Italian filmmaker Elio Petri does not have the international reputation of his contemporary Michelangelo Antonioni, but in his own way, Petri was just as keen an observer of alienation and isolation. The director of such remarkable films as Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and A Quiet Place in the Country, Petri was obsessed with the contradictions of Italian society and the ways they manifested themselves in a pervasive, cultural malaise. One of his most unusual efforts along these lines was the 1965 film The 10th Victim, in which Petri used the forms of satire and science fiction to explore the dehumanization of modern existence. In the film, it is the 21st century, and citizens watch and participate in a legal game of murder known as “The Big Hunt.” The theory is that people need an outlet for their primal urges, and The Big Hunt gives it to them. The 10th Victim tells the story of the complications that ensue when two of the competing assassins in the game, played by Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress, fall in love.
At the time of its release, The 10th Victim was most obviously a response to the James Bond franchise, which it echoed in the casting of Andress, as well as in Piero Poletto’s mod production design. Petri had it both ways, exploiting the kinky fusion of sex and violence that made the Bond films popular while simultaneously lampooning and critiquing the audience’s bloodlust. More than 50 years later, The 10th Victim has evolved beyond parody into something more influential and prescient; the relationship between Mastroianni and Andress has been copied in Hollywood films like Prizzi’s Honor and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and its vision of a world in which violence is a spectator sport (an idea imitated in Rollerball and The Running Man, among other movies) no longer seems as exaggerated in an age of increasingly outrageous reality-TV programming. Petri’s insights into man’s savage nature are as prescient as ever.
Social commentary aside, another reason The 10th Victim has aged well is its immense visual beauty. Poletto and cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo let their imaginations run wild when it came to the film’s palette, which is astonishingly varied. The stages of Andress and Mastroianni’s relationship are delineated by a constantly changing color scheme as Di Venanzo alternates between monochromatic blacks and whites and eye-popping pinks, yellows, greens and lavenders, depending on the emotional inner state he wishes to convey. The sterility of Mastroianni’s character, who is often seen wearing muted suits and framed in minimalist compositions, is beautifully contrasted with the passionate Andress, who wears colors that virtually leap off the screen. The new DVD transfer from Blue Underground captures the shifts nicely, though the source material is occasionally marred; the early scenes, in particular, show various forms of wear and tear on the negative. Thankfully, the scratches are not significant enough to seriously compromise the viewing experience, and the Dolby mono mix of both the Italian and English tracks is solid. The only extras on the disc are a trailer and some talent bios.
Like Petri, Sergio Martino is an Italian director whose influence is more substantial than his reputation might suggest. A master craftsman with more than 60 credits on his resume (including apocalyptic sci-fi flicks, Westerns and creature features), Martino’s most lasting contribution to film history is as a practitioner of the “giallo.” This sex-and-violence-drenched form of the classic murder mystery was largely pioneered by Mario Bava (for whom Martino once worked as an assistant) and Dario Argento, but Martino holds a special place in the hearts of true giallo aficionados. Starting in 1970 with The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, Martino embarked on a cycle of stylish, intricately plotted and often quite erotic thrillers that included All the Colors of the Dark and the irresistibly titled Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key.
While many of these films had horror elements, Martino put the pedal to the metal in 1973 with Torso, a graphically violent, body-count movie that, along with Bava’s Bay of Blood in 1971, established most of the conventions that would define not only later Italian horror movies, but also American slasher flicks such as Happy Birthday to Me, both versions of Black Christmas and the Friday the 13th series. The story is simple: a crazed killer begins stalking college students, so a group of young women decides to retreat to an isolated villa to hide out. The masked assailant follows the students there and takes advantage of the fact they are cut off from the world to kill them one by one. What elevates the film and allows it to transcend its formulaic premise is Martino’s sense of composition and editing; working with cinematographer Giancarlo Ferrando, he generates a steadily increasing sense of claustrophobia that culminates in a pair of classic set pieces. In the first, the heroine hides and attempts to keep quiet while she watches the killer dismember the corpses of her friends; in the second, she tries to figure out how to escape from the room in which she is locked without attracting the psycho’s attention. Both sequences have been widely imitated in subsequent decades, but none of the copies have diluted disturbing impact of Torso.
Viewers used to the heavily censored versions of Torso in circulation for decades will be shocked by the explicitness of the gore in Blue Underground’s new DVD; working from the original negative, the distributor has restored the feature to its purest form — in all its bloody glory! The transfer is superior to the previous domestic DVD release, though there is an occasional loss of detail in the blacks during the film’s frequent night exteriors. Like The 10th Victim, Torso contains both Italian and English mono soundtracks, with some of the English track in Italian with English subtitles because portions of the English soundtrack have been lost or were never recorded in the first place. The supplemental section of the disc has only a pair of trailers, but given the reasonable retail price, it is hard to imagine what fan of Italian genre cinema would pass up either of these releases.