Before The Hunger Games, before Battle Royale, before The Running Man, there was Elio Petri’s The 10th Victim. Based on Robert Sheckley‘s short story “The Seventh Victim” (Petri upped the body count), this 1965 feature is set in a near future of unlikely fashions and pop-art stylings, where comic books are the literature of the day and murder games have become the dominant form of media entertainment. The government-sponsored “The Big Hunt” is the original Survivor as a series of one-on-one bouts: “a real chase, a real victim and a real killing,” promises the cheery TV host as he outlines the rules for the home viewing audience.
It’s ostensibly “a safety valve for humanity” but Petri’s wry perspective reveals the activity as less primal scream than the logical evolution of today’s reality TV fad. The hunter is given a target and the victim has to be on guard to pick out a potential assassin from the crowd. These games don’t play out in a controlled arena but in the streets and sometime in the nightclubs of the real world, where the occasional civilian becomes collateral damage. And unlike the usual dystopian portraits of kill-or-be-killed games, which invariably play out as a form of punishment and social control by an oppressive regime, this game is completely voluntary. No surprise, there’s no shortage of competitors. The lure of celebrity, prize winnings and endorsement deals apparently trumps survival instinct. Or maybe it’s just a matter of a population so narcotized into numbness that they jump at anything that can offer them a sensation outside of their consumer bubble.
Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo), Elio Petri’s blackly comic satire of politics and power in late-1060s Italy, opens with a charismatic chief of detectives (Gian Maria Volonté) murdering his mistress (Florinda Bolkan) on the day of his promotion to the political division and mucking about with the crime scene as if staging a puzzle for his successor. It’s a perverse game of power by a bored and corrupted politico who brazenly leaves clues to his own guilt at the scene as if daring the department to arrest him, and his disappointment in their response is less a matter of moral judgment than unhinged obsession. But then this whole culture is unhinged in Petri’s view, one enormous political construct designed to protect itself from all challenges (“Repression is civilization!” he shouts to a responsive crowd of government officials and gatekeepers). Petri was no stranger to social satire, but where the satire of his pre-Survivor reality game death hunt film The Tenth Victim veers toward parody and shares a winking complicity with the audience, this Investigation is more Kafka-esque in its grotesque portrait of a Fascistic culture. Subtle it isn’t, though Volonté is magnificent, a mix of hearty decadence, corrupted boredom and wily game-playing. It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
Never before on disc in the U.S., Criterion presents a new 4K digital restoration partially funded by the Film Foundation and mastered with supervision by Grover Crisp. The American disc debut features two DVDs and one Blu-ray and each format includes the film and all the supplements, including two documentaries: the feature-length 2005 Elio Petri: Notes About a Filmmaker (on the life and career of the director) and the 50-minute Investigation of a Citizen Named Volonté (on actor Gian Maria Volonté). Also includes an archival interview with Petri from 1970, a 2010 interview with composer Ennio Morricone, and a new interview with film scholar Camilla Zamboni, plus trailers and a booklet with essays and notes.
Il Generale della Rovere (Raro, Blu-ray, DVD), previously released as a Criterion DVD, gets a new edition and a Blu-ray debut from Raro, which specializes Italian classics and genre rediscoveries. This 1959 drama, one of Roberto Rossellini’s last commercially-targeted pictures, is inspired by a true story and it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Vittoria De Sica stars as an Italian con man in World War II who profited in the margin between desperate Italian families and the German Gestapo who essentially policed the country. It’s a richly drawn drama of an opportunist whose conscience is reignited and De Sica’s performance is a model of understatement and ambiguity. The new edition, mastered from the 35mm negative, offers both the theatrical cut and a longer director’s cut, mastered with more clarity than the earlier Criterion edition (the added scenes are of noticeably lower clarity) and presented in a windowboxed 1.37:1 aspect ratio that presents the entire negative image but has caused some controversy (the film was released in a tradtional 1.66:1 ratio). Both Blu-ray and DVD feature a video essay by film critic Adriano Aprà and video interviews with Renzo Rossellini Jr. (mostly repeating clips from the video essay), Aprà and Aldo Strappini, who oversaw the digital transfer and restoration.
Jean Arthur is one of the greats of screwball comedy, at once the girl next door and the sardonic smart cookie, the idealist and the sophisticate rolled into a snappy, sassy, yet still romantic package. Sony has come up with a nice way of showcasing some of the lesser known films by their marquee players in their new Icons of Screwball Comedy collection. The first two volumes debut with a quartet of films on two discs, each volume spotlighting a pair of actresses with two films apiece: Volume One featuring Arthur and Rosalind Russell, Volume Two with Irene Dunne and Loretta Young.
Jean Arthur had been more than ten years in the business, bouncing between stage and screen, when she made If You Could Only Cook (1935), but she had only recently come into her own as a leading lady, a talented comedienne and a formidable actress with a personality that bursts out of the frame. She’s second billed to Herbert Marshall, who plays an auto company president frustrated by a conservative board of directors and about to marry a woman he clearly doesn’t realize is all wrong for him. Marshall may have been no matinee idol – he was ten years older than Arthur and looked even older, with his thinning hair and doughy frame – but he was one smooth, suave, elegant leading man, a real class act with a wonderfully wry and underplayed sense of humor. He’s the society gent without the aristocratic snootiness and he seems to sense a kindred spirit in Joan (Arthur), who meets while she scours the want ads in the park. Before he knows, he’s posing not just as her husband but as a butler and takes a job serving a nouveau riche gangster (Leo Carrillo) with gourmet tastes. It’s a light little trifle of a romantic comedy with larger than life characters who carry the film for director William A. Seiter. It’s a treat watching Marshall get tips from his butler without a trace of self-consciousness and it’s not hard to see his attraction to Arthur, who is all spunk and street smarts but drops her no-nonsense front when flustered by the pangs of romance.
It’s paired with Too Many Husbands (1940), with Arthur top billed over Fred MacMurray and Melvyn Douglas (the husbands of the title). It’s a pretty predictable set-up (lost at sea husband comes back to find wife remarried – to his business partner, no less) and a fairly conventional script, based on a play by W. Somerset Maugham, of all things. The minor pleasures come from Arthur’s sly delight in watching the two men compete for her affections. The two-disc set also includes a pair of Rosalind Russel comedies: the original screen version of My Sister Eileen (1942), co-starring Brian Aherne and Janet Blair, and She Wouldn’t Say Yes (1945) with Lee Bowman, both directed by Alexander Hall.
The gem of the collection is on Volume Two: Theodora Goes Wild (1936), one of the great comedies of the thirties. Irene Dunne is magic as small town girl Theodora Lynn, a grown woman living under the suffocating strictures of her moralistic aunts. She vents her frustrations and indulges in her fantasies of uninhibited living by writing (under a pseudonym) a scandalous novel that she is forced to condemn when her own town paper starts serializing it. Melvyn Douglas is pure, unbound charm and impish attitude as the social butterfly determined to “free” Theodora from her double life and unleash her inhibitions. He succeeds all too well and she moves to New York to return the favor: it turns out self-styled artist Michael Grant doesn’t live the life he preaches. He’s an unhappily married man playing at bachelor while careful to keep out of the paper, lest he tarnish his politician father’s image. I would never have pegged Richard Boleslawski for a sense of humor, let alone a talented director of comedy, but he masterfully guides his cast through Sidney Buchman’s sparkling screenplay. “There’s nothing more deadly than innocence on the manhunt,” remarks one New York observer as Theodora embraces the reputation of her alter-ego and tramples through the polite manners and paper-thin veil of appearances of New York society. The film hammers the small-town hypocrisy much harder than the parallel high society double standards (gossiping biddies jumping on every scandal they pretend to abhor is an easy target), but it’s still a fun double reflection when it’s Dunne blowing through the social events of New York’s high and mighty. Her spirit is adorable, her laugh is to die for and her drive is commendable. This is screwball at its finest. The set also features Dunne and Charles Boyer in Together Again (1944) and Loretta Young in The Doctor Takes a Wife (1940) and A Night to Remember (1942). Continue reading “DVDs for 8/4/09 – Ladies of Screwball and Italian Culture Wars”