1965’s, THE TENTH VICTIM, is possibly the most stylish sci-fi film ever made.
That’s quite a statement when one considers there are so many serious contenders out there. Contenders like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, BARBARELLA, and ALPHAVILLE, just to name a few.
However, from the very first frame of THE TENTH VICTIM, the viewer is hit with Italian Mod everything, everywhere. The sets by Piero Poletto are so over the top they don’t even pretend to be functional. The costumes by Giulio Coltellacci look like a cross between Halston and NASA. The weird camera angles by director Elio Petri and cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo turn Rome into a fantasy world that’s never quite real. And the cast…
If there wasn’t enough eye candy already on offer, producer Carlo Ponti secured Ursula Andress at the very height of her powers. Just three years earlier she had made her debut in the Bond film, DR. NO. Men around the globe were still trying to get that bikini out of their brains. She was it. And she does not disappoint in THE TENTH MAN.
Finding a male lead that could stand up to all that was nearly impossible. Few stars of the day would stand a chance of even being noticed with a costar like that and a movie far prettier than them. But Ponti pulled it off.
He convinced Marcello Mastroianni to play the male lead. The same Mastroianni that had made a name for himself in the groundbreaking works of Fellini and Antonioni. The same Mastroianni that projected European cool in a way none of his contemporaries were able to ever come close to.
Stylish. Visually stunning. A cast of Euro cool that couldn’t be topped. All of this was then tied to a plot adapted from a Robert Sheckley story.
Basically, rather than fight wars, people are indulged to get out their violent tendencies through a globally televised game. The games rules are that participants are required to play ten rounds. In five of those rounds they are legally allowed to kill their assigned target and are called “hunters.” The other five, they must survive the attempts to kill them and are called “victims.”
If you manage to survive all ten rounds, something that is extremely rare, you are awarded a huge cash prize and allowed to retire to enjoy your fame and wealth in peace. You will have become the ultimate celebrity with all the trappings that go with it.
In THE TENTH VICTIM, Ursula Andress is the assigned “hunter.” Her target is Mastroianni. Both are already famous for their previous successes. Mastroianni already has six kills to his name. Andress has nine.
To make matters even more interesting, both Mastroianni and Andress work with sponsors to maximize the revenue from their exploits. Mastroinni tries to arrange for Andress to be eaten by a crocodile on live television. Andress sets up an elaborate ending for Mastroianni in front of the Colosseum sponsored by the Ming Tea Company.
It’s all “death for live television” years before RUNNING MAN, ROLLERBALL, BATTLE ROYALE or HUNGER GAMES. Unfortunately, the plot and whatever cynical point it was trying to make about commercialism, the thrill of violence, and society in general, gets completely lost.
The film is overwhelmingly about style over plot. Which is why I find it shocking that Variety actually praised this film the way it did in a review of the time. This review actually said THE TENTH VICTIM was a better film than ALPHAVILLE. What the hell they were they thinking?!
Well, actually, I can guess. ALPHAVILLE is visually cool as f*ck. But it’s still a Godard film. Which means it’s ultimately about intellect and theory underneath all that slick-looking stuff.
THE TENTH VICTIM appeals to a very different part of the brain. The animal part. The part that craves sex, death and shiny, pretty things. And that’s not a bad thing, as long as you go in knowing that.
When you watch THE TENTH VICTIM, don’t worry about understanding the plot or how much of it doesn’t make one bit of sense. Just sit back, open your eyes and pig out on all that style. On its own terms, it really is an amazing film.
More importantly, the animal part of your brain will sincerely thank you for it.