Danger: Diabolik (1968) ****

Super-fun slick cult thriller as uber-villain Diabolik (John Philip Law) and sidekick Eva (Marisa Mell) outwit cops – and robbers – in a series of cunning heists. When not thieving they’re making love or pranking officialdom. Diabolik, hiding out in an underground cavern, out-Bonds James Bond in the fast-car and gadget department while Eva, smarter than the average Bond girl, leads the world in fashion or lack of it, her opening outfit looking as if it has either been cut to ribbons or made up of ribbons. Diabolik’s mask is cool and Eva is dressed to kill. Crime was never so fun, stylish, sexy – or lucrative.

Heist number one is the biggest shipment of dollars – $10 million – ever transported through Italy with a  massive convoy of outriders and an official plan to outwit the master thief. Already one step ahead, Diabolik, a master of the magnetic, whisks away the money in plain sight. Heist number two, an emerald necklace worn by the British ambassador’s wife high in an impregnable castle, involves Spiderman-type maneuvers. Heist number three: a 22-ton gold ingot.

A crackdown on criminal activity so endangers the Mafia that top cop Inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli) finds a surprise recruit in the hunt to capture Diabolik – Mafia boss Ralph Valmont (Adolfo Celi). The criminal network proves more potent than the cops and Valmont hatches a plan to snare Diabolik and exact revenge. And so ensues an elaborate chess game as criminals chase criminals with cops hoping to pick up the pieces.

John Philip Law (Hurry Sundown, 1967) was the coolest villain by a mile until challenged by Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair the same year. His classic good looks are matched by a fabulous brain as he cooks up brilliant scheme after brilliant scheme. Marisa Mell (Masquerade, 1965) is sexy as hell and a worthy companion in the thieving stakes. Adolfo Celi (Thunderball, 1965) and Michel Piccoli (Belle du Jour, 1967) are clumps in comparison, even though they do their ingenious best and Celi has his own harem.

Although Mario Bava (Black Sabbath, 1963) was better known for horror, this is a cult tour-de-force that employs the outlandish to set the tone, from go-go dancers and face-painted nightclubbers to the psychelic, the uber-fashionable, gadgets decades ahead of their time and the outrageous heists. The whole picture, coated in a sheen of glamour, is irresistible. The couple make love on a bed of dollars, airplanes have trap doors, there is a parachute jump twist, suspended animation, psychedelia, radioactive tracking devices, high-speed chases and a fiendish statuesque climax. And where not bedecked in fabulous fashion or one-piece cat-suits, the pair scamper about naked or as close as.

Bava captures the spirit and the look of the comic books by Angela and Luciana Giussani that provided the film’s inspiration. But that eight names including Britain’s Tudor Gates (creator of television’s Vendetta, 1966-1968) were involved in the screenplay shows the work this required. Ennio Morricone created a superb score. All-time cult classic.

In Search of Gregory (1969) ****

Off-beat examination of the fantasy vs. reality conundrum with an ever-watchable Julie Christie as the woman on the titular hunt. One of the great lost pictures – the only film of acclaimed British theater director Peter Wood is a more whimsical cousin to the more deliberately obscure works of Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961) and Michelangelo Antonioni (Blow-Up, 1966) which pivoted upon the question of whether events presented actually occur or exist only in the head of the leading character.    

Catherine (Julie Christie) is enticed to Geneva by her father (Adolfo Celi) for his latest wedding on the basis that she will meet the impossibly handsome Gregory (Michael Sarrazin). On arrival she discovers the agoraphobia of younger brother Daniel (John Hurt) has been temporarily lifted by Gregory. Catherine appears set to meet Gregory on a number of occasions, but either he does not turn up (the wedding) or somehow they miss each other, even at one point occupying adjoining phone booths. And it would have been a pretty dull picture if that was all that was going on. But whether the result of reality or Catherine’s imagination, the Gregory we see is a vivid screen presence. The world the character inhabits is unusual to say the least, so unique that it is either obviously real or fake, but virtually impossible to determine which.

The best Gregory sequence, of which Steve McQueen would be proud, involves the character moving by means of the windscreen from one side to the other of a car driven at high speed. In another scene Gregory plays the equally perilous game of Autoball, a kind of polo with stock cars. As convincing is Gregory’s avant-garde orchestra consisting of two guitars, bottles, a bicycle wheel, a waste bin and coins in a glass. 

The detail is so extraordinary that it must be real. The brother seems real enough, too real if anything, close to enjoying (or pining for – the poster promises more than the picture delivers) an incestuous relationship with his sister. But for every moment that appears questionable – did she really witness Gregory making love to her future mother-in-law – there are others where doubts are immediately quelled (an address which appears non-existent is not). And long before anybody came up with the idea of selling bottled water, Gregory is apparently in the business of selling tinned Alpine air. Other moments she does not witness – Daniel riding a Lambretta/Vespa with feet on the handlebars – add to the prospect of genuine reality.

Catherine might even have met Gregory except that in going to bed with the man who looks very much like what we believe Gregory to look like she determines that he shall remain anonymous. So it’s anybody’s guess whether Gregory is a figment or phantom of her imagination. And why, of course, should such invention be necessary? Does it mean that her father and brother do not exist either? These days the unreliable narrator is a common literary device but that was not the case at the tail end of the 1960s, so in some senses this was way ahead of its time.

It’s interesting, of course, to attach logic to the idea that it all takes place in Catherine’s imagination. You can kind of understand that maybe she thinks her father’s latest bride is going to betray him at the slightest opportunity. But it’s some imagination that sends Gregory into devilry in the car with Daniel. And it begs the question if none of it is real why does she keep on missing Gregory all the time? Does that relate to an even deeper psychological feeling that she is always going to miss out?

It’s an entertaining mystery. There’s no great angst. Antonioni had the sense or cunning to ensure that consequence mattered in Blow-Up – a murderer escaping justice. But there’s no such tension here. While Catherine is tabbed a nympho by her brother (who never questions her father’s predilection for multiple marriages), the suggestion that she’d fly from Rome (where she lives with her boyfriend) to Geneva is the hope of a hook-up seems too far-fetched. Despite the presence of Julie Christie – who can certainly carry even as slight a picture as this – and a quixotic turn from John Hurt (Sinful Davy, 1969) it’s neither obscure enough to be arthouse nor sufficiently plot-driven to be mainstream and remains an oddity.

If you are going to be irritated beyond belief that will occur in the first fifteen minutes or so, but if you stay the course, you will find it a highly rewarding watch rather than a cinematic car crash.

Your best bet to catch this film is Ebay or other secondhand routes.