Directed by Maurizio Lucidi (somebody please release his "Blood and Roses", please!) this 1971 Italian thriller takes the central premise of Hitchcock's "Stranger's on a Train" but gives it that frisson of Italian style. In fact, everything from Patricia Highsmith's original story is gone, apart from the idea of two people "swapping" murders in order to commit the perfect untraceable crime. Among the six (!) credited writers for the screenplay is the name Aldo Lado, a writer and director who always managed to bring psychological depth to his own '70s gialli output such as "Night of the Glass Dolls" and "Night Train Murders", both of which made political allegory out of exploitation thriller story elements. The languid pacing and a hint of metaphor in the way Lucidi unwinds the almost dreamlike story, places "The Designated Victim" firmly in the same section of cult gialli as everything in Lado's small filmography.
Italian thriller favourite Tomas Milian plays Stefano Argenti: co-owner of an Italian advertising agency who wants to sell his half of the business and fly off to foreign climes with his lover, flame-haired model Fabienne (Katia Christine). The one small obstacle to this idea is Stefano's neurotic but steely wife (another red-haired lady), Luisa (Marisa Bartoli)! Unfortunately for Stefano his wife is no fool; she suspects he's probably having an affair and doesn't plan on standing aside while she's defrauded out of her share of the couple's livelihood. But while taking a vacation in Venice with Fabienne, Stefano repeatedly encounters the dandyish figure of Count Matteo Tiepolo. The ensuing friendship between the two men is portrayed in an unusual way, and it might be here that the influence of Aldo Lado can perhaps most be felt in the film.
Actor Pierre Clementi plays the foppish but dangerous Count. And with his curly, flowing locks, Mick Jagger-like looks and a sharp but outlandish dress sense (when Stefano first encounters him in a Venetian square, Tiepolo sports a perfectly tailored suit accompanied by hooded opera cape and red woolly hat with earflaps!) he looks unnervingly like an especially effete Russell Brand! Square-jawed Tomas Milian, meanwhile, was well known at this time for playing rather macho, lone-wolf rolls in a succession of thrillers and Italian westerns. One would expect his character to take exception to the almost stalkerish attentions of his peculiar new associate, but instead their friendship is portrayed almost as a kind of infatuation, Stefano seeming flattered by Tiepolo's ministrations! Even when Tiepolo suggest his plan that they should swap murders -- he killing Stefano's troublesome wife while Stefano repays the favour by killing Tiepolo's mysterious but violent brother -- Stefano doesn't seem outwardly perturbed, despite rejecting the idea outright.
The two men continue to meet, taking "romantic" walks among the weather-worn vistas of a picturesque Venice and exchanging "flirty" repartee in a flower shop. The gay subtext of Hitchcock's treatment of the original Highsmith story had always to remain buried beneath layers of subtle Freudian allusion, but it is quite obvious what is being suggested here in this version! Although Stefano apparently wants to swap his domineering red-haired wife for another woman -- who looks almost exactly the same! -- perhaps he's only really hiding from himself; the Count is possibly just a symbolic alter-ego who stands for and represents Stefano's true nature. The men bond further when a badly beaten Tiepolo explains the relationship between himself and his unseen brother: a violent brute who says he wants to destroy his more gentle, effeminate brother. This unseen brother takes on the symbolic role of the traditional macho Italian male, much like the kind of person Milian would normally be seen playing in his other films! Stefano must destroy this version of himself, while his alter-ego discards his wife, in order to find his true identity. This very Aldo Lado-style metaphorical underpinning works well and the film's almost romantic first half gets darker after Luisa really does turn up dead and Tiepolo starts blackmailing Stefano -- threatening to plant evidence linking him to the crime if he doesn't go through with his side of their "bargain".
The film successfully maintains a careful balance throughout between its allegorical examination of the male psyche in flux and the more traditional thriller demands of the plot. One final twist is unveiled in the closing seconds of the film and although it might leave viewers who have not grasped the deeper themes at play feeling slightly baffled, it's a fitting denouement -- if a rather unexpected and unusual, almost experimental way to end a film.
Shameless have striven to produce the ultimate "fan edition" of this title, even providing the disc with a number of extras and both the Italian soundtrack, with newly translated English subtitles, and the English dub track. The film, which is presented in its 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamophic enhancement looks great for the most part, with only the occasional nick or blemish of the image. Because Shameless have had to compile this completed version from a number of sources, some of them of poor quality, the film sometimes (only a few times) alters aspect ratio and the colour balance changes; but this is unavoidable considering the poor quality video source of the replaced rare material. Extras include a photo gallery, deleted scenes, the original theatrical trailer and a Shameless "original" trailer. There is also an on screen text commentary track which provides a wealth of facts and trivia on the cast and crew.
Alongside the Shameless release of "The Frightened Woman" "The Designated Victim" is an essential rarity which all fans of cult euro cinema will need to snap up.