Saturday, February 26, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Tenth Victim (1965)


In the early 1950s, sci-fi author (and now legend...) Robert Sheckley (1928 - 2005) penned a story entitled "The Seventh Victim." 

Published in Galaxy Magazine in 1953, Sheckley's tale depicted a post-World War Six future world in which an "Emotional Catharsis Board" had established a worldwide "hunt," or "game" during which mankind could satisfy his need for violence by hunting down human "victims" as a licensed, carefully regulated hunter. 

In fact, after seven successful hunts (alternating turns as hunter and victim...) a person could achieve great wealth and even join an exclusive hunter's club.  

How did such a world come about?  Well, it was believed that the Hunt (established originally by men for men) could curb the violent tendencies of a "large percentage" of men and prevent any further world wars.

The protagonist in "The Seventh Victim" is Stanton Frelaine, a New Yorker who finds himself unable to kill his  assigned victim, a young actress named Janet Patzig who, for some strange reason, does not defend herself or even hire "spotters" to help her target her would-be-murderer. 

Curious about this unusual young woman, Stanton befriends Janet and eventually falls in love with her.  Finally, Stanton confesses to Janet that he is her "hunter" but that he wants to marry -- not murder -- her. 

"You don't kill the girl you love," he  informs her...

From this description, you might guess the ending of the story.  Or maybe not

But, in keeping with Sheckley's literary canon, "The Seventh Victim" is a futuristic satire of sorts, an absurdist tale about mankind attempting (with questionable results) to exorcise his "high degree of combativeness" through an officially sanctioned and legislated sport.

In 1965, The Seventh Victim was re-fashioned as a motion picture called The Tenth Victim that starred Marcello Mastrioanni and Ursula Andress. 

Made in Italy, The Tenth Victim is directed by Elio Petri (1929 - 1982), a former neo-realist.  As you may recall, the Italian neo-realist movement in cinema occurred immediately post-World War II, and some of its trademark stylistics include a focus on location shooting, non-professional actors in major roles and a narrative focus on poverty and difficult economic situations.

By the 1960s, however, thanks in large part to talents such as Antonioni and Fellini (who gets name-dropped in The Tenth Victim), the Italian neo-realist movement gave way to a more individual cinema that focused on internal existential angst rather than the external difficulties of life in a more-prosperous Italy.  It was a big shift, but perhaps a natural one given improving economic conditions in the country.

The Tenth Victim arises from this second movement: a more colorful, dynamic cinema, but also one that questions many aspects of modern life.  Petri was well-known as a political/social filmmaker, and in The Tenth Victim he is abundantly aware that he is forsaking the neo-realist obsession on stark reality.  In one specific scene, for instance, the film's main character, Marcello Poletti (Mastroianni) is heckled (and nearly stoned) by a cult of neo-realists who object to the hedonism and romanticism of another cult, the local "sun worshippers."  This is Petri's play statement on his sci-fi film: he knows he's forsaken his background and heritage.  But bloody hell, those neo-realists are such downers...

This all sounds like inside baseball, but you don't have to remember the details of the Italian cinema to enjoy The Tenth Victim and contextualize it in terms of dystopian science-fiction cinema (a current obsession of mine). 

Indeed, this forward-looking film from the 1960s has much in common with later American films on the topic, such as Death Race 2000 (1975). In both ventures, the government gleefully administers a violent contest (the cross-country race there; the Big Hunt here) that is judged, after a fashion, a "social good," but which actually appeals to our most base and awful instincts as a species.

In terms of social commentary, The Tenth Victim also serves ably as a comment on overreaching government, on our thirst for violence, and also -- perhaps most dramatically -- the unending battle between the sexes. 

On that last front, the story by Sheckley suggests that women may be far more effective (and cold-blooded killers...) than are men. And indeed, one might detect a sexist aspect to the film since Poletti is hounded relentlessly throughout by three women: his wife Lidia, his mistress Olga (Elsa Martinelli), and his would-be terminator, Caroline Meredith (Ursula Andress).  The final moments of the film also explicitly compare marriage to "death," which is certainly a funny joke if you take it in the spirit intended.

Weighed in total, the satirical The Tenth Victim boasts a wicked sense of humor from its tour-de-force first "hunt" all the way through its surprising last shot "bang," and it eminently deserves its reputation as a 1960s cult classic. 

"I'll tell you, this year it's trendy to kill women..."

As The Tenth Victim commences, American hunter extraordinaire, Caroline Meredith (Andress) makes her ninth kill, luring her "hunter" to the Masoch Club and then -- during a striptease -- murdering him with her double-barrel brassiere gun. 

The Ming Tea Company is so impressed with Caroline that they offer her corporate sponsorship for her tenth and final kill.  

Caroline agrees to the company's terms and sets off to Rome, where she is take out her tenth victim, a hunter named Marcello Poletti (Mastroianni).   With the Ming Tea film crew in tow, Caroline decides to murder Poletti at the Temple of Venus (the Goddess of Love...) and with the Colosseum in the background. And yes indeed, this locale is symbolic.

Meanwhile, Poletti -- who has just completed his sixth hunt -- is growing twitchy about his upcoming role as victim in the seventh.  He's recently annulled his first marriage to Lidia and is being hounded by his mistress, Olga.  When a third woman, Caroline, enters his life claiming to be a TV interviewer doing a story about sexy Italian men, Poletti is immediately suspicious of her, fearing that she is his new hunter.

Caroline and Marcello orbit each other suspiciously and Poletti sets up his own product placement deal with Coca 80 to murder her.  His plan is to lure Caroline poolside at the Big Hunt Club, and then -- using a spring-loaded chair -- to eject her into the jaws of a man-eating crocodile.  At that point, Poletti would look to the camera and say "You always win with Coca 80..."

Things don't go exactly as planned, however, and Poletti ends up at the Temple of Venus, face-to-face with his would-be murderer and now lover.  Will she kill him?  Or has Poletti let himself be trapped in this fashion?

"Legalize Your Homicides"

If you've been keeping up with this blog, you know I've been screening dystopian films of late; films such as ZPG (Zero Population Growth), Westworld, THX-1138. Zardoz, and the like. 

As is the case with many of those efforts, The Tenth Victim predicts a future world in which governmental efforts to help solve a problem in fact succeed only in creating a corrupt new regime and civilization.

In The Tenth Victim, a new agency called "The Department of the Big Hunt" (sanctioned by a global moral institution, "which moralized this century") has put an end to all war with the advent of this strange murderous ritual.   Loudspeakers at the Bureau constantly trumpet the wisdom of this war-ending Big Hunt. 

"To avoid the dangers of the big wars, register with the Big Hunt," crows on announcer.  "Legalize your homicides," "One enemy a day will keep the doctor away," suggest others. 

My personal favorite of these violent government platitudes suggests a unique resolution to the problem of over-population: "Why control the births when you can increase the deaths?" 

I also like the announcer's urging to "live dangerously...but within the law."  Good advice, no?
  
As director, Petri does an admirable job diagramming the absurdly violent nature of this new world order, especially during a scene set at the Bureau.  As Poletti walks down the front stairs of the building, a woman in a white dress (a victim) is shot in the back by her (male) hunter.  A police strolls by and cites the sanctioned hunter...for a parking violation.

What this scene suggests is that there is still rule of law in this future...it's just a very different sort of law.  Murder is legal in this future world...under certain circumstances.  The funny (or sad...) thing about this whole dystopic set-up is that today it doesn't seem all that far from the truth in modern, twenty-first century America. 

In South Dakota and Nebraska, for instance, lawmakers have recently debated a law involving "justifiable homicide," making murder -- under certain circumstances -- legal.   After the tragic Arizona shootings of last month, representative Trent Franks (R-Ariz) publicly "wished" that there had been "one more gun that day in the hands of a responsible person." 

And all of this comes after a national election in which we heard endlessly about Second Amendment "remedies" that could be used to overturn the results of lawful elections.  Don't retreat, reload, right? 

In The Tenth Victim, a hunter decries new Big Hunt regulations in Rome which prevent gun-men from opening fire in restaurants, hospitals and "nursery schools." Caroline responds proudly that such restrictions on personal freedom have not yet been approved in America, and Poletto shakes is head and notes, simply, that "America is...something."

Legalize your homicides indeed.  In this country, you can bring a gun to church if you want.  

So, If Zardoz was a brilliant right-wing picture about the danger of unconventional family units (specifically the 1960s hippie communes) then The Tenth Victim is a left leaning picture about, at least partially, a world in which the NRA makes all the laws.

But the really forward-thinking aspect of the film involves how Poletti ties the pervasive violence of the culture to mass media, and to business interests.  Specifically, both hunters in the film gain corporate sponsorship, and both sponsors actively encourage colorful, on-camera murder. 

In a very funny scene set aboard a helicopter, Caroline and her Ming Tea TV producers scout locations for the next kill, debating studio interiors versus exterior locations.  At first, the producers want to kill Poletti near the Vatican, but the Pope doesn't approve of the Big Hunt.  Then, they discount the Colosseum as "too run down." 

After the company settles on the Temple of Venus as a locale for Poletti's death, set-designers hoist up a giant sign in the background of the shot, reading "MING TEA."  

Subtle.

Then, before long, the equivalent of Solid Gold dancers (all waving prop guns around...) appear to make the murder scene even more colorful.

Watching these sequences, you can't help but think of the last decade of reality television programming, of being "voted off the island," or of being "fired" from a job.  This Big Hunt (not unlike a certain Amazing Race) is all about big business.

I also found the film forward-thinking in two other instances.  In one scene, an announcer declares that "The National Association of Homosexuals" has officially sanctioned the Big Hunt, suggesting a world in which gay rights are already established by law. Again, today we have seen the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and the President's first attempt to overturn DOMA. 

And secondly, one scene dramatizes Poletti reading a comic-book from his expansive collection of  such works.  The last few decades, in real life, have seen the mainstreaming of comic books in our culture, and as a critical part of modern Geek life.  The Tenth Victim gets this idea right as well.

There's even a subplot in the film about Poletti hiding his elderly parents in his home (in a secret room...) so that the State can't take them away and murder them; an idea we saw talked about last year  in all that fiery "Death Panel" debate.

Finally, I really got a real kick out of the moment in which Poletti flashes Caroline a small card that read simply (in three languages): "I am a victim." 

Talk about an embodiment of the victim mentality!  Today, we don't actually have card-carrying victims anywhere, but so many folks play the victim role to the hilt, even without the official cards.  Everyone seems to have a grievance: about government, about insurance, about employers, about freedom. You name it.

"When people are in love, they make mistakes..."


Against the gun-crazy background of The Tenth Victim, director Poletti also tells a unique story about men and women. 

In the film's bravura first sequence, Caroline lures her (male) hunter to his untimely death...at a strip-club.  She strips down before him -- to a silver bikini -- and he is so taken with her physical beauty that he doesn't see his own death coming.  She shoots him with a double-barrel bra, and that's the end for him.

Later in the film, Caroline similarly manipulates Poletti.  She rouses him to jealousy when she suddenly drops him as a lover and picks a local stud to dance with and interview for her fake TV show.  Poletti falls for the ruse and ends up at the Temple of Venus, at the business end of Caroline's pistol.  He survives by his wits; but the fact of the matter is that Caroline gets him where she wants him.

When you add these sequences to those other scenes in which Poletti must balance his continued survival with the demands of his nagging wife and demanding mistress, two things become plain.  One, men are depicted in the film as being not particularly cunning, bright or capable.  And secondly, that women are...well...barracudas.  

In other words, Poletti is thoroughly out-matched throughout the film, in all corners of his personal and professional (Big Hunt) life.  This  idea is faithful to Sheckley's short story, and  might be interpreted in two ways.

It's either anti-woman for painting them as manipulative hunters or it's even-handed because it also paints men as not-too-bright creatures who let their emotions (and urges...) get in the way of good decision-making.

The film's final scene, which finds Caroline and Poletti on a "wedding plane" bound for America explicitly compares marriage to death.  Caroline hasn't murdered her prey.  Instead, she marries him.  Either way, he is trapped, the film suggests, and the last shot: --  of a gun firing celebratory flowers into his face -- makes this fact absolutely plain.  Talk about shot-gun weddings...

Again, it's not a big stretch to view The Tenth Victim as being sexist. But on the other hand, women are often unfairly described in the media as overtly (and irrationally...) emotional, and that's not the case here.  On the contrary, in The Tenth Victim, it's the man who can't see past his emotions; and the woman who takes the upper hand through the traditionally male trade/profession of "hunting." 

So it comes down to, I suppose, how you choose to interpret the film.  You could see it as either anti-woman, or anti-man, if that's your game.  But I think that -- more than anything --  this film is about the dance that men and women do; the endless circling and sizing up. 

The Tenth Victim is more a movie about the way that we fall in love and express that love than one about putting any group down.  The line of dialogue from the film -- "when people are in love, they make mistakes" -- is sort of an on-camera explanation of the characters' behavior throughout, and a sympathetic one at that.

Today, The Tenth Victim serves as a perfect  1960s companion piece to Death Race 2000 (1975), The Running Man (1987) or the recent Gamer (2009). If you're intrigued by the idea of a future society where violence is sanctioned and even encouraged, there's much to enjoy and reflect on here. 

Where the movie version differs most significantly from Sheckley's literary vision is in terms of outrageousness.  The hunt in the short story is simple: it's an intimate seduction.  But the hunts in the Petri movie are deliberately outrageous and over-the-top, thus contributing to the film's sense of fun and humor about itself and its central concept.

We've come a long way since the swinging sixties, but The Tenth Victim suggests that even in the future, our thirst for violence won't diminish.  Today, nobody wears double barreled bras and there's no Big Hunt on TV,  and yet the film seems strangely much more plausible than it did in decades past.

6 comments:

  1. This is one of my favorite books by Sheckley, but I have to admit I have never seen the film. The movie that I watched that was closest to the 10th Victim, without the humor, was Series 7.

    Thanks again for another interesting review.

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  2. Hi captainapathy,

    I have read the short story, but not the novel by Sheckley. The short story is fantastic, so I imagine the novel is pretty good too.

    I've never seen Series 7. Is it something I should check out?

    Thanks!

    best,
    JKM

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  3. I think I saw Series 7 too. It was a reality-TV style movie about, well, the same concept as Tenth Victim. I remember liking it. It's more realistic than Victim, and does have a dark wit about it. Very low budget though.

    Now that we're in the realm of dystopian "art film" (though of course this is still a very entertaining movie - and "quoted" in Austin Powers) I hope you'll cover Truffaut's Farenheit 451, a film I think is terrific but which hasn't won much love overall. Interested in your thoughts.

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  4. Hi DLR:

    I should track down Series 7, it sounds like. Might be right up my alley, especially as I'm currently dealing with dystopian film.

    I actually did review Fahrenheit 451 waaay back in 2008. I don't know if my skills then are what they are now; but here's the link: http://reflectionsonfilmandtelevision.blogspot.com/2008/06/cult-movie-review-fahrenheit-451-1966.html.

    Thanks for a great comment, and seconding the mention of Series 7, which has me curious...

    best,
    JKM

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  5. As usual, a fine review. I've not seen this film, but you've caught my interest, John. Thanks.

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  6. Hi Le0pard13:

    Thank you for the compliment my friend.

    I think you'll enjoy the film very much, especially with the caveat that it is kind of an absurdist comedy as well as a sci-fi story. If that makes sense...

    All my best,
    John

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