Elio Petri: The Assassin

The Assassin
The Assassin

Aka L’assassin (Fr), Trauen Sie Alfredo einen Mord zu? (WG), L’assassino (It)
Italy / France
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 contati (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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