Elio Petri: The Tenth Victim

Satire... or premonition? Ursula Andress in The Tenth Victim
The Tenth Victim
The Tenth Victim

Aka La dixième victime (Fr), Das 10.Opfer (WG), La decima vittima (It)
Italy / France
A Carlo Ponti productio for Compagnia Cinematografica Champion (Rome), Films Concordia (Paris)
Director: Elio Petri
Story: Based on the novel ‘The Tenth Victim’ by Robert Sheckley
Screenplay: Tonino Guerra, Giorgio Salvioni, Ennio Flaiano, Elio Petri
Cinematography: Gianni De Venanzo {Technicolor – Widescreen}
Music: Piero Piccioni, the song ‘Spiral Waltz’ by Bardotti, Piccioni and sung by Mina
Editor: Ruggero Mastroianni
Art director: Piero Poletto
Cameraman: Pasqualino De Santis
Release dates & running times: Italy (01/12/65), France (10/02/67, 90 mins), West Germany (05/08/66, 92 mins)
Filmed: Exteriors shot in New York, Rome
Italian takings: 620.000.000 lire
Cast: Marcello Mastroianni (Marcello Polletti), Ursula Andress (Caroline Meredith), Elsa Martinelli (Olga, Marcello’s girlfriend), Salvo Randone (‘the professor’), Massimo Serato (Rossi, Marcello’s lawyer), Milo Quesada (Rudi), Luce Bonifassy (Lidia, Marcello’s wife), George Wang (the Chinese ‘hunter’), Evi Rigano (a victim), Walter Williams (Martin), Richard Armstrong (Cole), Anita Sanders (the masseuse), Mickey Knox (Chet), Antonio Ciani
Uncredited: Jacques Herlin (the game compere), Wolfgang Hillinger (Baron Von Aschenberg)

In 1965, however, Petri released the film that remains his best known work today.  Based on a novel by Robert Sheckley, The Tenth Victim represented a marked sea change in his oeuvre.  Gone was the low key, wry approach of his former films: this is a brash, colorful production that exudes extravagance from it’s every pore.  From the sets to the effects, from the cast to the marketing, this was a big film with big intentions.  This was partly due to the involvement of Carlo Ponti, a producer who had achieved considerable success with large-scale international productions (he also made Operation Crossbow and Dr Zhivago the same year), although quite how he became involved with the more leftfield Petri would be interesting to know.

It is the 21st Century, and violence has been legalized in the form of ‘the hunt’, a game in which people track down and kill each other.  All participants play ten games – five as a ‘hunter’, five as the ‘hunted’ – and each game is composed of two players (one ‘hunter’, one ‘hunted’), chosen electronically by computer.  Only one player can survive.  The winner receives a cash prize, and if they win ten games they receive great honor and prestige, as well as a cool million dollars.  The idea of all this is that it acts as an outlet for humankind’s innate aggression, thereby making war and criminal violence unnecessary.

Two of the greatest players are Marcello Polletti (Marcello Mastroianni) and Caroline Meredith (Ursula Andress), so it’s almost inevitable when the former is chosen to be hunted by the latter.  Things are made more difficult for Marcello because, whilst Caroline is allowed to research her proposed victim’s life, he isn’t permitted to know even the identity of his pursuer.  Furthermore, whilst she is able to finance a number of assistants to act as back up, he is entirely broke after a messy divorce from his – frankly horrible – wife.

Caroline’s approach is unusual: she pretends to be a documentary filmmaker carrying out research into ‘the sexual behavior of the Italian male’.  Marcello, desperate for cash, agrees to take part in a televised interview, unaware that it’s planned as the location for his demise.  Caroline has been paid for the killing to be captured live on television, with a full song and dance routine – including jiving teacups – to take place in the background.  His suspicions are aroused, however, when he witnesses her signaling to an associate, so he decides to counterattack by arranging to assassinate her on film, and even intending to incorporate some handy product-placement of his own whilst doing so.  These nefarious schemes are complicated even further by the fact that the two of them are slowly falling in love.

Marcello Mastroianni looking cool in The Tenth Victim
Marcello Mastroianni looking cool in The Tenth Victim

This is the type of science fiction film that you rarely get nowadays: hardly a fast mover, it’s jam-packed so full of ideas that half of them are only partially realized.  It slots neatly in beside the likes of Dr. Strangelove (64) and The President’s Analyst (67) as products of the sixties that represent the ambitious pinnacle of the genre.  Despite the synopsis making it sound like an action film, that is only partially the intention of Petri and his accomplices.  They have other concerns on their mind: politics, death, consumerism and filmmaking itself.  The barbs are fired widely, often missing their target, but you can hardly fault the filmmakers for effort.

At a most basic level, The Tenth Victim is a critique of the Bond phenomenon that was kicking into a high gear at the time.  It has the same outlandish gadgets (a bra that shoots bullets, skin colored body armor), but these are taken to a parodic level: one assassination scheme involves an ejector chair propelling a potential victim into a pool of alligators.  It also has a ‘training center’ presided over by an eccentric, ‘Q’ style scientist and a similarly exotic ambience of high-fashion lifestyles and international jet-setting.  The main difference is that – as with many Petri films – the central character has very little control over his life; he is manipulated at every turn, most particularly by women (his wife, his girlfriend, Caroline).  Not something you’d expect from 007.

Beyond that, however, there are several subtexts at play.  The notion of people trying to cope in a world gone mad is one that Petri returns to again and again.  Marcello, like The Teacher of Vigevano’s Antonio Mombelli, is someone who’s trying to navigate a path through the insanity of mass commercialism.  The big difference is that he’s good at it.  In this future, society appears to be on the verge of psychosis: a player who has just murdered somebody is congratulated by a policeman before being admonished for parking his car on the wrong side of the road; loudspeakers proclaim that participating in the hunt (and quite possibly dying) is a really good idea.  It’s almost redundant to point out the way in which the contemporary world of reality television has come to replicate the worst excesses of vulgarity on show here.

Despite wearing its cleverness on its sleeves, The Tenth Victim also remains a jolly entertaining film.  It’s more accessible than some of Petri’s later work and, despite being extremely stylized in approach, has a strong central narrative that holds the attention.  There’s humor throughout (‘a killing a day keeps the doctor away’), which helps to soften the rather bitter concept at its heart.  Those paying attention will also pick up a number of intertextual gags, such as having roads named after Fellini and Nino Rota.  My favorite, however, is Marco’s admonition to ‘…pay no attention to the neo-realistic, unkind and vulnerable people’.

Some people have complained about the two leads (‘lack of chemistry’ and ‘bored’ are epithets that have been applied), but the director encouraged actors to turn in idiosyncratic performances – flipping from the hysterical to the somnambulant – throughout his career, and these fit in perfectly.  This role helped to cement Ursula Andress’ status as the ultimate in Amazonian femme fatales and as for Marcello Mastroianni, well, what can you say: at this time the man was as cool as they come.

(5) Petri claimed to have originally had the idea of adapting Sheckley’s novel in 1962, but having had no success in selling the idea to a producer it was put onto a back burner.  Mastroianni then read the novel in 1964, and approached Ponti for finances. The relationship between the director and producer was strained: quite apart from their personal differences, Petri was aghast to find that Ponti was paying other writers to come up with adaptations at the same time as he was working on the script with Tonino Guerra and Ennio Flaiano.  The result was far too downbeat for Ponti’s tastes, and he insisted on the inclusion of more humour and a happy ending, all of which infuriated the director even more.  At least the stars were happy: Mastroianni and Andress began a short affair during filming.

Mastroianni and Petri had a close relationship, and at least two proposed films which never came to fruition.  The first was to be a comic western starring Mastroianni and his brother Ruggero as a pair of feared gunfighters.  The second was a lampoon of the Vincent Price horror films tentatively called Necrofilia.  The actor was notably more keen on these than the director, but it’s interesting to think how they might have turned out.

About Matt Blake 890 Articles
The WildEye is a blog dedicated to the wild world of Italian cinema (and, ok, sometimes I digress into discussing films from other countries as well). Peplums, comedies, dramas, spaghetti westerns... they're all covered here.

1 Comment

  1. The music in this movie is “groovy”. The trailer however was quite misleading portraying it as a comedy as oppossed to the dark humor. Ursula Andress is stunning as usual. I appreciated the use of the popular international Black dance choreographers in 1960s Europe.

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