Tag Archives: Murder

CAPSULE: THE 10TH VICTIM (1965)

La decima vittima

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DIRECTED BY: Elio Petri

FEATURING: Marcello Mastroianni, Ursula Andress,

PLOT: To control violence and population, people are invited to participate in The Big Hunt, a sanctioned game of cat-and-mouse that ends in murder; complications ensue when two of the top assassins, Caroline and Marcello, fall in love, even as they are pitted against each other.

Still from The 10th Victim (1965)

COMMENTS: The term “bread and circuses” goes back to the end of the 1st century, a reference by the poet Juvenal (“panem et circenses”) to the willingness of the citizenry of the Roman Empire to be appeased by trifles and cheap entertainment. Because of the violent nature of the contests held at the Colosseum to pacify the populace, the term eventually became a catch-all for spectacles where human life takes a backseat to fun and amusement. In the modern world, the concept has become downright ubiquitous. Kicking off with Richard Connell’s short story “The Most Dangerous Game” nearly one hundred years ago, writers and filmmakers have had a field day with the premise of a society that turns murder into a spectator sport. From the anti-intellectualism of Fahrenheit 451 to the crass commercialism of The Running Man, from the fear of age in Battle Royale to the fear of class in The Purge, mollifying the masses remains a pertinent subject over two millennia later. (And that’s not factoring in displays of masochism made for public consumption like “Fear Factor” or the National Football League.) Not for nothing is the bloodthirsty land of The Hunger Games called Panem.

All of which is to say that The 10th Victim wasn’t exactly breaking new ground when it adapted Robert Sheckley’s 1953 short story for the big screen. (A previous adaptation for radio was more faithful to the original.) But if you’re looking for the singular factor that sets this movie apart from the rest, it’s this: it’s swingin’, baby, yeah! This speculative future turns out to be only a couple years ahead of its time, from a visual standpoint. We’re treated to sleek, brutalist architecture, pop art on the walls, and costumes (courtesy of designer Giulio Coltellacci) that are giddily mod and gloriously over-the-top, with every female outfit sporting a backless cut. Before Carnaby Street or the Haight, the styles that would come to define the 60’s were clearly to be found along the Via dei Fori Imperiali.

All the proof you need that this film crucially contributed to the DNA of the Swinging Sixties can be found in the movie that proudly carries the banner for the era: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. The eagle-eyed will notice Ming Tea, Andress’ overeager sponsor, supplies the name of the groovy super-spy’s psychedelic rock band, while even the naked-mole-rat-eyed will recognize the brassiere-machine gun Andress uses to dispatch a pursuer.

All this groovy atmosphere is the foundation for a healthy dose of satire, which is ladled on like hearty Bolognese. Announcements blare out the glory of the Big Hunt like drop-off instructions at the airport. A flack for the contest proclaims that Hitler would have signed up for the Hunt and thereby obviated World War II. The uniformly ignorant public goes about their business as gunplay breaks out all around them. Mastroianni’s mistress shrieks in horror when a team of repo men reclaim her collection of comic books: “No, not the classics!”

But the jaunty vibe, accompanied by Piero Piccioni’s frothy, vocal-tinged score, means the film’s attitude is more droll bemusement than anger. The screenplay only occasionally hints at the bile that must have inspired it, such as when a hunter bitterly laments the rules that have limited his fun. “We can’t shoot anywhere anymore,” he complains, noting that even churches and nursery schools are now off-limits. Oh, to be in America: “Anyone can shoot where and when they want.”

The leads do a lot to sell it. Amidst all of the mayhem, Andress tries to go full mercenary, eagerly hoping to maximize her marketability as a global icon of murder. Meanwhile, Mastroianni is stricken with overwhelming ennui. He openly broadcasts his victim status, he laments the pointlessness of life and relationships, and cynically fakes tears for the cult of sunset-worshipers he leads. Even murdering a Nazi brings him no pleasure. So it’s genuinely charming to watch him discover pure joy in the effort Andress exerts to make his murder something special.

Despite the body count, The 10th Victim turns out to be a rather gentle dystopia. The violence is plentiful but cartoonish. The satirical targets are numerous: disregard for human life shares space with the absurdity of marriage, contempt for the elderly, and capitalism run amok. (The fact that Andress must delay her kill to appease her advertisers is one of the better solutions to the “why don’t they just kill them” dilemma.) The 10th Victim is not so irresponsible as to make you think for a moment that this is a better world than the one we live in. But it does seem a great deal more fun.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As a licensed hunter-killer in a weirdly futuristic social state and with the statuesque Ursula Andress as his deadly adversary, [Mastroianni] is dishing up yet another brazen hero on the order of Bond… What is actually delivered in this peculiarly supergraphic film is a clever but patently self-conscious intellectual exercise, much on the order of that which Jean-Luc Godard gave us recently in ‘Alphaville.’ The cleverness is so insistent that it soon becomes excessive and absurd, and the gamesmanship of the satire becomes too cute, too much a bore.” – Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by the late Irene Gonchorova. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BUFFET FROID (1979)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bertrand Blier

FEATURING: , Bernard Blier, Jean Carmet, ,

PLOT: A man in the Metro confesses his fantasies about killing strangers to a stranger; a surreal series of casual murders follows, most occurring over the course of a single long night.

Still from Buffet Froid (1979)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This dreamlike and absurd black comedy about murder may be the most Buñuelian movie never made.[efn_note]The comparison is hardly diminished by the presence of actresses Geneviève Page (Belle de Jour) and Carole Bouquet (just off That Obscure Object of Desire).[/efn_note]

COMMENTS: “Don’t you ever get odd ideas?”, young and unemployed Alphonse (Depardieu) asks a stranger in the Paris Metro. Director Bertrand Blier has plenty of odd ideas, most of them revolving around murder and his characters’ blasé reactions to the ultimate crime. It turns out Alphonse may, or may not, have killed the accountant he met in the subway—but no one seems to care. His wife merely throws his bloody switchblade in the dishwasher.  He goes to his new neighbor, who just happens to be a police inspector, to report the death, but the man is off duty and can’t be bothered. Another murderer shows up at his doorway and Alphonse invites him in for dinner and a glass of wine. Then, through a series of dreamlike coincidences, the inspector and the killer join Alphonse on a murder spree—if such a laid-back, stumbling affair can be called a “spree,” and if some of the mysterious killings qualify as “murder.”

For the most part, the film’s events occur over one long, endless night—with perhaps a nap or two—before a sunlit epilogue in the French countryside. Characters never show up unless they are needed as killers, victims, or witnesses—there are no extras waiting for trains in the Metro, the Paris streets are deserted, and even the skyscraper that houses Alphonse’s apartment is totally uninhabited except for him, his wife, and the newly-arrived Inspector. Alphonse, and the other characters, also complain about the cold—they never seem to be able to get warm. Perhaps they are feeling the chill of the grave?

Alphonse is the dreamer who has an inkling that he might be dreaming—he is the only one who (occasionally) wonders what’s going on, who finds it odd that no one seems to care that he might be a murderer. Everyone else accepts the ever-shifting social dynamics with the calm acceptance of someone living in a dream. The acting is utterly deadpan and droll. A man is tortured by being exposed to a string quintet. Alphonse mentions that he has nightmares that last all night where he is wanted for murder and chased by the police. Perversely, in the nightmare script that plays out, the police don’t hunt him, but abet his ambiguous crimes. Some of it is a black satire on modern alienation, but the surrealism of the scenario speaks to deeper fears—death is the only sure constant in this movie where caprice otherwise rules the night.

Buffet Froid flopped (commercially) on its release, wasn’t screened in the U.S. for seven years, and is barely distributed today. It is reportedly a cult film in France, but that doesn’t do much for the rest of us. I was able to find it on the free-streaming service Kanopy (which requires membership at a a participating public or university library—and the catalog my differ depending on your supplier).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A blackly surreal procession of amoral and/or illegal acts…  producing a cherishably Buñuelian depiction of the far-from-discreet crimes of the bourgeoisie.”–Time Out London

(This movie was nominated for review by “Dwarf Oscar,” who called it an “an absurd and deadpan comedy that gained a cult status here in France.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: DROWNING BY NUMBERS (1988)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson, Joely Richardson, Bernard Hill

PLOT: Three women bearing the same name resolve their issues with their spouses by drowning them, enlisting the local coroner to aid in covering up their murderous spree. All the while, the film itself counts inexorably from 1 to 100, which marks the movie’s end.

Still from Drowning by Numbers (1988)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: When you put Peter Greenaway behind the camera, there’s going to be some weirdness as a matter of course. But while the movie has striking tableaus composed with his painterly eye, most of the oddity comes from the numerical gambit, with a touch of cavalier attitude toward the macabre.

COMMENTS: There’s no rule that says cinematic murder must be violent, or even serious. Consider the corpse lying in the bucolic countryside of The Trouble with Harry or the repeated deaths of Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets. So Drowning by Numbers is following in a grand comedic tradition, right down to the titular crime occurring, like the best of jokes, in threes. However, if the murders themselves are relatively light on shock value, they are also surprisingly light on motive. The first husband is ostensibly murdered for unfaithfulness, although there’s little anger in the crime. The second is dispatched merely for being grossly inattentive. By the time we get to the third, there seems to be no real reason for it at all, other than the fact that, hey, we’ve got another husband to kill. The plot is as inured to the horrors of homicide as its murderers.

Drowning by Numbers is that rare film where it’s a tossup as to whether the tone is misogynist or misandrist. True, the men are largely unsympathetic, and that extends to coroner Madgett, who ultimately proves too aggressive in pursuit of romantic recompense for his role as accomplice. But it’s not as though women come off especially well, either. Even with three female leads, the movie doesn’t really pass the Bechdel test, since their conversations are largely about the men they love/kill. The three Cissies (who might be three generations, and who, curiously, share a name with a B-movie actress) are shockingly cold; they are not righteous, defensive, or even defiant about their acts. Murder seems to be a decision on par with re-arranging the furniture. Maybe this detachment is not entirely their fault, though, as the entire community seems to be largely apathetic about a sudden spike in the mortality rate. In addition to all this drowning, the film features a self-mutilation that is repeatedly dismissed as trifling, an irresponsible vehicular manslaughter that seemingly affects only one character, and a suicide that goes almost completely unobserved. Perhaps the film’s tone is really just nihilist.

Why so carefree about human life? Probably because of all the games. Characters are constantly playing complex games for which Madgett’s son/apprentice (blood relationships are poorly defined in this movie) must describe their arcane rules. They’re something to do in between all the murders. So it stands to reason that Greenaway himself needs a game to distract himself (and us) from the proceedings…which brings us to the numbers. An alternative way to watch the movie is to spend your time looking for the numbers as they advance, like a kind of scavenger hunt. Sometimes they are subtle, hidden on a far wall or tossed off in dialogue; other times they are absurdly obvious, like on a sign awkwardly nailed to a tree or, most amusingly, as identification for a pair of foot racers who stumble upon one of the drownings and proceed to stalk the merry murderesses for the remainder of the film, still attired in their running gear. But the numbers don’t really tie in to the story in any way, aside from a prologue that promises an ending at 100. It’s just a gimmick. A bold one editorially, showing how meticulously Greenaway has laid out his shooting story, but a gimmick nonetheless. It’s essential in the same way a book is on a sea cruise: just another way to pass the time.

Drowning by Numbers is a movie about games, motivated by games, and comprised of games. So your tolerance for the film probably depends on how eager you are to play.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“You either love [Greenaway]… or you hate him. In either case, you do not understand him. The characters in ‘Drowning by Numbers’ are all completely credible people, who speak in ordinary English and inhabit a real landscape (except for the numbers), and behave in ways that would not shock the reader of a mystery novel. It is just the arbitrary pattern that seems strange, as one husband after another goes to his watery doom.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: KABOOM (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Gregg Araki

FEATURING: Thomas Dekker, Haley Bennett, , Chris Zylka, James Duval

PLOT: A sensitive college freshman experiences sexual awakening, stumbles upon a murder mystery, and uncovers secrets about his family while once in a while working on his film studies major, all set amidst scores of colorful visions, voodoo hallucinations, and sexy encounters.

Still from Kaboom

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Kaboom is a tough one to pin down.  It takes a while to get a handle on itself, combining a wealth of different ideas and subplots that don’t quite add up, but it does command my respect with its delightfully trippy visual approach and boldly unhinged ending.  It must be said: this movie is definitely weird.  But is it List-worthy?

COMMENTS: Enrolled in a clean and modern college replete with impossibly beautiful, voraciously horny undergrads, Smith (Dekker) has plenty of free time to sleep with or fantasize about most of the people he comes across.  While he becomes a surprise sex-buddy for the blunt and sexy London (Temple), his best friend Stella (Bennett) begins dating a real-life witch with a clingy personality.  Through many sexual escapades and relationship woes, a lingering murder mystery involving a scantily-clad redhead and some creepy men in animal masks worries Smith for months.  The more he delves into the puzzle, the more he seems to get konked on the head or chased by mysterious figures no one else sees.  And it all seems to tie into his recurring dream featuring those closest to him and a bright red dumpster.

With its over-exposed, over-saturated cinematography and frequent use of dreams and hallucinations, Kaboom definitely finds its way into “surreal” territory.  The vibrant color schemes, kooky mod fashion, slightly pornographic sex scenes, and sarcastic one-liners belie the dark undertones involving mysterious killings and abductions, masked men, witchcraft, and a sinister doomsday cult.  This dichotomy can work against the film as a whole; the tone is uneven and the script flits back and forth with awkward attempts at cohesion.  However, seeing these distinct narrative halves somehow come together in a completely unexpected way makes for an admittedly compelling and memorable viewing.

Kaboom has its drawbacks—dialogue that tries too hard to be funny, a few too many sex scenes (which I didn’t think was possible), some stilted performances—but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy myself.  Everything (and everyone) was just so pretty!  It gets weirder as it progresses, and it’s better for it, and the brash, unexpected ending definitely has a special effect on audiences (there was a good mix of “Huh…”, “Ha!”, and “What the hell?!” at my screening).  It is riddled with twists and turns, and is sure to keep anyone with a libido somewhat interested, but I’m still not quite sure just what to make of it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Araki lets his absurdist imagination run wild, and ‘Kaboom’ takes the time-honored gambit of gradually revealing that nothing is as it seems to delightfully cockamamie extremes.”–Kevin Thomas, The LA Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Werner Herzog

FEATURING: Michael Shannon, Willem Dafoe, , Chloë Sevigny, Udo Kier,

PLOT: The story of a young man’s mental breakdown is told in flashbacks as friends and family are interviewed by a detective outside the home where the killer is holed up with a couple of hostages.

Still from My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s twice as weird as Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Werner Herzog’s other 2009 offering, but only half as entertaining.

COMMENTS:  No movie in the world that could live up to the promise of the credit, “David Lynch Presents a Werner Herzog Film.”  My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is among those movies.  Based on a real-life case with the details changed drastically, the film begins with a gruesome murder then proceeds to explain the mystery through flashbacks and trips inside the diseased mind of the killer.  The main problem with the movie is that the answer we get for the slayer’s motivation amounts to little more than “because he’s nuts.”  There’s a top-notch weird cast here, but the performances are uneven.  With his intense eyes under a lowering brow and odd non-sequiturs, Michael Shannon (last seen ’round these parts as the paranoid insectophobe in Bug) is credibly crazed.  In fact, Shannon’s been acting so off-kilter since returning from a kayaking trip to Peru that fiancée Chloë Sevigny and pal Udo Kier don’t appear at all shocked to find themselves being interviewed by homicide detective Willem Dafoe outside the flamingo-pink home where the madman has holed up with two hostages.  Kier, who’s just replaced Shannon in his avant-garde production of the Oresteia because the actor was getting too excitable when asked to play the scene where he murders his mother, is more an outside observer of the man’s madness than a participant, so his cool, politely dismayed reaction to the tragedy is understandable and even a little amusing. On the other hand, it’s hard to figure out why Sevigny is going full steam ahead with honeymoon plans after Shannon tells her he sees Continue reading CAPSULE: MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE (2009)