Starring: Marcello Mastroianni, Micheline Presle, Cristina Gaioni
Director: Elio Petri
Although it concerns a violent death, L’Assassino (1961) isn’t a proto-giallo. It’s part police procedural, part character study; it has something in common with socially conscious entertainments such as Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. It starts with Martelli, a vain, preening antiques dealer, being marched from his flat to the police station to answer some questions. The well-connected older woman who was his lover and benefactress has been killed in a brutal stabbing, and he’s the prime suspect.
As he’s interrogated, we learn all about his relationship with the woman through flashbacks. Adalgisa De Matteis (Micheline Presle) is into younger men, and when she grows tired of him, she unconsciously pushes him towards Nicoletta (Cristina Gaioni), the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, knowing he’ll be eager to marry into money. The police investigation exposes the whole tawdry tale, and by extension it casts an unflattering light on a certain strand of Italian society made up of the idle rich and self-serving upstarts like Martelli, whose own behaviour seems particularly shabby.
It was a strand of society that was clearly on the minds of the Italian public at the time. Just the year before L’Assassino was released, audiences were wowed by Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Antonioni’s L’Avventura, both of which depict figures frittering away their gilded lives in a mood of after-hours decadence. Marcello Mastroianni, who plays Martelli, famously starred in La Dolce Vita, and it’s as if director Elio Petri has grabbed his character from that film, shoved him into a crime mystery and said, “See what it’s like to really have something to worry about!”
The film is very watchable in parts. The flashback scenes are sufficiently frank, with enough psychological astuteness, to still be very engaging. There’s a bleakly insightful sequence where Martelli, Adalgisa and Nicoletta go to the Nemi ships museum, and the older woman tortures herself by watching the other two flirt. For that matter, the whole relationship between Martelli and Adalgisa is intriguing: apparently settling into friendship (he’s way too old for her now, she’s dallying with a waiter scarcely out of his teens) but still pricked by the memory of lust.
The trouble is, we’re continually being yanked away from this fascinating bed-hopping back to a police investigation that looks like a miscarriage of justice waiting to happen. Martelli seems to have tumbled into a subterranean fascist state. He’s bullied, humiliated. He’s put overnight in a cell without a bed, which he has to share with a pair of hysterical low-lifes who’ve been brought in for crushing a man’s skull.
How are we supposed to react to this? Are we supposed to enjoy seeing Martelli brought down a peg or two, or are we supposed to view this as a condemnation of a high-handed and brutal law enforcement system? A bit of both perhaps. But the two don’t make for a very easy fit, especially as these days we tend to take a far more dim view of corrupt policemen than we do of philandering social climbers. There’s a suggestion, in a couple of scenes, that the police’s calculated cruelty to him helps Martelli to understand his unthinking selfishness towards others. But then that notion is snatched away too in a cynical and downbeat ending, leaving you wondering what it was all about.
L’Assassino isn’t, then, an easy film for modern audiences to wrap their heads around, but there’s no doubt that it’s beautifully crafted. Its chief glory is the superb location cinematography by Carlo Di Palma (who would go on to do Blow-Up and be Woody Allen’s regular DP throughout the ’80s and’ 90s). In this HD transfer – a 2K resolution scan from the original camera negative – it looks breathtakingly sharp. In many shots a cold, wintry Rome looms in the background, dwarfing the characters and ready to swallow them up. There’s a bravura moment early on where Martelli is burning off grey hairs with a candle and you see reflected in his dressing-room mirror a vista of picturesque streets, reflecting his feeling that he’s a guy on top of the world. And there’s a brilliantly photographed sequence where Martelli and the police visit the fanciful beach resort that the dead woman was building and wander around its chilly, half-finished terraces, a testament to her restless desires. All of these scenes have a glittering freshness.
The film comes with a 9-minute introduction by Pasquale Iannone. He talks about the director’s career and background (he was a communist in his early days) and reveals that the movie ran into problems with the censors for its depiction of the police (so perhaps it was intended as a condemnation after all). In addition, there’s a flavoursome 51-minute documentary about screenwriter Tonino Guerra, who co-scripted L’Assassino. Guerra worked with a who’s who of Italian cinema from the late ’50s through to the ’80s. Tarkovsky and Antonioni were witnesses at his second marriage; he wrote Amarcord with Fellini in eight days. Interviewed in a villa and garden filled with his own striking artwork, two dogs and twenty cats, Guerra offers quirky, poetic insights into the famous folk he collaborated with. Some interesting clips from his films are also included – The Tenth Victim (1965), starring Ursula Andress in an exploding bra, looks especially worth chasing up. Altogether, a nice find for lovers of Italian cinema.