There is a small scene in Elio Petri’s The Assassin (L’assassino), which is set on a grey, miserable day in Rome. Two police officers, drenched from the rain and their shoes splattered with mud, enter a house in search of a man who has become the main suspect in a murder case. As the two men walk up the staircase, the concierge shoots out of her flat and scolds them, ‘Hey you, where are going, you’re making everything dirty’. In 1961, shortly before the premiere of the film, the authorities insisted on having this particular scene removed on the grounds that it represented the police in a negative way – according to the censors, the police would never make a hallway dirty.
The scene, as minor and negligible as it might seem, not only nearly led to the banning of the film but perfectly illustrates the climate in which Petri shot his impressive and still potent feature debut. Airing his resentment of the moral decay of early 1960s youth and the corruption of Italian society, the film is riddled with a refreshing irony that bears comparison to Kafka and Camus.
Dazzlingly intercutting police interrogation scenes and flashbacks to the night of the crime, The Assassin follows the investigation concerning Alfredo Martelli, a cunning thirty-something Roman antiques dealer accused of having murdered his former business partner and long-term mistress, the wealthy socialite Adalgisa de Matteis (Micheline Presle). As unscrupulous as he may be, Martelli (played by the brilliant Marcello Mastroianni) doesn’t understand what is going on as he is taken to the police station, and any attempt to find out more is met with icy disdain by the officers on duty. When he eventually learns what he is suspected of, he desperately tries to prove his innocence to the equally corrupt inspector in charge (Salvo Randone). With the subtle noir style of its plot and music, combined with Petri’s assured direction, The Assassin plays out as a smartly paced, deftly twisted cat-and-mouse tale that sees Martelli progressively losing his dandy manners as the police’s unorthodox methods grind him down.
Luckily, the above mentioned scene was never cut from the film because Goffredo Lombardo, one of the producers – he remembers the circumstances of the release in the documentary Elio Petri: Notes about a Filmmaker (2005), an extra on the Criterion edition of Investigation – told the censors that he would remove it but then released the film in its original version under the assumption that ‘the authorities would never go to see the film in the cinema anyway.’