Remembered best for his genre infused social issue/ills films through the 1960s and 1970s, Elio Petri significant filmography has recently begun to be recuperated piecemeal. With Arrow Academy’s recent release of 1973’s Property is No Longer a Theft, they also finally bring Petri’s noir inspired 1961 debut The Assassin to the US, a film which originally premiered in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival and received praise upon its initial theatrical run.
While Petri is perhaps best remembered for cult sci-fi classic The 10th Victim (1965), which starred Marcello Mastroianni, the auteur scored the famous actor to headline his first film, which arrived in theaters amidst the formidable releases of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Antonioni’s La Notte, both which featured the charismatic matinee idol. Given the circumstances of Mastroianni’s highly narcissistic and woefully unlikeable protagonist in the Petri film, it’s no wonder the title didn’t receive the same iconicity since the handsome star plays a manipulative and morally bankrupt antiques dealer who gets hauled in for questioning after his older lover shows up murdered, forcing the charlatan to smooth talk his way out of suspicion.
Antiques dealer Alfredo Martelli (Mastroianni) is arrested by the police after the corpse of his wealthy lover Adalgisa (Michele Presle) is found in her apartment, though he doesn’t seem to be aware of her recent demise. Denying any possibility of his involvement in the murder, the authorities are intent on securing a confession from the seedy lothario, particularly Inspector Palumbo (Salvo Randone). First off, Martelli’s motive seems clear considering he owed the dead woman money and had already begun a secret affair with a much younger, potentially richer heiress the older woman unwittingly introduced him to. Add to this certain inconsistencies with Martelli’s statement, and Palumbo feels justified in developing some alternative interrogation methods. Meanwhile, Martelli’s own memories of his dead lover don’t exactly champion his integrity.
Initially, Petri’s scenario, co-written by famed Italian scribe Tonino Guerra (who worked with most of Italy’s prolific auteurs, including Antonioni, Fellini, Rosi, etc.) and Pasquale Festa Campanile (who would become a noted director in his own right), has a similar tone to Kafka’s The Trial, which would be famously adapted by Orson Welles in 1962. But as the murky police procedural gives way to a variety of extended flashbacks, The Assassin begins to paint a rather stark portrait of an amoral citizen under suspicion.
Mastroianni’s Martelli is shown to treat a variety of people, including his own mother, rather poorly, and displaying little remorse following each questionable action. Of course, the police aren’t able to see the same side of Martelli as his thoughts make clear to the audience. Slowly but surely, our sympathies begin to align with the police, even if Martelli happens to be falsely accused. His insistently casual affair with the beautiful Micheline Presle becomes a bit more complex based on her actions following his flirtation with the vapid socialite Nicoletta (Cristina Gaioni) and yet, Petri keeps intact the shadow of doubt. An unscrupulous social climber, sure. But is Martelli capable of killing the wealthy older lover he owes money to?
Italian cinema of the 1960s reflects the changing moral landscape of an increasingly commodified culture, which tends to correspond with many of the devious characters populating the American film noir underbelly. If Antonioni was intent on documenting social angst as a fugue state, and Fellini the explosion of decadence and debauchery, then Petri’s first offering is more akin to something like Antonio Pietrangeli’s I Knew Her Well (1965), particularly in its depiction of women’s naiveté in an increasingly cruel culture intent on objectifying them. But The Assassin also finds Petrie charting a similar course regarding the myopic law enforcement system he would more famously depict in 1970’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion.
Arrow Academy grants Petri’s debut a new 2K digital restoration and presents the film in 1.85:1 and uncompressed mono 2.0 PCM audio. Carlo di Palmi’s (Blow-Up, 1966) stark black and white frames bring the perfect ambience to this crime procedural while a jazzy Pink Panther-ish score from Piero Piccioni lends an offbeat sense of dark comedy. Arrow includes some fitting extra features.
Introduction by Pasquale Iannone (2014):
This near ten minute segment finds Pasquale Iannone discussing Petri’s career to introduce The Assassin.
Tonino Guerra – A Poet in the Movies (2008):
This fifty-one minute segment is a documentary devoted the screenwriter Tonino Guerra’s impressive career.
An excellent debut film from one of Italian cinema’s most underrated auteurs, The Assassin is one of Mastroianni’s most loathsome characters.
Film Review: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆