Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The Designated Victim (1971)

Country: ITALY

La Vittima Designata
Slam Out
Murder by Design

The Designated Victim is an intriguing Italian curiosity from 1971. Its position within popular Italian cinematic cycles of the 1970’s is highly contestable. A lazy scholar would simply just classify it as a giallo and move on, but its resemblance to that cycle is somewhat superficial. It lacks plot convolution and multiple red herrings, it does not have a narrative driven by deduction and detection, and does not have set piece moments of exaggerated stylisation. However what it does have is the look of a giallo. The film is largely set in the more salubrious reaches of Milan and Venice, and its characters hail from the arts and the aristocracy. This is an expertly realised world of bored and wealthy noblemen, and the machinations and artifice of the world of advertising and photography. We are without a doubt in the culture of the giallo, but structurally The Designated Victim plays out more as a straight thriller, and at times actually looks forward to the Poliziotteschi films that would become increasingly popular. In this case the hybridity of the film and its successful plundering of Patricia Highsmith and Alfred Hitchcock works in its favour. However what really makes the film a standout is the sparks that fly between Tomas Milian and Pierre Clémenti.

Katia Christine as the rather gorgeous Fabienne

Milian plays Stefano Argenti a designer working for an advertising agency who is trapped in an unhappy marriage, one in which his wife controls the purse strings. He is desperate to sell shares in the agency and return home to Venezuela with his mistress Fabienne (Katia Christine) in tow. What makes Argenti work as a character is the subversion of Milian’s macho image. Instead Milian here is submissive, weak, vulnerable, disillusioned and eager for attention and friendship. He finds the latter from Count Tiepolo (Pierre Clémenti), a dandyish aristocrat whom he continually bumps into while taking a short break in Venice. Each encounter is more important than the last, and although Tiepolo appears to be feeble and in need of assistance, his fragilities conceal a dangerously calculating intellect that latches onto the insecurities of Stefano in order to fulfil a murderous scheme. These encounters are made too appear romantic. The music of Luis Bacalov swoons and swells on the soundtrack as the effeminate Count ingratiates himself to Stefano and slowly gets under his skin. Fortunately this homo-erotic subtext remains just that, it is hinted at, but never elucidated fully. The Count is a magnificent creation, cultured and intelligent; he effortlessly ensnares the boorish Stefano. Every appearance of the bohemian and debonair Count lights up the film, and one of the most interesting aspects of the film is wondering what magnificent fashions the Count will be bedecked in next. Clémenti is excellent, giving the character just the right amount of brittle frailty, whilst always maintaining a sense of aristocratic dignity amid his skills as a superb manipulator.

Pierre Clémenti as the decadent Count Tiepolo

With their pact in place and the Count’s side of the bargain complete the film shifts into the territory of the police procedural as Stefano desperately tries to convince the authorities of his innocence. The only problem for Stefano is that his cast iron alibi was yet another scheme by the Count to ensure Stefano’s complicity with their nefarious deal. There is a wonderful sense here of an almost omnipotent force dogging Stefano’s every effort to resolve the situation. The Count is always a step ahead, with another plan in place, and Stefano simply lacks the wit to foil these machinations. Because Milian is subverting the iconic image of machismo he forged in the dust and heat of the spaghetti western he doesn’t even possess the physical attributes necessary to escape his dilemma. Instead he must acquiesce to the Count’s desires and eliminate the unseen sadistic brother who has been tormenting him. There is no space here really for the romantic entanglements of Fabienne, and the female characters are unsurprisingly underdeveloped. However the themes of doubling give the film a sinister and baroque touch which works excellently with the gothic environs of Venice. This is a chilling exploration of the male psyche and the concept of the alter ego, even if the perplexing finale adds confusion rather than explanation.

Tomas Milian as the disillusioned Stefano Argenti

The Designated Victim explodes with style and the director Maurizio Lucidi handles a relatively suspense free plot with assurance and intelligence. The director recognises that the emphasis lies on the two leads and frames and composes them in such a way as to indicate their importance. The screenplay was written by Fulvio Gicca and based on a story by Augusto Caminito, Aldo Lado, Maurizio Lucidi, and Antonio Troiso, with a massive uncredited debt to Patricia Highsmith. The name Aldo Lado will be familiar to enthusiasts of Italian cinema; he was the man behind the superb gialli double Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971) and Who Saw Her Die? (1972). Lado would seem to be the strongest authorial influence here, because all three films have a surprising preoccupation with the psychological states of the protagonists. The Designated Victim is an elegant and tasteful thriller and supremely entertaining, and on its day runs Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951) very close indeed.

© Shaun Anderson 2011


  1. I was so glad when I picked up this film up back when it was only available (to my knowledge) on that German DVD. Milian's performance is stunning as is that of Pierre Clementi. Great review, by the way. I need to dust this one off and give it another spin.

  2. Cheers Richard - I really thought Clementi was superb, that probably comes across a bit in my review :-) I have the DVD put out by Shameless a couple of years back, replete with restored footage. The footage is of low quality, but its as complete as the film is likely to get.

  3. I've not watched it yet, nor opened it, but I have one of the Dutch NEW DVD's with the alternate covers. If I remember right, the NEW dvd is also complete with the restored scenes in 1.85 while the rest of the film is in 2.35, I believe? Also, there's 9 deleted scenes, soundtrack, alternate credits as extras. I bought this mainly for Milian who is one of my favorite actors.

    I have only one Shameless DVD, the one for WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS? There covers irritated me with those ridiculous taglines, but I seriously wanted to get my hands on their BRONX WARRIORS tin.

  4. I'm not conversant with the other DVD releases of this title Brian, but I would certainly endorse a viewing. Your copy sounds like the same print as the Shameless one and yes the restored footage is presented in a different aspect ratio. A bit of a surprise the first time it happens, and the restored material is naturally poor quality. I'm not a huge fan of the presentation of Shameless discs either. Arrow Video are doing much better work now and have easily eclipsed Shameless - thanks for stopping by buddy.

  5. Out of interest Brian how do you find out about all these different continental releases. I dont really purchase any genre magazines, nor do I visit forums or anything. Therefore I'm pretty much reliant on word of mouth or scanning Amazon or other mass market sites. I have a growing suspicion there is a wealth of great material out there I'm missing out on.

  6. I don't buy many of the magazines anymore, myself. I don't have the large amount of extra money I used to have what with a house payment now, but I would get said foreign films original title and find foreign DVD retailers who were selling it. Many of these have English translated versions of their sites and many do exports.

    Basically I'd make a list of things I wanted, or was looking for and go from there. Also, forums would be of service for finding out about an impending release of a particular title.

    With the demise of xploited cinema out of Ohio that was the main source for genre imports (they didn't carry EVERYTHING of interest, mind you), it has become less easy to come by such things without ordering from overseas. DiabolikDVD took up their mantle, but they don't carry the wealth of other genre stuff that xploited did at least not as extensive.

    I just ordered an Italian dvd last week, a rare Henry Silva crime film from Lenzi that I already had from Greek tape, but I wanted this remastered version. No English options, but the improved picture quality is enticing enough for me. Videociak is one Italian site where I have bought at least a dozen sword and sandal movies in restored format and a couple horror titles.

    Interestingly enough, searching out these foreign sites, you'll find films on DVD not out in their native country, which has worked for me a handful of times. Japanese DVDs are the most expensive on the planet, I must say. $50 is the average price in US dollars. Probably a little higher now since the American dollar is in the toilet right now.

  7. Excellent write up of an excellent film. I'll be checking back here often!

  8. Thanks Brian - I've built much of my film library by renting DVD's and then making copies. Not the most pefect way of doing things, but I've been on a limited budget for some time. I tend to collect ranges from labels - so at the moment I'm collecting Arrow Video, Eureka's Masters of Cinema, and MGM's Midnite Movies range (those that haven't reached extortionate levels), and a few others.

    In the last fortnight I've made the switch to Blu Ray (the players and discs have now reached a price I consider affordable) and I've started building my collection - the only thing is it has made me much more conscious of lower grade prints. At times while watching THE DESIGNATED VICTIM for example I was wincing at the picture quality in places. I'm going to do a post on Blu Ray in the next few weeks. I think I've been most impressed with the audio presentation - especially on THE SHINING. It kinda spoils you when you return to DVD's of cult Italian obscurities and so on. But there is little chance of those kinda films getting the HD treatment (outside of Argento and Bava perhaps).

    Thanks for the kind words Rob, I look forward to seeing you around.

  9. Back in the late 80s and 90s I used to collect numerous bootleg copies of various movies and you would be shocked at the quality of some of them. I just wanted to see the films regardless of whether I could make out the action on screen that much. Some were far too bright, others were far too dark.

    I've seen some terribly atrocious versions of movies so I am more lenient with print quality since I am used to it. But I do prefer I nice copy, of course, but in some instances, you have to take what you can get for the time being.

    Blu Ray seems to work best for newer movies as opposed to older ones. Some older ones, it seems there relatively little difference at all in image quality. I have a handful of blu discs, mostly Roger Corman movies and Shaw Brothers films.

  10. Additionally, there's a few hundred films in my collection that are DVD-R's as there's nothing else available at the moment. As far as making copies goes, I do that with newer movies, then watch them later and decide if I want to purchase them. They don't make movies like they used to!

  11. It's an entertaining little flick and anyone courageous enough (or crazy enough) to attempt a remake of Strangers on a Train deserves points for sheer bravado. I don't think it's anywhere near as good as Hitchcock's film but then very few films are. It's still a worthy effort. The Shameless DVD is, like all their releases, excellent.

    As for Blu-Ray, for anyone outside the US it's simply out of the question. The region coding makes it completely non-viable.

  12. @ Brian - I do think Blu Ray appeals to the more gullible members of society in many ways. Because people are told its better, and the technological propagand supports it, certain people trick themselves into believing the imagee quality has vastly improved. The reality is that the difference between a SD and BR release of a new title is neglible. Its certainly not visible to the naked eye. Because I'm picking up BR discs cheap (I have yet to pay over £8 for one) I dont mind so much. I certainly wouldn't blow £15 on one. For older titles my experience so far has been that the audio emerges as the most impressive aspect.

    @ Doom - I agree that it isn't as good as STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, but it isn't far off. I don't think the Hitchcock film is vastly superior, just more slickly made and a lot more suspenseful. I think the two leads in THE DESIGNATED VICTIM are far better than those in Hitchcock's film. Fortunately I've been able to make my BR player multi-region - I found a hack online in under 10 minutes.


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