For sheer visual elegance alone, Elio Petri’s 1965 Italian movie, La Decima Vittima (The Tenth Victim), starring Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress, is riveting, but its added combination of style with substance, social commentary with wry humour, make it essential viewing for fans of cult 60s cinema.
Mastroianni, a huge star since La Dolce Vita, had led in Petri’s 1961 directorial debut, L’Assassino, accused of murder in what Petri described as an examination of “a new generation of upstarts who lacked any kind of moral scruple”. It’s a theme carried over to La Decima Vittima, based on Robert Sheckley’s 1953 short story, Seventh Victim, where contestants find celebrity in a legalised game of murder, The Big Hunt, and their elderly parents are locked away, hidden from the authorities, for reasons best guessed.
A giant computer in Geneva selects a hunter and victim. The hunter knows the victim, the victim must find out and kill their potential assassin. Kill the wrong person and face 30 years in prison. The winner receives a cash rising to a million dollars if they survive ten rounds. The general public are hooked. A cool club of beautiful people applaud their evening’s entertainment Andress fires lethal shots from a silver swimsuit made of twisted tin toil while the Ming Tea Company want to film her tenth kill for a new advertising campaign.
For all Petri’s lofty aspirations and desire to Say Something Important about morality and murder, commercialism and celebrity, marriage and relationships, organised religion (check the scene where the Sun Worshippers are abused by the Moon Worshippers, “Take your sunsets someplace else!”), it's all done with a light pop touch. Political but playful rather than po-faced. It’s fun and, let’s be honest, pairing the gorgeous Andress with Mastroianni, a constant source of edgy discomfort, it’s damn sexy.
Every scene is a feast for the eyeballs. Set at some point in the 21st Century, it’s futuristic without being too science-fiction; there are no spaceships, beaming up, and the most hi-tech contraption is a small robotic pet. When Marcello (Mastroianni) needs to contact his mistress, he parks the car and uses a phone box. Instead it scans like a flick through the pages of mid-60s Vogue or Queen. Black and white op art paintings hang on the walls; pop art is at every turn; comic books are now antique collectables; there’s the pinball machine, the furniture, the strange sculptured figures dotted around house and garden; Andress swans around in an E-Type Jag; and Blur would later pinch the television dancers’ costumes for their Music Is My Radar video. The single most striking item is a giant, blinking eye behind a heavy-set pair of spectacles. It could be Harry Palmer wearing this iconic Curry & Paxton frames, but is Joe Tilson in a fabulously cheeky reworking of the pop artist’s self-portrait, Look!, from the previous year. The whole film, in fact, is eyewear heaven.
Piero Piccioni's soundtrack is glitzy space age jazz, a combination of plinking strings and fuzzy organ, the chirpy yet dramatic title theme sung by Mina, who’d recently been banned by Italian TV and radio for causing scandal with her pregnancy by a married actor. Her inclusion by Petri, a working-class former communist who’d had his own issues with the Catholic church, presumably no coincidence.
“I’m going to die, I’m sure of it” confides Marcello, unaware of his hunter. “I know you’ll die, Marcello”, replies his mentor at the Big Hunt training centre, “but the important thing is how one dies. Like an insect or like a samurai”. In other words, whatever you do, do it with style.
This piece first appeared in Anglozine, Issue 2, produced by the hip outfitters of the same name whose current range is inspired by the film. You can kit yourself out here.