“L’Assassino” was the accomplished debut feature of an Italian director who has only recently started to come to the attention of critics and connoisseurs of cult European cinema. Although he was always a highly politically motivated filmmaker, much of Elio Petri’s known work spans areas more readily associated these days with that of the Italian populists of the 60s and 70s, such as Bava, Freda or Margheriti; dealing in crime thriller territory, with murder mystery, pulp science fiction dystopia and psycho-sexually charged horror also being prominent among the genres his work went on to tackle in films such as “The 10th Victim” and “A Quiet Place in the Country” -- the latter being a warped haunted house story that’s more informed by Herbert Marcus than Edgar Allan Poe, with Franco Nero and Vanessa Redgrave in the lead roles.
For underpinning Petri’s often darkly humorous handling of such fare, there is always an uncompromising commitment to a leftist political agenda rooted in a potent mixture of Marxist and Freudian thinking which relates personal psychology to wider social conditions, and which soon catapults what starts out sounding like conventional genre work into an artistically original, surreally hallucinogenic socio-political sphere all of its own -- equally as compelling and progressively modernist in its own way as the worlds invented by Fellini, Antonioni and Pasolini, yet quite distinct from these, his better known contemporaries, thanks to Petri’s barbed critique of the often brutally schizophrenic, authoritarian political history underpinning the ideological nature of Italy’s post-war capitalist boom in the 1950s, which Petri tends to address through a lens that melds neo-realist social realism with increasingly outré depictions of the subjective existential crises afflicting his beleaguered protagonists as they’re set adrift in a politically and psychologically schismatic consumerist free-for-all.
Despite his 1970 film, “Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion”, winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Petri’s name failed to become as internationally well-known as auteurist compatriots such as Marco Bellocchio or Bernardo Bertolucci … and as his films began to fall out of distribution they largely (his pop art sci-fi satire “The 10th Victim”, starring Ursula Andress, aside) eluded the attention of those who might have been inclined to champion his distinctive cause, as tangled rights issues for many years prevented the majority of them appearing on DVD. This is a state of affairs that leaves a rich vein of diverse yet thematically strong and artistically original pictures yet to be discovered en masse by today’s collectors, as scattered retrospective seasons of screenings of Petri’s dozen-or-so films -- and, lately, a steady trickle of DVD/Blu-ray releases -- finally, step-by-step, begins to be make his filmography more widely available to all.
If this, Petri’s first major feature film, which is now being released in the UK by Arrow Academy in a superb dual-format package featuring a re-mastered HD edition restored by Cineteca di Bologna, strikes one as an extraordinarily confident debut, the fact is this low-key, almost Kafkaesque 1961 character study of an upwardly mobile antiques dealer with rapine tendencies (played by Marcello Mastroianni) -- who, after coming under suspicion of murdering his wealthy older socialite mistress and benefactor, has his carefully cultivated image of bourgeois sophistication gradually stripped away and revealed as a hollow sham by the tactics of the investigating police authorities -- comes as the result of a lengthy apprenticeship spent under the wing of Italian neorealist filmmaker Giuseppe De Santis during the 1950s.
Petri belonged among the small percentage of Italian directors drawn to address the plight of the proletariat in a postwar/post-Fascist Italian landscape, who actually came from the kind of non-privileged background depicted in their films, his father being an artisan Coppersmith with strong Communist sympathies and his mother a committed Catholic. Petri himself combined left political leanings with a burgeoning interest in film criticism during a stint as a journalist for the left-wing newspaper L'Unità, founded in 1924 by philosopher Antonio Gramsci as the official newspaper of the Italian Communist Party, but later suppressed under Mussolini until the Allies eventually liberated Rome in June 1944. He broke into the film industry through his screenwriter friend Gianni Puccini’s introduction to De Santis, and worked as an un-credited assistant director on the neorealist’s classic 1949 picture “Bitter Rice”, before embarking on a long collaboration with De Santis, developing his scripts as well as continuing to hone his own talents as an assistant or second unit director on De Santis’s next few movies. Petri also directed and wrote several documentary shorts which belonged very much to the neorealist school and showed a leftist slant despite his recent break with the Italian Communist Party over the Soviet invasion of Hungary in response to the uprising of 1956.
His own advance into feature films came after developing a working relationship with the dialect poet and novelist Tonino Guerra, who went on to become one of the great Italian screenwriters, famous for his lengthy association with Michelangelo Antonioni on most of his best known films, but also for collaborations with Beppe De Santis, Federico Fellini and Andrei Tarkovsky, among many more. Guerra helped Petri come up with the scenario for a film called “Numbered Days” about a Plummer’s attempts to escape the daily grind of the rat race, but it was their sophisticated police investigation drama “L’Assassino”, largely set on the drab outskirts of Rome and in the coastal province of Tor San Lorenzo, and released within months of Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” and Antonioni’s “La Notte”, which was the first of their projects to gain financial backing. With this intricate drama, Guerra helped shape the themes and interests that Petri’s films would address again and again through a host of diverse genre forms; but “L’Assassino” offers a streamlined character study which, by way of the traditional police procedural format, turns into a clever examination of Italy’s fractured social, political and moral landscape in the late-fifties and early-sixties: years when the country’s economic miracle was bringing higher standards of living for a burgeoning middle-class, yet only lightly papering over the deep ideological divisions between left and right wrought from the bitter aftermath of the Second World War.
The film begins like a cool black & white noir classic, with Mastroianni, working at the height of his jaded Latin Lover screen persona in playing the handsome, money-orientated playboy Alfredo Martelli, returning at dawn from what turns out to have been an assignation with his wealthy married lover Adalgisa de Matteis (Micheline Presle), and steeling through a deserted Piazza to get to his small, antique-cluttered Rome apartment; then falling asleep in the bath to the smoky sax-and-piano jazz slink of composer Piero Piccioni’s catchy title cue while in the middle of preparations to catch a train to the Tuscan city of Lucca, where he plans to secretly elope with the daughter of an even wealthier industrialist who’s quiet unaware of Martelli’s designs on his heiress daughter, Christina (Antonella Nogara).
These facts about Martelli’s romantic entanglements will actually come to light slightly later in the narrative, during the relentless probings of the doughty Commissioner Palumbo (Salvo Randone – a reliable character actor who would soon become a re-occurring face in Petri’s filmography) who Martelli finds himself up against after a sinister gathering of rain-coated heavies converge on his apartment to arrest him for the suspected murder of the older lover he’d been with just hours before. The fact that Martelli’s dealings in the antique business may not always be as legitimate as they at first appear is immediately signposted by the fact that he initially mistakes these detectives for Mafioso (because of their Sicilian accents), although this is an association the director is also consciously keen to point out … which is one of the reasons the film was so heavily censored in Italy at the time, with ninety cuts made before its release because of concerns about its depiction of authority. For although the film takes a detailed and unsparing critique of the amoral lifestyle of its protagonist as its central theme, using the device of a murder investigation to lay bare every aspect of Martelli’s upbringing in the 1930s and his development from childhood through to middle-aged would-be sophisticate (‘it will be necessary to understand who you are,’ Palumbo tells the flustered prisoner soon after revealing the reason for his detention) , it almost incidentally but very pertinently does this by highlighting the shady workings of a modern police authority whose methods smack of Orwellian control and entrapment, in a system that presumes guilt before innocence.
Alfredo is spirited back to the Rome Police squad’s central station and, during the following twenty-four-hour period of detailed questioning which forms the context of the rest of the content of the film, is subjected to all sorts of cunning methods of examination designed to reveal his already presumed guilt. Initially he’s left alone in what appears to be a normal waiting room, but which is actually fitted out with one-way mirrors to facilitate observation of his increasingly nervy and suspicious behaviour; afterwards, Commissioner Palumbo’s interview room is revealed to be bugged so that teams of detectives can listen in and check up on Martelli’s story in real-time. Later in the day, after having visited the crime scene, Martelli is locked in a dank prison cell for the night with two self-confessed murderers secretly instructed to urge him to admit to his guilt, then subjected to an intense interview by two more detectives in a semi-darkened room with an Anglepoise lamp shining in his eyes, during an interview whose method smacks of the Gestapo approach. The then-current operation of the law is clearly being connected on a continuum to Italy’s authoritarian past in such scenes, a fact further clarified when Palumbo mentions Martelli’s family connections to partisans during the war as though this is a factor that renders him even more suspicious.
In fact, in a series of flashbacks dotted throughout Martelli’s day-and-night-long interrogation, we come to see just how devoid of moral scruple or loyalty to his family or its political past Alfredo Martelli actually is. The viewer does not know for sure whether or not Martelli is the murderer, but we see how his nouveaux riche lifestyle has been built up through a cynical exploitation of his surroundings, leading to a callous disregard for others as he turns his scrap business into a exclusive antique-selling boutique via a side-line as a loan shark, and even proves himself willing to act as pimp to the naive, lovelorn maid who works at the hotel owned by his benefactor and lover. An early incident from boyhood, when he plays a cruel trick on his antifascist Grandfather who lives in fear of retribution for his Communist sympathies, is only the first of many flashbacks to show Alfredo’s self-centred and often ruthless behaviour (a later collection of imitation vox populi-style police interviews with older citizens of the city who can remember Martelli in his youth, reinforces his image as a capitalist go-getter even as a youngster). We see how his business has been founded on cheating the very people who liberated the country from oppression, but who are now, in the poverty of old-age, reduced to selling him their heirlooms and possessions for a fraction of their true value in order just to support them-selves. But the film is at most pains to point out how Martelli’s entrepreneurial drive in the present day is bound together with his dishonest relationships with women in a nexus of social change that leads to corruption in both realms – infidelity, cheating and disloyalty increasingly becoming the norm in Martelli’s conduct of romantic ties as his dependence on the patronage of his wealthy lover de Matteis (the former wife of his betrayed best friend) for the support of his antiques business, leads him into debt leveraged by his continued sexual servitude to her, even while he pursues other financial options in the bed of the wealthy younger heiress he hopes to secretly marry without her powerful father’s interference. The murder victim is as equally locked as Martelli into a pattern of similar exploitation (for this is a sign of the times), in business as well as in her sexual relations with an economically disadvantaged underling working as a waiter at the hotel -- thus turning her private life into quite a tangle to be sorted through by the police investigation.
Immaculately shot in frosty monochrome by one of Michelangelo Antonioni’s and Woody Allen’s favoured cinematographers Carlo Di Palma, “L’Assassino” shows the beginnings of a daring directorial imagination in the process of finding its bearings; and although the film’s quietly realistic study of character and social relations in a specific contemporary milieu might seem rather pedestrian subject matter when compared to the provocative showiness of later films in the Petri filmography, the director manages to come up with some wonderfully imaginative ways of illustrating how Martelli’s past has wrought all that the present brings, particularly in the film’s central section which is set in the beachfront Hotel resort that victim Adalgisa de Matteis had bought controlling shares in just before her death, and which has now become the site of her murder. In a series of extended, continuous single shots without cuts, the camera roves between rooms as Commissioner Palumbo attempts to learn what transpired the last time Martelli met the victim there. Using an idea taken up recently by Uruguayan filmmaker Gustavo Hernández in the film “La casa muda”, and repeated in its North American remake “Silent House” by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, Petri flashes back and forth between the past and the present several times without cutting or editing, requiring some incredibly complex choreography and intricate timing by the cast and the crew, particularly Mastroianni who has to appear in both past and present sequences, thus requiring not only several quick changes of clothing proving necessary, but that a complete transformation in emotional temperature has to be effected by him within a matter of seconds! The whole section is a tour de force for all concerned and must have been an incredibly technically challenging feat to pull off back in 1960.
This delux Blu-ray and DVD combo pack features an outstanding restoration for HD considering this is a little-known film and Petri’s name is still not that well-known outside of Italy. Arrow Academy’s release features a ten minute introduction to the film and to Petri’s career by Italian cinema expert Pasquale Iannone, plus a 52 minute Italian television documentary about the late screenwriter Tonino Guerra, “A Poet in the Movies”, shot four years before the poet, novelist and screenwriter’s death, which consists of footage of Guerra in his rural home -- where he spent most of his time working on his painting and living with his wife and numerous cats and dogs -- recalling his numerous collaborations with a multitude of great filmmakers as well as the formative experiences (which obviously fed into works as diverse as “L’Assassino” and his late masterwork, Fellini’s “Amacord”) as a young man when he was interred in a prison camp in Germany for being an antifascist. There is also a theatrical trailer for “L’Assassino” and the release comes with a booklet featuring writing by Elio Petri expert Camilla Zamboni, Petri’s own critical analysis of 1950s Italian cinema, plus a selection of contemporary reviews. You also get a reversible sleeve option featuring the choice of original poster artwork or a new piece commissioned from artist Jay Shaw.
“L’Assassion” makes for a fascinating addition to the collections of anyone interested in Italian and European cinema during its heyday at the start of the 1960s, slotting in perfectly alongside the work of Fellini and Antonioni during this period, but also feeling akin to the coming wave of gialli initiated in 1963 by Mario Bava with “La ragazza che sapeva troppo”, especially with its depiction of Italian morals mired in sexual obsession, greed and financial corruption. A worthwhile purchase for all cineaste students of the period.
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