Elio Petri: The Assassin

The Assassin

The Assassin

Aka L’assassin (Fr), Trauen Sie Alfredo einen Mord zu? (WG), L’assassino (It)
Italy / France
1961
A Franco Cristaldi production for Titanus, Vides Cinematografica & S.G.C. (Paris)
Director: Elio Petri
Story: Antonio Guerra, Elio Petri
Screenplay: Pasquale Festa Campanile, Massimo Franciosa, Elio Petri, Tonio Guerra
Cinematography: Carlo Di Palma
Music: Piero Piccioni, the song ‘Rose’ by Salvador & Michel, ‘Come sinfonia’ by Pino Donaggio and sung by Mina
Editor: Ruggero Mastroianni
Art director: Carlo Egidi
Cameraman: Dario Di Palma
Release dates & running times: Italy (01/04/61), France (63), West Germany (05/10/62, 97 mins), UK (63, 105 mins), US (61)
Filmed: Titanus-Farnesina Studios
Italian takings: 251.000.000 lire
Cast: Marcello Mastroianni (Nello Poletti), Micheline Presle (Adalgisa De Matteis), Cristina Gajoni (Antonella Nogara), Salvo Randone (Commissioner Palumbo), Andrea Checchi (Morello), Giovanna Gagliardo (Rosetta), Carlo Egidi (Nello’s friend), Paolo Panelli (Paolo), Toni Ucci (Toni), Marco Mariani (Commissioner Margiotta), Franco Ressel (Dr. Francesconi), Franco Freda (a tramp), Mac Ronay (a suicide), Max Cartier (Bruno), Francesco Grandjaquet (an old man), Corrado Zingaro, Ubaldo Mecacci, Loris Bazzocchi, Giuliano Montaldo, Lucia Raggi, Lina Ferri, Silvio Bastionelli
IMDB also credits: Bruno Scipioni, Eugenio Maggi, Enrico Maria Salerno (uncredited), Corrado Zingaro (uncredited)

After making two shorts, Nasce un campione (54) and I sette contadini (59), Petri made his full debut with The Assassin (L’assassino, 61), based on a script co-written with Tonino Guerra (with whom he would later collaborate on several films) (3).  The Assassin is a small-scale, jazzy little number that bears some debt to the French new wave films that were being produced by Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and so on.  It is also, like the following year’s I giorni contato (62), very much an intimate tale; the story of a man trying to do something a little out of the ordinary, and the profound effect – or lack thereof – that it has upon his life.

The ‘hero’ of the piece is Alfredo Martelli, a moderately wealthy playboy who runs a dodgy antiques business. Martelli is hardly the most sympathetic of leads, but as played by Marcello Mastroianni he certainly looks cool.  The plot kicks of when his wealthy mistress and benefactor, Adalgisa (the striking Micheline Presle) is found murdered.  The evidence all points to him as the killer: he was the last person to see her alive, owed her a large amount of money and, most damning of all, is all set to marry the much younger, much richer and much dumber Nicoletta (Cristina Gajoni).

Arrested by the police and questioned by the dogged Commissioner Palumbo (Salvo Randone), Martelli claims that Adalgisa had been content with their casual relationship and had even gone so far as to suggest the marriage to Nicoletta as a way of prolonging their affair.  On that last night he claims that they made love and then he left her.  If that is the case, though, just who killed her?

Marcello Mastroianni faces up to the Italian justice system in The Assassin

Marcello Mastroianni faces up to the Italian justice system in The Assassin

Despite the synopsis, Petri isn’t really interested in the giallo element of the plot – indeed, when the murderer is finally unmasked the revelation is entirely understated.  The mystery is simply a hook by which he can address his main concern: the protagonist’s unwavering egoism.

Flashbacks show a variety of ways in which Martelli treated other people badly.  He buys stolen goods from a desperate housebreaker for a meager sum, selling them on to shallow aristocrats at a vastly marked up price.  He taunts a drunkard trying to pull an insurance scam, causing the man to kill himself in a fit of depression.  He fools a shy maid into taking off her clothes by persuading a lecherous friend to pose as a doctor.  He, and this is the crunch one for an Italian audience, treats his mother with disrespect.  After each instance he’s shown to be momentarily regretful, only to carry on doing exactly the same things.  It is suggested that after the trauma of being imprisoned he will just go back to his old ways, and even use the temporary discomfort and notoriety (of being ‘The Lady Killer’) to further extend his selfishness.

As Petri explained: “It was the boom years of easy and quick enrichment, and my protagonist was a working class man who, in order to ‘arrive’, has abandoned his moral scruples.  The inquiry he undertakes is an examination of his own conscience, because the morals that he mimes he doesn’t have any more, and that’s because they weren’t present in the society he was bought up in and that ‘produced’ him.  I was much influenced in that period, and perhaps still am, by existentialist philosophy, and I believe you can see this in the film.”

Despite a strong start, The Assassin does go off the boil in the second half, especially once the investigation decamps from the police station to the seaside hotel at which Adalgisa had lived.  Considering that it was his debut, however, Petri’s direction is remarkably assured – and is greatly aided by the capable work of his regular editor, Ruggero Mastroianni (3).  Mastroianni recalled: “Petri and I gave all of our films a diverse rhythym and we adapted a totally new technique for editing The Assassin, just like Godard was doing with A Bout de Souffle.  Because we hadn’t seen his film, though, we were only able to compare them later.”

Marcello Mastroianni comes across a victim of The Assassin

Marcello Mastroianni comes across a victim of The Assassin

As with all of his films there are some great comic moments, especially the sequence in which Palumbo watches his increasing nervous suspect from behind a two-way mirror.  Another nicely played moment finds Martelli attempting to prove his innocence by demonstrating that his dog wouldn’t bark at him under any circumstances; an exercise that is staggeringly unsuccessful.

Despite its eventual success, The Assasin actually had a somewhat difficult production history.  Originally intended as a star vehicle for Nino Manfredi, it was close to being shelved until Mastroianni stepped in.  Having previously worked with Petri on projects such as Giorni d’amore, he used the fact that he was at the end of a low paid contract with Titanus Studio Chief Goffredo Lombardo and producer Franco Cristaldi in order to fight off attempts to have someone with more experience bought in as director.  ‘I had absolutely no hesitation in working with [Petri]’, he has said, ‘I’m glad that I didn’t, because The Assassin was very well made and had considerable success.’

There were also considerable problems with the censors, who had several major issues with the film, mainly to do with alleged misrepresentation of the police.  These included: the scene in which Martelli is held in a police cell along with an informer, who is there with the sole purpose of entrapping him; the police being protrayed as speaking with Neapolitan or Sicilian accents; and a sequence in which a policeman, after muddying some stairs with his dirty shoes, calls upon a caretaker to clear them up.  Petri wasn’t happy with this: “…I argued that it was impossible to cut anything, but it was my first film and I wanted it to come out at Pasqua, so I just did as much as I could, and was very active arguing my case with journalists.  I regret very much having accepted these conditions now, and perhaps if it had been three years later I wouldn’t have done so.  But if, at the time I’d stamped my feet, I know the film would have been blocked.”

Marcello Mastroianni looks customarily cool in The Assassin

Marcello Mastroianni looks customarily cool in The Assassin

(2)Tonino Guerra stands as one of the key postwar Italian scriptwriters, having worked with just about every reputable European director since emerging in the late 50s (including non-Italians such as Theo Angelopoulos and Andrei Tarkovsky).  Born in 1920 in Sant’Arcangelo, he began his career by writing novels and poetry before working on his first screenplay.  As he recalls: “I often came to Rome.  I didn’t go to Rimini for my holidays, but Rome, about once a year.  I’d become very good friends with Vespignani [painter Renzo Vespignani], who I’d met and we liked each other very much.  And one time when I came to see him there was a group of people from Portonaccio.  There was Petri, Fulci, and many others, a group of Romans who were also well known in Santarcangelo.  When [Aglauco] Casadio was due to make his debut with Un ettaro di cielo (59), they needed someone to work on the script with Petri.  Since they knew my poetry, they asked me if I fancied contributing, so I did.”

Petri & Guerra formed a close working relationship, writing more films for Giuseppe De Santis (The Year Long Road (La strada lunga un anno, 58) & La garçonniere (60)) as well as The Assassin, The Tenth Victim & A Quiet Place in the Country, all of which were directed by Petri.  Still busy today, Guerra has been Oscar-nominated three times (for Casanova ’70 (65), Blowup (66) and Amarcord (73)).

(3)Despite being regularly associated with Antonio Guerra, Ugo Pirro and Ennio Morricone, Petri’s key collaborator was actually Ruggero Mastroianni, who acted as editor on all of his films.  One of the key exponents of an underappreciated – and often ignored art – Mastroianni was born in Rome in 1929 and was the younger brother of the much better known Marcello.  After serving his dues as an assistant editor in the late 1950s, he assembled well over 150 films including Fellini’s Satyricon (69), Visconti’s Death in Venice (Morte a Venezia, 71) and Rosi’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Cronaca di una morte annunciate, 87).  A busy fellow, he was also happy to wield his scissors on a variety of more populist fare, working on several spaghetti westerns and crime films.  He died in 1996.

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Elio Petri: Investigation of a Filmmaker Above Suspicion

Elio Petri and Franco Nero take a breather during filming for A Quiet Place in the Country

Elio Petri and Franco Nero take a breather during filming for A Quiet Place in the Country

For some reason, Elio Petri is a filmmaker who seems to have slipped off the cultural (and counter-cultural) radar.  To the art-house crowd, Italian cinema is composed of the giants – Rossellini, Visconti, Bertolucci, Pasolini – with very little else getting a worthwhile look in.  Among those with a taste for more exploitative fare, you’re more likely to hear discussion of Batzella’s The Devils Wedding Night (Il pleniluno delle virgini, 73) or Bianchi’s Strip Nude for your Killer (Nude per l’assassino, 75) than Property is No Longer Theft (La proprietà non è più un furto, 73).

Some have argued that this is because of repression; Petri was the most political of directors, and his work couldn’t fail but antagonize the authorities in his own homeland.  This is probably a conspiracy too far, though, with it being more likely that the very ‘unclassifiability’ of his films makes them more difficult to pigeonhole within a traditional critical perspective.  Too populist for high culture, too arty for low, he sits with a small group of mavericks – Valerio Zurlini, Carlo Lizzani, Giuliano Montaldo, Damiano Damiani – who attempted to use genre frameworks as a means of conveying their socio-political ideologies.  It could also be something to do with his comparatively early death, in 1982 – at the age of 53 – of cancer, which robbed him of the opportunity to become one of the elder statesmen of Italian cinema.

This relative obscurity is a shame, as his work includes much to interest the casual observer, the cult fanatic and the traditional cineaste.  Oscar nominated for best screenplay in 1972 for Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto, 70), Golden Palm winner at Cannes for The Working Class Goes to Heaven (La classe operaia va in paradise, 71), he regularly scored highly on the festival circuit at the time.  Beyond this, however, his work includes an effective giallo (We Still Kill the Old Way (A ciascuno il suo, 67)), a ghost story (A Quiet Place in the Country (Un tranquillo posto di campagna, 69)) and a number of science fiction pieces (The Tenth Victim (La decimal vittima, 65), Todo Modo (76)).  That so little of this is available to date on DVD is frankly criminal, and it can only be hoped that the situation is remedied before too long.

Born Eraclio Petri on January 29th, 1929 inRome, he grew up in the traditional working–class area of the city, where his father worked as a coppersmith.  He became a committed communist at an early age, which led to his expulsion from Catholic school, and soon found work as a cultural coordinator for the youth arm of the Communist Party.  Like many left-wing Italians he found it difficult to reconcile his socialist beliefs with the reality of Stalin’s Soviet Union, and he left the party after the Hungarian uprising in 1956. By this time he’d made friends with Gianni Puccini(1) (who would go on to make Ballata da un miliardo (67) and The Fury of Johnny Kid (Dove si spara di più, 69)), who introduced him to Giuseppe De Santis, the respected director of neo-realist classic Bitter Rice (Riso amoro, 49). Petri was soon acting as a scriptwriter and assistant to De Santis on Giorni d’amore (54) and Uomini e lupi (56), an experience which went on to have a profound influence upon his later directorial career.

Silvana Mangano and  Yves Montand in Uomini e lupi

Silvana Mangano and Yves Montand in Uomini e lupi

(1) Born on the 19th November 1914 in Milan, Gianni Puccini followed in his father Mario’s footsteps by becoming a scriptwriter, working on Visconti’s Ossessione (43), De Santis’ Bitter Rice (Riso amaro, 49) and numerous other reputable films throughout the forties and fifties.  His directorial career was rather more varied, with his main output being middlebrow comedies like L’impiegato (60) and Amore facile (64), and he was also something of a specialist in contributions for the anthology films that were popular in the late 50s and early 60s (Love in 4 Dimensions (Amore in Quattro dimensioni, 64), The Double Bed (Le lit à deux places, 65)).  Towards the end of his career his work became more varied: I sette fratelli Cervi (67) was a much admired political war film, Ballata da un miliardo (67) a cheesy caper flick and The Fury of Johnny Kid (Dove si spara di più, 69) a  very strange spaghetti western remake of Romeo & Juliet (complete with a leftfield ending that has to be seen to be believed).  Unfortunately, just as things were starting to get really interesting he died of a heart attack on the 3rd December 1968.

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Christopher Roth

Christopher Roth

Christopher Roth

Director: Maxime Alexandre
Writers: Maxime Alexandre, Philippa Goslett
Stars: Aaron Stanford, Joaquim de Almeida, Ben Gazzara

Christopher Roth was the second film directed by Belgian film-maker Maxime Alexandre, who’s better known as a cinematographer on the likes of The Crazies and The Hills Have Eyes. Alexandre obviously has a liking for Italy and Italian cinema: both this and his previous directorial effort Holy Money were filmed in Italy and fall roughly into the giallo genre.

Whereas Holy Money was a twisty-turny thriller revolving around wine cultivation and Catholicism, this is a simpler affair. The plot follows the titular character, a disillusioned horror writer who is finding that his violent imaginings are increasingly intruding into his real life. So he decides to take some time out in Umbria, only to discover that a serial killer called ‘The Boar’ – whose trademark is to inset boar’s teeth into the cheeks of his victims – is active in the area.

As with Holy Money, it’s a technically accomplished but strangely disappointing affair, let down by some shaky acting and an unfocused script. There’s much too much time spent on the musings of the protagonist, and so few other characters that the mystery element never really gets off the ground. Alexandre has promise, but he could really do with an experienced scriptwriting hand to bring out the best in him.

A charming scene from Christopher Roth

A charming scene from Christopher Roth

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Easy Money

Easy Money, aka Snabba Cash

Easy Money, aka Snabba Cash

In recent years, Scandinavian thrillers have been given something of an easy ride. What’s often not pointed out is that – when you dig beneath the gloomy, downbeat exterior of these productions – they’re often, well, a bit… cheesy. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (and assorted sequels) is the greatest example of this, featuring a plot and characters that are more like something that a teenage boy would dream up than a fifty year old Swede; but even the critically impermeable likes of Wallander are full of quite astounding plot leaps that would be frowned upon in British or American productions. Among all this, though, there have been some authentically good films in recent years, and Daniel Espinosa’s Easy Money (based on the novel by Jens Lapidus) is one of them.

The plot follows JW (Joel Kinnaman) a talented business studies student who has a bunch of horrible, rich friends he can’t afford to fit in with. In an attempt to make some money that will keep him in preppy clothes and swigging champagne for the foreseeable future, he becomes involved with a scheme to import a huge shipment of cocaine from Germany along with an escaped convict called Jorge (Matias Varela). However, the local Serbian mafia aren’t happy about this, and charge enforcer Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic) with putting a stop to it. Mrado, however, is becoming disillusioned with his own position and sees it all as the perfect opportunity to double cross his own bosses and make enough money to finance a quiet life in hiding with his young daughter.

This is a slick, fast-paced thriller looks more to the American model than other Scandinavian productions in the way it emphasizes action and movement over gimmickry and shadowy cinematography. JW makes for an interesting protagonist – he’s sympathetic if hardly likable, especially in his inability to see his revolting friends for what they are – and his shifting relationships with Jorge and Mrado have something of James Ellroy about them. The performances are also excellent (especially Matias Varela, who recently was fed to eels in The Borgias). It was hugely successful in Scandinavia, and has spawned two quickfire sequels which weren’t directed by Espinosa (who went on to make the Denzel Washington film Safe House) but do feature much the same cast.

Matias Varela in Easy Money

Matias Varela in Easy Money

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Solitude of Prime Numbers, The

Alba Rohrwacher and Luca Marinelli in The Solitude of Prime Numbers

Alba Rohrwacher and Luca Marinelli in The Solitude of Prime Numbers

Here’s an instructive film. Saverio Costanzo’s The Solitude of Prime Numbers is based on the hugely popular novel of the same name by physicist and writer Paolo Giordano. It’s well made, singular and unlike many Italian productions has subject matter that’s of universal interest (i.e. it’s not about immigration or a vehicle for a popular local comedian). And yet, despite picking up several awards and getting decent reviews in the international film press, it only had the most limited of distribution in the English speaking world, and even today it’s astoundingly difficult to pick up on DVD. What’s going on? Why on earth has this never received any kind of showing in the US or England whereas the most tedious of French comedies or Albanian arthouse movies do? I think it illustrates the incompetence of the Italian distribution companies, who both don’t encourage Italian cinema to have a global perspective and then, when something comes along that could do well in the international markets, they simply don’t know how to do anything with it.

The plot follows two damaged characters who become friends if not exactly lovers at several points in their life. In childhood, Mattia is charged with looking after his autistic sister by his distant parents and, frustrated with always having to cope with her difficult behaviour, leaves her in the park while he attends a friend’s brithday party. She goes missing, never to reappear. Alice, meanwhile, is pushed into skiing dangerously by her damanding father, who wants her to become a champion. After becoming stuck in a whiteout she crashes and permanently damages her leg, leaving her with a limp and a lack of confidence.

They meet when they’re teenagers and Alice – who is bullied by the revolting girls at her school – falls for Mattia. He, however, is a child genius who is completely closed down, consumed by guilt and seemingly devoid of emotions (although his self harm habit indicates that he does have feelings). It takes years for him to finally open up and reveal what happened in his childhood, and at that point he’s about to leave for Germany, to take up a position at a prodigious physics institute.

The Solitude of Prime Numbers

Arianna Nastro and Tommaso Neri in The Solitude of Prime Numbers

The plot, therefore, is something like a more poetic, less optimistic Silver Linings Playbook: these are truly broken characters, too damaged to do anything like form a proper relationship or even acknowledge the need they have for each other. The protagonists aren’t whimsical or even particularly likeable, although you can’t help but feel for the childhood Mattia and the teenage Alice.

What makes The Solitude of Prime Numbers so interesting, though, is the way it is filmed. Despite the story being anything but a horror film, Costanzo very deliberately films it in the style of a nineteen seventies giallo. Fabio Cianchetti’s cinematography apes Vittorio Storaro’s work for Dario Argento (snatches of the music from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage are used as well), most particularly in the scenes in which Mattia discovers his sister has gone missing, and there are references also to The Shining and The Godfather. Faith No More’s Mike Patton provides a soundtrack that plays on the sound of John Carpenter and Goblin, and there’s a perceptible feeling of dread that hangs over it all, despite the fact that not a great deal actually happens.

Costanzo also deserves points for coaxing some good performances from a not particularly well known or experienced cast. The child actors are well handled, especially Tommaso Neri, and Isabella Rossellini has a nice supporting role as his unsympathetic mother. The segueways back and forth in time are sometimes confusing, especially because the parents of the children are all similar looking and never really developed in any way; and the running time is probably twenty minutes too long at just under two hours, especially as the expected climax never really arrives. But nonetheless this is an engrossing, unusual film that should appeal both to the cult circuit (it has a lot of similarities to Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani well received Amer) and the art-house crowd. If they ever get the chance to see it, that is.

Alba Rohrwacher and Luca Marinelli in The Solitude of Prime Numbers

Alba Rohrwacher and Luca Marinelli in The Solitude of Prime Numbers

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Simon Killer

Simon Killer

Simon Killer

Coming from the same production ‘collective’ as the surprise hit Martha Marcy May Marlene, Simon Killer has many of the same themes – sociopathic men, vulnerable women, the small steps that lead towards darkness – and a similar, sinister atmosphere as that film. It lacks, however, the compelling narrative and tight direction leaving it a rather flabby work, albeit one which has moments which stick in the mind.

Simon (Brady Corbett) is an american post-grad who winds up in Paris after his long-term relationship breaks down. Not knowing anyone there, he spends his days wandering around, watching porn on his laptop and listening to (decent) electronic music. Then he enters into a relationship with a sweet-natured prostitute (Constance Rousseau) and comes up with a brilliant scheme of helping her to blackmail her clients; in the meantime he also meets and falls for a student (Lila Salet). But it gradually becomes clear that Simon is a pathological liar whose previous girlfriend left him because of his violent behaviour.

Given its loose plotting and unhurried pacing, this is rather like mumblecore doing horror, and it shares all the same problems that make most mumblecore films so annoying, most particularly the fact that, despite aiming for a tone of gritty realism, it features characters who are simply unbelievable (the tart with a hart, naive student) and a protagonist who is simply dislikeable. Much of it is simply dull, and the repeated scenes of Simon wandering around Paris make for tedious viewing (the cinematography in general has a washed out, dull tone). But some sequences are effective (Simon growing increasingly anxious as his lies catch up with him while he’s at a cafe) and it does powerfully capture a sense of alienation.

Brady Corbet in Simon Killer

Brady Corbet in Simon Killer

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A.D. Project

AD Project

AD Project

I always wondered what had happened to Eros Puglielli, the director of the revivalist giallo Eyes of Crystal in 2004. It was a good enough film to hint that he would go on to better things, but such is the state of the Italian film industry that it was not to be: he now works in television and was recently behind the acclaimed series Baciamo le mani: Palermo-New York 1958. But before moving his focus completely to the small screen he also made AD Project (2006), a micro-budgeted production which was released straight to DVD.

The story follows a group of seemingly random characters who congregate in a small town where some mysterious stuff is going down. There’s actor Marco (Marco Bonini), just arrived for an audition with his frustrated girlfriend (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) in tow; an experimental psychiatrist (Giorgio Albertazzi) whose latest patient (Eleonora Mazzoni) seems to have experienced some kind of unknown trauma and is frankly rather scaring him; her husband (Cristiano Callegaro), who owes money to a mysterious organisation; and a weird porn website owner (Emiliano Reggente). Events slowly build towards a climax at some deserted out of town buildings which are protected by a weird area of high pressure and a shadowy character called ‘the guardian’.

A.D. Project can’t be faulted for it’s ambition. Its budget ($356 according to IMDB) was provided by the cast and crew, who also all act as co-producers, and it was distributed straight to magazine kiosks throughout Italy. Given its limited means, it’s an audacious attempt to do a Dvaid Lynch style story of fractured narratives, weird events and alienated characters. It’s well shot with cinematography that would put many bigger budget features to shame and a suitably creepy atmosphere. Perhaps unsurprisingly the acting can be shakey, the script is often confusing and it seems to run out of steam towards the end. But despite this it’s a laudable effort, and again makes it all the more surprising that Puglielli hasn’t gone on to a more glittering career.

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