B&W, 1961, 97m.
Directed by Elio Petri
Starring Marcello Mastroianni, Micheline Presle, Cristina Gaioni, Salvo Randone
Arrow Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), Titanus (DVD) (Italy R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Often overlooked in the constellation of directors from Italy's golden age, Elio Petri straddled the line between the art house and grindhouse more precariously than some of his more famous peers like Pasolini, Fellini, Antonioni, et al. Among most English-speaking cinephiles he's best known for two very different dark satires, the dystopian romp The 10th Victim and the Oscar-winning crime film Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, the most celebrated of his multiple collaborations with actor and fellow political hot potato Gian Maria Volonté. However, his entire filmography is a fascinating journey through multiple genres with a focus on masculine identity and guilt, with detours including a psychedelic ghost story (A Quiet Place in the Country), a philosophical drama (I giorni contati), a brilliant political thriller (We Still Kill the Old Way), and a surreal socialist manifesto (Property Is No Longer a Theft).
Before all of these, Petri made his debut on the big screen with L'assassino, a showcase for future 10th Victim star Marcello Mastroianni. The actor appears in virtually every shot in the film as Nello, a Rome antiques dealer roused from bed by the police after his older lover and presumed financial patron, Adalgisa (Presle), turns up dead. At the station he's interrogated by the law including a commissioner (Randone) who seems to be more interested in picking apart this opportunistic upstart than getting at the real truth of the crime. With more than a couple of political skeletons in his past and his actual guilt held in question for much of the running time, he serves as the framework for a string of flashbacks leading up to the murder in the heart of the Eternal City.
As both the packaging and supplements point out a few times, this film was released during a particularly fruitful year including La Dolce Vita and two Antonioni masterworks, L'avventura and La Notte. (It's also worth pointing out it was flanked by other films like Pasolini's Accatone and Pietro Germi's Divorce, Italian Style.) Despite positive reviews, this one has become strangely difficult to see (in English or otherwise) with the film elements falling into disrepair. A massive restoration was finally undertaken under the auspices of Titanus, and the end result is a stellar job indeed with the Arrow release (including both Blu-ray and DVD options) looking as close to immaculate as this film could probably get.
Watching the film today, it's impossible to avoid parallels to Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion which also used the murder investigation of a woman as the springboard for an ambiguous look at the state of bourgeois affairs and indifference to justice. Of course, this one is marginally more optimistic since we have the more ingratiating Mastroianni in the lead role, brining with him plenty of goodwill from his other work by association. The jazz score by the great Piero Piccioni is also a major plus, as is the evocative cinematography by Carlo Di Palma (who went on to shoot The Red Desert, Blow-Up, and a string of Woody Allen films).
The first legit English-subtitled version on home video, the Arrow release also sports a solid restoration of the original Italian mono audio in addition to the extensive work done on the original film elements. (A lengthy note at the beginning about that process adds an entire minute to the film's running time.)Virtually everyone involved with the film in any capacity has now passed away, but the extras are still worth checking out here. In addition to the theatrical trailer and a liner notes booklet with an essay by Petri expert Camilla Zamboni, there's "Elio Petri and L’assassino," a 9-minute introduction by Italian film scholar Pasquale Iannone who runs through the film's significance in the Italian cinema pantheon and lays out the histories of the major players, all shot from a supremely awkward camera angle. A 51-minute doc produced for Italian television, "Tonino Guerra: A Poet in the Movies" offers a surprisingly rich snapshot of the life of the film's screenwriter, who also penned many Petri and Antonio works as well as such films as Amarcord, Sunflower, and The Wild Eye. However, his creativity stretched far beyond screenwriting as he also explored the visual arts, crafts, and a general zest for life; it's a fine way to cap off a release that's easily one of the year's most essential for lovers of Italian film.