La decima vittima
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DIRECTED BY: Elio Petri
FEATURING: Marcello Mastroianni, Ursula Andress, Elsa Martinelli
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.
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.)