Along with their French, Japanese, and American brethren, the Italians were instrumental in bringing Golden era motion pictures - and all their phony, studio-bound ideals - up to date. With their naturalistic, neo-realism and aesthetic earthiness, they did as much as the New Wave and exploitation to help cinema “grow up”. Of course, once international audiences got a taste of their wares, commerciality took over. Soon, Mediterranean moviemakers were catering to the box office just as much as their Hollywood hucksters. By the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, Rome was the center of a mainstream movie machine that could indulge major players like Fellini, Pasolini, and Leone as well as numerous genre underlings. It was the classic battle between art and artifice, with the latter often taking profit point.
Sergio Martino and Elio Petri represent such minor, if still important, mid-period engineers. The former found fame creating cruel, nasty “giallos” - crime thrillers based on the popular yellow-covered Italian pulp novels. Such efforts as Case of the Scorpion’s Tale and Your Vice Is a Closed Room and Only I Have the Key rivaled Dario Argento for the title of king of the category. The latter was an Oscar nominated (for 1970’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion) radical, using his Communist party ties and strident beliefs to front-load films like The Lady Killer of Rome and We Still Kill the Old Way with alienation and surreal social commentary.
A perfect example of both men’s filmic modus operandi comes with Blue Underground’s release of Martino’s Torso and Petri’s The 10th Victim. While wildly divergent in both story and style, they’re also indicative of the men who made them and the culture who gave birth to their individual ideals. The first film is a typical “killer on the loose” exercise, Martino’s obsession with naked, nubile college girls overpowering what is, often, an intense and suspenseful nail-biter. The last 30 minutes are particularly effective. Petri’s future shock schlock, on the other hand, is all SCTV spoof fodder. From the outrageous fashions to the less than hidden anti-media agenda, this revamped version of The Most Dangerous Game is like a retro Running Man meshed with a Cinzano ad.
Yet both films are also time capsules as well. For Petri, the mid ‘60s were certainly swinging. Arthouses, long responsible for embracing the foreign film and its many marvelous auteurs, was giving way to an everyday hipster dynamic. One could walk past the numerous downtown marquees of Anytown, American and see offerings from all over the world. This meant that star power as well as story was important, and The 10th Victim gave known international icons Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress safe haven to look and act fabulous. She, decked out in the latest Milan couture, he, sporting a bad blond dye job and ever-present shades, play a prickly game of cat and mouse set against the most modern - at least for 1965 - of ultra-chic urban backdrops.
Andress’ Caroline Meredith is the latest “winner” of The Big Hunt, a worldwide television phenomenon which sees participants act as “assassin” and “victim” alternately, each pursuit played out for points, profit, and a chance at retiring a decathlete (one who successfully completes 10 missions). She is only one victory away from earning said title - and the $1 million prize that goes with it. Mastroianni’s Marcello Polletti, on the other hand, is a shady womanizer who, while equally triumphant in the game, can’t seem to hold onto his money. He’s always broke, and desperate for ways to earn additional endorsements. When the mega-computers in Geneva set them up against each other, it’s not long before passion, and the possibility of a huge advertising payday from a Chinese tea company, comes their way.
All dystopian visions should look as groovy as The 10th Victim. While Petri makes sure to pontificate now and then (the whole subtext about the Hunt solving world war and man’s natural tendencies toward violence get lots of jaw time), this is really just pretty people playing against a quirky, crazy quilt backdrop. We can never quite figure out Marcello’s marital status and his oddball obsessive girlfriend seems too unstable to be part of this meticulous killer’s interpersonal life. When he takes to the streets and cityscapes of modern Rome, Petri provides enough intrigue to keep us interested. But this is a movie that suffers from being severely dated, the high tech elements employed (handset-only dial phones, big ass blinking light computers) creating an aura of absurdity.
Still, there’s a real chemistry between Andress and Mastroianni, a tension that literally beams off the screen. The whole “are they or aren’t they in love” question appears easily answer, and yet Petri plays around with plot twists, mostly to the detriment of his designs. Visually, The 10th Victim looks slick and yet slightly stunted, as if creativity and imagination eventually gave way to budgetary concerns and limited production capabilities. We never really get the sense of the future. Everything looks like Rome circa 1965, with just a couple of technological tweaks here and there. While we sense where the story is going from the beginning, the movie tries to have it both ways, undermining our expectations while fiddling with the finale to violate the cinematic tenets of the “fourth wall.” While interesting, Petri attempt at satire merely comes off as stiff.
It’s similarly strange filmmaking fixations that also deflate Martino’s Torso - and in this case, it’s female breasts that get the best of this otherwise effective foreign slice and dice. Suzy Kendall is an American exchange student in Rome, matriculating amongst the majesty of - and the murders surrounding - an old college campus. The police are baffled by the killer’s ID, the only clue being a red and black scarf found at one crime scene. As coeds are being picked off one by one, Kendall and her crew head off to the country to escape the panic. Naturally, the maniac follows them to this remote cliff-side villa, where he systematically murders and dismembers everyone - everyone that is except our heroine. Taken lame with a sprained ankle, she is left to fend for herself, miles away from the nearest possibility of help.
So overloaded with red herrings that even Scandinavians would find it excessive, Torso is not the most complicated of whodunits. About an hour into the narrative, the identity of our villain is nothing more than a process of elimination. In essence, take whoever’s left alive, subdivide out the possible motives, and make with the Holmesian deductions. The answer, sadly, will seem pretty obvious. That doesn’t mean Martino can’t have a little frisky fun getting to the conclusion. If you like Me Decade ladies unclothed and submission, this movie is your ticket to titillation. Female mammaries are featured so often that they almost become a plot point. Similarly, Martino does his slasher genre best to handle every death from the killer’s bloody perspective. As the knife blade threatens another topless honey, it’s all so gratuitous and sleazy.
But then the director stops selling skin and offers a final act worthy of his macabre maestro status. While Kendall is recuperating in the isolated estate, she inadvertently comes across the killer using a hacksaw on her dead college friends. We watch in horror as (implied) vivisection occurs, realizing how deadly the stakes truly are. For nearly 25 minutes, Martino maintains the air of dread, Kendall looking for a way out as our psycho comes closer and closer to discovering there is one more potential victim. It’s a brave and quite brilliant twist on the standard fright film mechanics. Usually, it’s all last girl chases and proto-feminist fisticuffs. Torso, however, simply puts our heroine in harms way and then slowly turns up the suspense.
Of course, to modern audiences raised on gore, splashy F/X, and a heightened sense of cinematic spectacle, movies like Torso and The 10th Victim will seem quaint and slightly archaic. While dealing with the typical genre notions of sex and violence, each gets filtered through a particularly idiosyncratic cinematic vision. Of the two, Martino’s is more potent, if only because of the conventions he is embracing/flaunting. For Victim, Perti’s intentions are often damaged in the execution. Everything looks good, but it often plays like a trial run for the actual sci-fi statement to come. In the grand scheme of foreign cinema, and Italian filmmaking specifically, neither movie is definitive. Instead, they represent the coming commercialization of the once mighty Mediterranean artform, the end of an era that was as influential as it was inspired. Sadly, neither adjective fully applies here.