*. Futuristic satire sometimes fails because it’s too far ahead of its time. That’s the sort of feeling I had watching The 10th Victim, though less because of the themes it addresses than for an aesthetic sensibility that hadn’t arrived yet.
*. The idea itself wasn’t new in 1965. The movie’s based on a short story by the wonderfully inventive author Robert Sheckley that was published in 1953. I’ve read the story, but not the later novel he expanded it into (which came out right after this movie), or either of the two sequels. In any event, the original story introduces the basic premise: people agree to hunt each other to the death, alternating as hunters and prey chosen by lottery, as a form of televised mass entertainment that allows society to blow off some steam.
*. That sense of the Big Hunt (as it’s called) being “mankind’s safety valve,” is drawn directly from Sheckley’s story, where the hunt is run by the Emotional Catharsis Bureau and is referred to as a purge. A name that would be picked up on in our own time for a dystopic murdertopia franchise.
*. In presenting a state-sponsored death sport that’s broadcast as entertainment, The 10th Victim is often credited with being the first of many similarly themed films, from The Running Man through Battle Royale to The Hunger Games (most recently, the popularity of Squid Game. shows it’s an idea with some life in it yet).
*. Being first counts for something, and it wasn’t just the first, but preceded the mass popularity of this sort of entertainment by several decades. Which gets to the point I started off raising: that The 10th Victim was actually too far ahead of its time.
*. What I mean is that it’s too much a product of the swinging Sixties, without the edge needed to give its satire more bite. I couldn’t stop thinking how much better a job Paul Verhoeven would have made of it, set alongside violent futuristic satires like RoboCop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers. Director Elio Petri was certainly interested in political satire with an edge, but we’re too much in Austin Powers-land here. I’m even pretty sure the bullet-firing bra Ursula Andress wears in the opening scene was the inspiration for the fembots. Zany Bond spoofs were all the rage at the time, and that’s what Petri was really plugging into.
*. Andress plays Caroline, a hunter. She’s a statuesque Nordic stunner (spawned in a Hoboken insemination clinic) who is also a bit of an “iceberg.” Sure to melt her is a Mr. Sexy named Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni). He’s Caroline’s prey, but may turn the tables on the former Honey Ryder. Even with his hair cut short and dyed blonde this is a guy who could “teach a course in Latin erotics.” Fire and ice are about to meet!
*. Unfortunately, the two leads have no chemistry and the plot is too stupid to bother with. The whole thing could have, and probably should have, been presented as more of a satire on media bloodlust, with the hitmen being pitchmen selling mint tea, but this angle remains secondary to random jokes on the decline of civilization. Things like Marcello’s mistress having a collection of classic literature that is just old comic books. Or Marcello keeping his parents hidden away in a secret room. Or the California-style cult of the sun worshippers. Or any of the fashionable pads the characters lounge around in, including the yellow yurt at the end that goes on a trip to Rome’s Temple of Venus.
*. So while sending up the media is on the menu here, it’s not given a lot of play, and Caroline and Marcello just aren’t interesting enough for us to care about. It’s all too silly, and the shootout at the end, with Marcello being chased by his wife and mistress, seems a conscious parody of 8 ½ more than social commentary. Somewhere along the way Petri appears to have lost sight of what the movie was about, and never found the proper tone for it. It’s still entertaining nearly sixty years later, but the stakes for this kind of satire have been raised.