Friday, March 29, 2013

La Decima Vittima: Italian Cinema That Goes Pop!

In the early to mid 1960s, the Italian cinema was going through a sort of renaissance, as it not only produced important films by such renowned cineastes as Federico Fellini, Bernardo Bertolucci, Luchino Visconti, Pier Paolo Pasolini and many others, but also works by more “populist” filmmakers like Sergio Leone and Mario Bava. Elio Petri was a director who straddled both worlds. An avowed leftist, Petri nevertheless pursued commercial projects when he felt that they could also make a social statement within the content of supposedly escapist entertainment. Having begun his apprenticeship in the cinema working as an assistant to director Giuseppe De Santis on several projects, most notably the neorealist drama Roma ore 11 (Rome 11 O’Clock, 1952), Petri then directed a number of shorts before helming his first feature, L’assassino (The Lady Killer of Rome, 1961), which starred Marcello Mastroianni in a straight dramatic role as an antique dealer unjustly accused of murder.
L’assassino was a critical and commercial success, and Petri continued on with several other projects, including one segment of the omnibus film Alta infedelt√† (High Infidelity, 1964) entitled “Peccato nel pomeriggio”, before getting his first shot at a major international production with the film considered here, La decima vittima (The Tenth Victim, 1965). Petri got the idea for the film from a 1953 short story by science fiction author Robert Sheckley entitled “The Seventh Victim”. When La decima vittima opened and became an international hit, Sheckley wrote a “novelisation” of the film under the title The Tenth Victim, in 1966. It was Petri, however, who wrote the script for the film itself.
Shot in explosive, pop art colour, La decima vittimatells the tale of a futuristic society in which war has been outlawed, only to be replaced with The Big Hunt, in which players sign up for a round of ten officially sanctioned killings, taking turns as both victim and would-be assassin. If a player survives ten rounds of this – five as hunter, five as victim – they win a grand prize of $1,000,000. To further complicate matters, although the “hunter” is given a complete dossier on their potential target’s habits, the “victim” is kept in the dark, having no idea who their nemesis is. All of this is supervised by a government entirely controlled by computers, saturated with media penetration, in which classical literature has been replaced by comic books, and the elderly are liquidated as being no longer useful to society.
By this time, Marcello Mastroianni was an international star, whose work was popular not only in his native Italy but also in the United States; in short, an actor who could, in the parlance of the trade “open a movie”. In La decima vittima, Mastroianni plays the role of Marcello Poletti, a restless and jaded “hunter” who dispatches his opponents with skill and nonchalant ease. His opponent is Caroline Meredith (Ursula Andress), who is seen during the opening minutes of the film gunning down her latest “victim” in a New York disco, The Club Masoch, with a brassiere that conceals a two-shot pistol. At the same time, in Italy, Marcello disposes of his latest opponent by placing dynamite in the victim’s riding boots; when clicked together, they explode, killing the victim instantaneously.
La decima vittima was shot mostly in Rome, with a few days of location sho
oting in New York; the opening of the film is particularly effective, as a seemingly deranged gunman runs through the streets of lower Manhattan, shooting wildly at Caroline, until a policeman stops him, only to be dismissed by the shooter with the words “It’s OK, I’m a hunter”, and a quick flash of his official “hunter’s” credentials. Satisfied with this, the policeman shrugs and lets him go, as the hunter trails Caroline to the Club Masoch, where she dispatches him with her two gun bra, all the while dancing seductively as part of the club’s entertainment. Indeed, when Caroline kills her opponent, the audience bursts into applause, and the MC proudly announces that “you’ll only see something like this at the Club Masoch”. But since Caroline’s primary motivation for all of this is money, and sheer survival, she seems bored and distracted by all the attendant publicity, even as she receives word that her next, and 10th match, will be opposite the formidable Marcello, who, of course, has no idea who his “hunter” is.
To further complicate matters, Marcello’s prize money from his previous hunts has been surreptitiously withdrawn from his bank account by his ex-wife Lidia (Luce Bonifassy), and what’s left has been squandered by Marcello’s mistress, Olga (Elsa Martinelli). Thus, desperate and downcast, Marcello waits with impatience for his opponent’s next move, although, of course, he has no idea that Caroline will be his “hunter” for the final round of the game. To top all this off, Caroline, also desperate for cash, makes a side deal with the Ming Tea Company to broadcast the death of Marcello on international television as sponsored “entertainment” for the masses, should she be successful in her murderous intent. Thus, for the rest of the film, Marcello and Caroline warily circle each other, as Marcello soon discovers her identity, and the two try to kill each other in a reciprocal dance of death.
All of this, of course, is played for comedy, which makes the film both prescient, predicting the 21st century’s obsession with death and violence as entertainment, and one of the “darkest” of all ’60s social satires; what we see on the screen seems all too plausible, despite its satiric thrust. A deliriously cool jazz score by the gifted Piero Piccioni, featuring a breathy female vocalist who seductively croons “die die die” as the violence on the screen continues to escalate, underlines all of this. In the meantime, improbably, Caroline and Marcello are, despite all the odds, finding themselves increasingly attracted to each other, although the death of one or the other will bring instant wealth and fame to the “victor” in this game of death.
In an excellent essay on Petri’s work, Larry Portis noted that La decima vittima
[…] was ambitious both in terms of its critical content and its potential production costs. After much rewriting and uncertainty, the project was finally picked up by producers Carlo Ponti and Joseph Levine, and then Ponti’s hesitations further delayed the project.
Years after the realization of the film, Petri mused that he never understood why Ponti associated himself with it. Probably, he said, it was because Ponti knew Petri could get Marcello Mastroianni for the lead role. Logical enough, a film in English starring Mastroianni and Ursula Andress had box-office potential in the mid-1960s. But had [the resolutely political director] Petri suddenly gone “commercial”, abandoning his convictions? Hardly. With this film, Petri threw himself into a kind of cunning subversion using the forms of popular art and cinema to call into question state and society. (1)
Released in the United States by Joseph E. Levine in a horrendously dubbed English language version, La decima vittima nevertheless transcended this mutilation of Petri’s vision to become a palpable pop art hit with US audiences, and soon became a pop classic, and the most successful of Petri’s films up to that time. As William Johnson noted in Film Quarterly upon the film’s initial release, La decima vittima is
entertainment in the best sense of the word. It’s the 21st century, and people
work off their aggressions in licensed duels to the death. Marcello Mastroianni is chosen by a computer to be Ursula Andress’ tenth victim, but in the end the duelers transfer their struggles to a cozier battleground. The logic of it all is less implacable than Miss Andress, but director Elio Petri has a light hand with the satirical possibilities, and creates a futuristic atmosphere not with contrived sets but with an adroitly offbeat use of lenses, color and music. (2)
Of course, in the overall arc of Petri’s work, La decima vittima is ultimately a light diversion, and doesn’t reach the artistic heights of such later films by the director as A ciascuno il suo (We Still Kill The Old Way, 1967), and his undisputed masterwork, Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, 1970). But in its cheerfully nihilistic pop art sensibility, La decima vittima effectively portrays a futuristic society in which violence and death have become entertainment, and the suffering of others can be exploited for financial gain by both corporations – The Ming Tea Company – and governments on a worldwide basis. It’s a film that is ahead of its time, and despite its resolutely commercial origins, nevertheless manages to inject a health dose of social criticism into what might superficially be seen as simply another action/comedy thriller. In this, then, the film is an admirable success on all levels, and absolutely worth seeing, both as an artifact of the 1960s, and an all-too-accurate vision of the future.

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