Sci-Fi Film Review: The 10th Victim (dir by Elio Petri)


10th Victim

Before The Hunger Games…

Before The Purge

There was The 10th Victim!

This Italian film from 1965 takes place in a future that is a lot like our present.  After years of war and senseless violence, the world is finally at “peace.”  Wars are avoided by allowing people to take part in the Big Hunt.  When you join the Hunt, you’re agreeing to take part in 10 rounds of competition.  For five rounds, you’re the hunter.  For the other five rounds, you’re the hunted.  Survive all 10 rounds and your reward will be money and retirement.  So far, only 15 contestants have managed to survive.

If you’re being hunted, you get a letter informing you that you are now being hunted.  The only way to win is to kill the person who has been assigned to hunt you.  Unfortunately, you’re not told who is hunting you and, if you accidentally kill someone who is not hunting you, you’ll be sent to prison for 30 years.  And, of course, the whole time you’re trying to avoid getting killed, others are being hunted around you.  World peace means that there are constant gun battles in the streets, all of which are calmly observed by a rather apathetic populace.  It’s a violent world but it’s legal violence so it doesn’t really concern anyone beyond the people that are getting killed.

(At one point, an announcement is heard while a hunter guns down his target: “Live dangerously but obey the law…live dangerously but obey the law…”)

Coverage of the Big Hunt is the world’s most popular television show and, as a result, legalized murder has become big business.  Companies regularly sponsor hunters and turn their kills into elaborate commercials for their products.

When we first meet Caroline Meredith (Ursula Andress), she is using a literal bullet bra to shoot a man dead.  Caroline is sponsored by Ming Tea and, when she is assigned to hunt Marcello Pollitti (Marcello Mastroianni), the company flies her out to Italy.  In order to make Marcello’s death as cinematic and commercial as possible, Ming Tea and Caroline decide to lure him to Rome’s Temple of Venus.  The Ming Tea dancers are flown in, a choreographer starts working on their routine, and Caroline tracks down Marcello.

Tenth Victim

Marcello has just found out that he’s being hunted and he’s more than a little depressed.  He’s also paranoid and when Caroline first approaches him, Marcello suspects that she’s his hunter and not, as she claims, a journalist.  However, because of the legal penalty for killing a non-hunter, Marcello cannot kill Caroline until he’s sure that she wants to kill him.  Meanwhile, Caroline cannot kill Marcello until they’re at the Temple of Venus, in front of the cameras and the dancers.

And, of course, there’s also the fact that, as they get to know each other, Caroline and Marcello start to fall in love.  When Caroline observes Marcello conducting a bizarre religious ceremony (he’s the head of a cult of sun worshippers), she is so touched that she starts to cry.  Or does she?  Are her tears just a ploy to keep Marcello from suspecting that she wants to kill him?  We’re never quite sure.

If you didn’t already know that The 10th Victim was made in 1965, you would guess it after just a few minutes.  This is one of those hyperstylized works of pop art that, for many people, define 60s cinema.  How you react to the film will depend on how much tolerance you have for its nonstop style.  Speaking as someone who happens to love over-the-top pop art, I enjoyed it but I could imagine other viewers ripping out their hair at the sound of the film’s peppy theme song.

But, if you’re patient, you will eventually discover that, underneath the film’s excesses, it’s actually a rather clever satire of media, politics, culture, religion, and just about everything else that deserves to be satirized.  Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress are both a lot of fun and, in the end, the whole thing works as both a surprisingly accurate prophecy of today’s world and as a time capsule of the 1960s.

Plus, I loved the bullet bra.  I need to get one of those.

It’s a dangerous world, after all.