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.
Elio Petri’s mod twist on “The Most Dangerous Game” as social bloodsport is the original Survivor, where the bored, the ambitious, and the just plain violent can sign up for a deadly game of cat and mouse with fatal consequences. Based on Robert Sheckley’s short story “The Seventh Victim” (the script upped the body count), this 1965 feature is set in a sleek 21st century future where war has been replaced by “The Big Hunt,” a “necessary as a social safety valve,” explains one TV personality as he goes over the rules of the game for the audience. “Why control births when we can control deaths?”
Marcello Mastroianni is the womanizing playboy and rising game star Marcello Polletti, who apparently signed up for “The Big Hunt” out a mix of ennui and alienation. He hates his soon-to-be-ex-wife (Luce Bonifassy) and is bored with his exasperated, demanding mistress (Elsa Martinelli). The game is not just his escape, it’s his pleasure, as his smirking satisfaction attests in his opening kill. His target is a strutting German aristocrat whose arrogant airs and Prussian military precision carries the air of Nazi officer, which makes his ingenious booby trap all the more satisfying.
Ursula Andress is the reigning champion Caroline Meredith and his new nemesis, a New York Amazon with a wardrobe as deadly as it is chic (as her opening kill, which she unleashes in an art deco strip club, proves). If she can successfully make Mastroianni her tenth and last victim, she’ll win the $1 million prize and the title of “decaton,” which accords all sorts of privileges. On the side, she negotiates a deal to turn the deed into a live song-and-dance filled extravaganza at the Temple of Venus while he arranges a similar deal at a private villa with a swimming pool and an alligator: just one big killer commercial.
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”