Elio Petri is one of the most interesting Italian directors but remains largely forgotten today which is a great pity. I have only seen a handful of his films but find them fascinating because of their stylishness and cultural references to the ’60s and ’70s which contrast with the social critique of their story lines. Born in 1929 and a committed member of the Communist Party, he made his directorial debut in 1961 with L’Assassino which also starred Marcello Mastroianni at the height of his fame. Perhaps it was because his film offended the censors or perhaps it was the fact that it came out the same year as Antonioni’s La Notte and Pasolini’s debut, Accattone, but this amazing film sank without trace until its re-release on DVD a couple of years ago.
At first glance, it has all the hallmarks of a thriller – a cool soundtrack, beautiful and stylishly dressed stars, crisp black and white photography and a murder to be solved. Yet look again and we can see that it’s more an examination of social and political values. Like Kafka’s Josef K. and Camus’ Mersault, Mastroiani’s Alfredo Martelli is brought in by police and questioned because of his lifestyle and values. He represents the new middle class, a dandyish antiques dealer happy to use women to advance his career and social position. When his former lover Adalgisa, a rich, older woman played by Micheline Presle, is murdered, suspicion falls on Alfredo who finds himself caught up in a nightmarish trap under the scrutiny of a corrupt society with links to the Catholic Church and fascism. And for all its coolness, the film shows us a different side of Rome, a rather bleak and empty city with run down areas. Adalgisa is murdered in the ridiculously named Shangri-La hotel in the middle of a wasteland. Few films make a stronger impression on the viewer.
Petri’s most famous film is probably his 1970 feature, Investigation Of A Citizen Above Suspicion, starring the left-wing and socially committed Gian Maria Volontè, about a police commissioner who murders his lover and covers up the crime, believing that his position of authority will protect him and that he can pin the murder on the woman’s gay husband or a radical student acquaintance. Once again, it’s a super stylish film with music by Morricone and quite a lot of black humour and swipes at the establishment. I can’t think of another film like it. It’s both of its time and yet a biting statement on corruption and the abuse of power.
The Tenth Victim is not nearly as well-known as the films which it influenced, The Running Man with Arnold Schwarzenegger and The Hunger Games series. I can only describe it as a sci-fi action film which is almost the essence of the Sixties. The plot centres around an entertainment programme called The Hunt with its ten rounds which participants must survive, five of them as hunters and then five as victims. The winner then retires rich and famous. Caroline Meredith (Ursula Andress) is on the lookout for her tenth victim, Marcello Poletti (Marcello Mastroianni) whom she wishes to kill on camera after securing sponsorship from Ming Tea, but things become complicated when they fall in love. It’s a great satire on entertainment, particularly today in light of the number of so-called reality TV programmes, and also a lot of fun to watch with super cool music, costumes and photography.
I hope you’ll get a chance to see some of his films!