A man chases a woman through some of New York’s least populated streets, occasionally firing a gun at her as she playfully hides and beckons him on. He is stopped by a policeman, but, as he has the correct license, is allowed to proceed, following her into a club, where she seems to have disappeared among the chic clientele. The entertainment arrives, a statuesque blonde in silver metal mask and matching bikini, who gyrates her way through the crowd, pausing to bump and grind and slap various men around the face. She approaches the gunman and proceeds to do the same, thoroughly distracting him from his quest, then suddenly shooting him dead with the twin guns built into her bikini top. She has won The Contest. She is Ursula Andress. Welcome to Elio Petri’s The 10th Victim, produced by Carlo Ponti, based on a short story by the great Robert Sheckley. It’s a variation on the ‘bread and circuses’ strain of SF, in which the future masses are distracted from war or revolution by violent spectacle (think Rollerball, Death Race 2000, The Hunger Games), but it’s a more 60s, hyper-stylised live action cartoon variation, a swingin’ romantic comedy with lives on the line, featuring a bleach-blond Marcello Mastroianni rocking a pair of shades versus Andress in a hot pink batwing number.
From its New York opening, the film moves to Rome where Andress, with media team in tow, has, according to the rules, become the hunter, with Mastroianni computer-selected as her victim. While our Ursula seems to be making the contest pay for her, Marcello is skint after a punitive divorce. She wants to engineer a photogenic demise for him at the Temple of Venus. He wants to survive, preferably unmarried. The rest of the film plays out as a game of cat and mouse in a series of staccato scenes, as the couple dance around, and inevitably fall for each other.
At times it resembles a demented Bond movie where the set designers have taken control of the script, at others it is like some futuristic offshoot of La Dolce Vita (it shares the same screenwriters.) Petri frames Rome to look sleek and strange and modernist, with most of the cast draped in black and white against blocks of primary colour. He fills the backgrounds of his scenes with loosely choreographed action: gladiators, musicians, dancers, killers. It’s a knowing piece of pop art cinema. Comic books are referenced frequently, (particularly Lee Falk’s The Phantom), the backdrops are filled with Op art and sculpture, artifice and unreality are consistently foregrounded, the crass commercialism of this modern world is mocked remorselessly, but this modern world still looks like a hell of a lot of fun.
While the backgrounds still fizz and excite, it has to be said that some of the foreground action hasn’t dated either. Some of the media satire is a bit blunt and obvious, the marriage/divorce obsession just seems odd, and often the whole thing just doesn’t feel as sharp or funny as it needs to be. Having said that, it sure as hell isn’t boring, managing to bubble through its moments of dysfunction and disjointedness with pure energy. There’s a pleasant freeform ramshackle vibe, it feels simultaneously over-stylised and under-rehearsed, and the leads seem to be enjoying themselves immensely. Mastroianni is a cartoon of taciturn indifference, but given to wild mood swings of snarling rage and sentimentality. Andress mostly plays a sense of frustrated determination, a would-be seductress/killer foiled by Marcello’s manoeuvres, looking pretty damn fabulous at all times. A shot where she walks out of the sea in imitation of her Honey Rider moment is, of course, engineered into the proceedings. Petri seems to be largely an unknown quantity, even to Euro-sleaze aficionados. I caught his A Quiet Place in the Country a few years back, and remember its star Franco Nero opining at that event that Elio was like Italy’s Kubrick, a master who made comparatively few films, all markedly different, and all great. On the strength of that, and this, I look forward to checking out the rest of the man’s work.