Eva–and being saved by Eva himself–Diabolik plots his revenge and destroys the economy of an entire country because its government messed with his lady. I don’t actually consider these spoilers, though you might, because this plot is less important than their relationship and, even more so, Bava’s execution.
Danger Diabolik is Bava’s adaptation of an Italian comic book, and it has some neat comic-panel shot composition, bright colors and some fun animations. The comic was created by sisters Angela and Luciana Giussani and Diabolik himself is part of a family of masked super-criminals from pulp serials and fumetti, Fantomas, Kriminal, Sadistik, and Kilink, though these characters often treat women pretty poorly. In Danger: Diabolik, Diabolik’s rival criminal Valmont (Adolfo Celi) treats his own special lady Rose poorly–calling her stupid, ignoring her and generally being a loud, crass, inconsiderate anti-Diabolik. In case the contrast between Diabolik and Valmont isn’t clear enough, there’s even some visual paralleling of Eva and Rose (Annie Gorassini), as Rose wears a sleeveless top made linked pieces of red lucite that recalls the emerald necklace Eva covets.
Danger: Diabolik wasn’t the first Mario Bava movie I had seen, but it was the one where Bava clicked for me. As a kid obsessed with monsters, I had been disappointed in Planet of the Vampires‘ lack of apparent vampires, aliens and monsters. As an adult, I love a film where style comes first and 90% of the budget appears to have gone into beautifully-tailored leather space suits (with charming yellow piping). I appreciate movies where style is a lot of the story, if only because they remember that film isn’t only a means of transmitting a chronological textually-based narrative, but also a visual and aural medium. Bava never forgot that in his stylized and stylish films. And I appreciate a couple in love having adventures together.
Meet Carol Borden. Slick. Suave. Gentle. Brutal. Out for all she can take. This essay was written for Nitrate Diva’s Italian Film Culture Blogathon and it was originally posted on Carol’s own website.