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Elio Petri’s The 10th Victim is a uniquely unpleasant movie. I put it that way deliberately, because it is not bad, or ugly or poorly made. Quite the contrary, it’s a slick, at times clever, always stylish social commentary dressed up as a mod-era romp. Set in some undefined near future, the story centers on a televised, ritualized game of murder called “The Big Hunt.” Marcello Mastroianni is selected as the game’s latest victim and Ursula Andress as his assassin. Depending on who kills whom, the survivor will receive a grand prize of $1 million.

At first, this conceit has a sadomasochistic chic that, whatever you may think of it, is cooly entertaining. All the actors are dressed in the best fantasy fashions that the designers can dream up, and as Mastroianni and Andress maneuver in and around each other, their choreographed murder-cum-mating rituals have a dextrous, sleek luster. Petri (probably most famous for the Academy Award winning Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion) manages to come up with one outlandishly brilliant bit after another, and for an hour or so, that prestidigitation is more than enough to keep us engaged.

Eventually, though, it becomes apparent that the inevitable final shoot out/hug and kiss are being deliberately and arbitrarily delayed. The episodes never cease to be strikingly photographed and cut, with more invention in five minutes than most films possess in their entire lengths. It is also eventually clear, however, that the implicit political message, that capitalism reaches it logical conclusion in commodified murder, sours the hijinks. It’s as if Petri and scenarist Tonino Guerra cannot quite reconcile themselves to producing a satirical confection. Even granting that the central situation presents a remarkably prescient foretaste of reality television (the film was made in 1965), the movie is ultimately a hanging trip for a straw man because it is only as a result of the filmmakers’ conceits that the issue arises.

Possibly in a recognition that the events are beginning to get a little stale, Petri piles on more and more gimmicks, in what feels like an increasingly frantic effort to distract. It’s a good sign a movie is in trouble when stars like Mastroianni and Andress seem lifeless and mechanical. If we accept their supposed attraction to each other, it’s only because we recognize that it is central to the whole enterprise. We don’t particularly care whether they get together. Indeed, when they finally do, it’s rather anti-climactic. They bring out nothing in each other.

The DVD packaging claims that The 10th Victim has influenced a generation of movies. I’m not convinced it has done so any more than a host of other High Camp exercises from the mid-’60s. That’s why I find it “uniquely unpleasant.” Compared to those other efforts, The 10th Victim’s mixture of zany, self-conscious excess and, for lack of a better term, political guilt is ultimately off-putting. Self-conscious camp and Marxism don’t make for the most comfortable of bed fellows.

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