Saturday, June 16, 2007

Masterminds, maniacal villains and magnificent bastards

The anarchic spirit of cinema in the late 60's early 70's found expression in stories of malcontents, clowns and rogues. Most were characters rebelling from within the system, or diminishing it's power by simply making it look ridiculous. Altman's M.A.S.H. is a perfect example.

But a strange mutant strain of movies celebrating the master criminal is part of the same movement. Films about the villain who regards the status quo as his hunting ground and the traditional heroes of police and government as prey became a mini-movement, creating some spectacularly strange film classics.

The Assassination Bureau featured a suavely dangerous young Oliver Reed as the leader of an international band of assassins with a bizarrely moral belief in the redemptive power of murder. The marvelous Diana Rigg, Mrs Peel from the Avengers, plays a reporter trying to expose him. She challenges him by asking him to make himself a target of his own murderous crew - a challenge he happily accepts believing his organization needs a shake-up. Thus begins a cheerfully nihilistic race across across Europe as assassin battles assassin with guns, poison and bombs. Oliver Reed is perfect as Ivan Dragimoff and Telly Savalas makes a great sinister and oily villain.

The Abominable Dr Phibes and Dr Phibes Rises Again are campy and surreal phantasmagorias each featuring a scarred and expressionless but wild-eyed Vincent Price. In a series of increasingly elaborate murders Dr Phibes seeks vengeance on the doctors he blames for the death of his beloved wife. Decades before Se7en, The Abominable Dr Phibes originated the idea of a serial killer basing a series of murders on a biblical theme, in this case the plagues of Egypt. The highlight is probably the death by unicorn and its blackly hilarious aftermath. The sequel Dr Phibes Rises Again follows a band of disreputable rouges on a quest to the dessert to find the secret of immortality with yet more grotesque deathtraps set by Dr Phibes - each more diabolical than the last. Both movies can be found in the affordable Midnight Movies DVD series which has allowed me to indulge my Vincent Price obsession without going broke. You can find the movies separately or in one double-sided disc.

Danger: Diabolik is a minor masterpiece of over the top camp and surreal action. Like a 60's James Bond film on a whole lot of acid. Diabolik is a sinister master criminal in a one against all war with the police, the government and the mob. He steals millions just so he can make love to his beautiful girlfriend on huge piles of cash in his vast underground headquarters, pulls off elaborate crimes just to make the authorities look foolish and wages war on other criminals and the state itself. He's cool, brilliant and cheerfully murderous. A nifty extra feature of this surprisingly affordable DVD is a documentary by comic book artist Stephen R. Bissette who argues convincingly that Danger: Diablolik, adapted from an Italian comic book is the most successful comic book adaptation to date.

There have been other cinematic celebrations of villainy, but the only thing in recent years to really approach the level of charm and nihilistic glee of the villainographies of the 60's and 70's was the short lived TV series Profit.

featured Adrian Pasdar as a psychopathic shark in a suit climbing up the corporate ladder and keeping just one step ahead of a hapless supporting cast trying to stop his murderous rise to power. Profit was a bizarre, surprisingly perverse TV offering that encouraged identification with it's homicidal anti-hero. It was deeply odd, suspenseful and subversive TV. So it was cancelled after only one season of course. It could have gone longer but the last episode in the set works as an ambiguous coda to the whole story.

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