In the world of genre film on DVD and the marketing of niche titles in the age of the internet, when any journey man who ever at any point managed to knock out a half decent giallo or two during his career stands a reasonable chance in the present of attaining at least some sort of status among connoisseurs of cult, director Elio Petri (1929 -1982) stands out as that rare thing indeed: a master auteur who, through a quirk of complex distribution rights, has somehow always managed never quite to pick up the following his largely hidden oeuvre seemed to deserve, despite the fact that each and every time one of his films does at last surface (“Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion” , “A Quiet Place in the Country” ) it instantly wows anyone who sees it. “The 10th Victim” (“La decima vittima”, 1965) is perhaps Petri’s best-known – if still relatively little seen -- title, and it is the one still most likely to cement an interest in the wider work of this perversely neglected filmmaker, thanks to the previous attentions of Blue Underground (who released it on Blu-ray in the States a few years ago) and following the emergence of this handsome dual format UK edition from Shameless Entertainment, whose customary bright yellow packaging has perhaps never been so appropriate to the promotion of a movie that revels in its primary coloured mod surface gloss, even as its arch plot wryly excoriates the very ‘60s pop culture it now typifies.
This is nominally a science-fiction movie. Adapted from a 1953 short story (later expanded into a novel) by SF writer Robert Sheckley called ‘The Seventh Victim’, it has a premise which has since become extremely familiar to us all for its futuristic, TV age spin on Richard Edward Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” human hunt motif, in which contestants kill each other in a ratings-pulling televised gladiatorial contest run by the Big Brother state of the future as a form of social control. This is a scenario which has always tapped a nerve in postwar audiences, implying a continuing diffidence about where we’re going and the role television is often thought to play in shaping our culture which goes all the way back as far as the very origins of the medium itself. It’s a nervousness that only seems to get more acute year on year, as more of its predictions appear to be coming true.
The idea has produced a slew of variants at intervals down the ensuing decades, like “Death Race 2000” (1975), “The Running Man” (1987), “Battle Royale” (2000), “Series 7: The Contenders” (2001) and most recently, of course, “The Hunger Games” (2012). Although Petri’s film was the first piece of popular cinema to essay this now overly familiar set-up, it’s a very different kind of film in tone to even the least harrowing of those that came after it, despite its director being an avowedly political filmmaker. “The 10th Victim” falls somewhere in the middle between embodying a self-consciously stylised and affected art house movie vibe with socio-political themes, and being a no-holds barred ‘60s genre romp, unusual in that it manages to reflect the coming together of the worlds of art, interior design and fashion just at the moment when this alignment hit the peak of the decade’s creativity, rather than a few years too late -- like most other attempts to capture the brightly coloured modernism of the high ‘60s on cinema screens -- such as “Modesty Blaise” (1966) or Casino Royale” (1967): films which, by the time they were released, had already begun to look passé as the culture gave way to the flower power anti-style of the hippie movement instead.
Whilst exemplifying the Pop Art sensibilities of the middle sixties to its very core, this was a low budget science-fiction movie that also taps into the other most popular genres of its day – both international and domestic -- for its content and aesthetic choices, namely the post-Bond jet set Euro-spy flick and the Italian sex comedy. The casting of Ursula Andress in the lead female role obviously signals its indebtedness to the former; while the presence of her male opposite, Marcello Mastroianni, is a clear nod to his centrality in that latter most quintessentially Italian of genres, through his involvement in what Kim Newman calls on this disc’s accompanying featurette the ‘women-chasing-after-Mastroianni’ school of movie -- which almost forms a sub-genre in Italian film all on its own.
Mastroianni in fact straddles two very contrasting Italian cinematic heritages here: there is the above popular one -- forged through his numerous appearances in traditional la commedia all'italiana flicks like “Divorce Italian Style” (1961); but there is also the prestige art house legacy for which he is largely known abroad, thanks to the actor’s inextricable association with the work of Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni after having been cast in some of their most internationally well-known films of the sixties -- “La Dolce Vita” (1960), “8 1/2”(1963) and “La Notte” (1961). He is perfectly at home in this movie, then, on both counts; for not only does the playful tone and glossy modernist sheen presented on the screen in “The 10th Victim” allow him to fulfil and partially satirise his familiar tragi-comic role in Italian cinema as the cool, slightly world-weary leading man beset by amorous complications and troublesome relations with women in impossibly glamorous surroundings, but director Elio Petri surrounds himself for the project with collaborators drawn from the same pool of talent also frequently dipped into by both Fellini and Antonioni, bringing an intellectual sophistication and a sharp sense of absurdist humour to the film’s modernist presentation of a futuristic world that, like most visions of things to come, is actually all about the age it was made in, and in this case forms a typically Italian leftist satirical attack upon the postwar consumer culture of the ‘60s -- even if it’s one whose cool, attractive surfaces the film quite deliberately also worships. As well as co-scripting this adaptation, Petri’s long-standing writing partner Tonino Guerra had a hand in penning two of Antonioni’s similarly vexed, though more intellectually recondite, existential reflections upon similar subject matter: “ L'Avventura" (1960) and “Blow Up” (1966); while between them, the film’s other credited writing contributors, Ennio Flaiano and Giorgio Salvioni, worked with Fellini and Antonioni respectively on “Casanova 70” (1965), “8 ½”, “La Dolce Vita” and Antonion’s “la Notte”. That’s quite a serious pedigree for something that appears on paper to be (and indeed in some sense is) merely a cheaply made campy comic-strip sci-fi caper.
The movie’s delineation of this sleek bright world of Space Age optimism is forged in minimalist architectural and interior design, combined with eye-popping Op Art décor, futuristic André Courrèges-inspired haut couture adorned with Mondrian rectangles and chevron patterns, and zesty primary coloured Pop Art surfaces (in other words the epitome of 60s kitsch). For this is a world in which war has been abolished but TV and advertising are everything. It is a dystopia, but one in which you are seduced into passivity and acceptance by a consumer-led capitalist society that has been formed in the image of contemporary modern art wall hangings and sterile interiors perpetually polished to a pitch of glossy magazine advertisement perfection. It’s as though the work of Richard Hamilton had been made the founding principle of an aesthetics created especially for this uber-clean and impeccably formalised technological society, where social governance is conducted on game show principles set by two box-like, ticker tape-spewing, monotone voiced computers, sitting in an empty room in Geneva. In order to deal with the natural human impulses of aggression that have now been displaced with the abolition of war, a form of legalised murder has been implemented in its place, for those who choose to partake, which the rest of the population now consumes as its entertainment. The Ministry of the Big Hunt oversees the worldwide administration of the rules governing this game, in which globe-trotting contestants are randomly assigned by computer to play against each other as either victim or hunter, but must survive ten successive rounds while alternating between the two roles. In this game, a hunter is furnished with every possible detail about the appearance and habits of his/her quarry, while the potential victim knows nothing about who is coming after them, and must live by their wits alone. In order to win a round, each must kill the other before they themselves are killed, whilst obeying the long list of rules about where and when such kills are authorised to be made. Anyone who survives ten successive rounds wins $1 million dollars and the adulation of the masses -- as well as a state provided automobile, travel discounts, free entry to all the top shows and life-long exemption from taxes!
The film starts with Ursula Andress -- looking possibly the most glamorous she has ever looked on the cinema screen -- in her ninth round as victim Caroline Meredith, being chased around the streets of New York by a rather hapless hunter who ends up succumbing to her weaponized silver bra while watching her perform a masked striptease routine in a minimalist white-walled jazz club. This campy opener sets the comic-book tone that predominates throughout the rest of the film and allows characters to come back from the dead because they turn out to be wearing ‘skin coloured body armour’ or others to be blown up bloodlessly by exploding spurs fitted to their boots during a horse racing event. The actual plot is as frivolous and arbitrary as any Carry On comedy, but played straight with a knowing ironic twinkle, similar in fact to the tone of cult sixties shows like “The Prisoner” or “The Avengers” but with a continental feel all of its own thanks to a dizzyingly upbeat jazz waltz score written by Piero Piccioni (which reoccurs in various guises every five minutes until it curdles your brains into psychedelic sludge), and a stylised, pop-conscious art direction by “L'Avventura” and “L'Eclisse” (1962) production designer Piero Poletto, which lends the movie the clean, primary coloured comic-strip look of a ‘60s Gerry Anderson series such as “Thunderbirds” or “Captain Scarlet”, where the colour red hardly ever appears and deaths are always clean and efficient ‘TV show’ killings, with no blood or bullet wounds visible.
Meredith’s successful elimination of her last hunter on her ninth round means that she herself now enters her tenth and final iteration of the Big Hunt as a (considerably more glamorous) hunter, after having by this time acquired quite a sizable fan-base that avidly follows all her exploits. This also attracts companies hopeful of including her in promotional advertisements for their products. The Ming Tea Company (‘Ming Tea Makes Better Lovers’) is the lucky corporation that gets awarded Meredith’s contract, and its bigwigs come up with the idea of actually incorporating her final kill into a glossy TV show promotional advertising campaign, providing her with all the resources she needs in order to complete her task, including a fleet of helicopters, industrious researchers, and a camera crew who take her out to Rome on a Pan-Am flight to track down her Italian victim, the disenchanted Marcello Poletti (Mastroianni), a playboy ex-cult leader whose just successfully completed his seventh round as a hunter.
With his hair dyed blond while he affects a nonchalant disinterest in his own fate due to being fed up with his shrewish wife (who won’t give him a divorce) and a beautiful but hectoring mistress who takes the ravishing form of Elsa Martinelli, Mastroianni ambles despondently through a futuristic, sunlit Roman landscape in which the city’s ancient tourist spots vie with angular modernist rooftop leisure bars and a high-tech legalised brothel that looks like a cross between a religious retreat, a health clinic and an art gallery. Poletti is the main conduit for the film’s satire on Italian society, but it’s filtered through a tongue-in-cheek cynicism about both the country’s traditionalism and wider contemporary fears of technology-led consumerist values corrupting the modern psyche in a synthetic world, resulting in a film that plays like a Romantic comedy-thriller written by Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno. Here in this future of pretty but sterile surfaces, Poletti’s main source of affection becomes a bizarre little Bruce Lacey-style robo-pet called Thomas, which has creepy doll’s hands attached to its legs for providing soothing massages; he and Italians in general continue to live with their aged parents after marriage (as is traditional), but on the quiet -- having them sealed off in their own little section of the house behind a sliding screen, as though they didn’t exist at all.
In order to fulfil the sponsorship terms she’s signed up to, Meredith can’t just shoot her prey dead on the spot as soon as she tracks him down, but has to lure him instead to one of Rome’s great ancient monuments, The Temple of Venus. This tourist hotspot is to become the site of a tacky tea commercial, full of dancing tea-cups and cheerleaders coached to start chanting ironically ‘drink Ming tea and you live longer’ at the very moment Meredith makes her million dollar kill whilst being filmed. Of course, the whole time they are diffidently flirting and circling each other in order to suss each other out, the couple are also inadvertently falling in love; and yet they are still locked in to the alienated, adversarial mind-set prescribed by the Big Hunt. Meredith and Poletti’s relationship becomes a perverse courtship dance, and a grand televised spectacle during which Poletti and his attorney (played by the priest in “Don’t Look Now”, Massimo Serato) at one point set a counter-trap for Poletti’s hunter which involves catapulting her into a luxury swimming pool with an unfed alligator in it, and Meredith and her crew have to respond by attempting all sorts of mind games to try and win back his trust.
Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo (Fellni’s “8 ½” and “Juliet of the Spirits” ) makes every exquisitely composed image look like a pristine Roy Lichtenstein comic-book panel: apartments are filled with contemporary George Segal-style sculptures, garish synthetic furniture and Bridget Riley mimicking OP Art paintings, while the only available reading matter consists of colour-coordinated comic-books (It’s a joke in the film that these comics are considered valuable, but in fact many of the titles seen are indeed now expensive vintage classics!). Meanwhile, religion becomes a transparently money-making aesthetic enterprise, its worship practices akin to Situationist happenings (Poletti tries to start a cult of Sunset Worshippers on the beach but gets exposed by killjoy ‘neo-realists’ -- hence his entry into the Big Hunt). Some viewers find the escalation of comic-strip absurdity in the final act off-putting, but it’s a logical extension of the movie’s themes -- based around the fetishism of commodity and the society of spectacle -- to have any narrative tension that has previously been built up suddenly dissolve in a colourful splash of comic pop exuberance, and careen off the rails into slapdash whimsy for the hell of it. Whatever one feels about its last ten minutes, this is undoubtedly a masterfully executed piece of ‘60s pop cinema that now carries much nostalgia value, easily outshining most of its rivals despite a reduced budget that saw Petri having to snatch the exteriors for the opening New York section in two days of rushed location filming with a three-man skeleton crew.
This Shameless Entertainment dual format edition features a superb HD transfer of the movie with the choice of English or Italian audio tracks (the latter with English subtitles) and comes with a trailer, a photo gallery of posters and lobby cards, 13 minutes of trailers for other similar Shameless Euro-Pop titles, and a lovely 27 minute documentary featurette called “Elio Petri: A Subject for Further Study”, in which Petri’s widow Paola talks about her husband’s films and about the making of “The 10th Victim” while critic Kim Newman makes a valiant case for the elevation of the director’s work to the front ranks of critical attention and study. This is indeed a visually striking, mordantly funny, keenly observed piece of satirical filmmaking with one of Ursula Andress’s best screen roles in it. A highly recommended Pop Art must-see.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!