Arrow Video: The Assassin (1961) - Reviewed

Before Italian writer-director Elio Petri became known in cinema circles as a trenchant sociopolitical culture critic, frequently satirizing class division and the unscrupulousness of the wealthy against the impoverished, the auteur quietly emerged in the midst of a creative boom in Italian movies.  Arriving on the heels of La Notte, Accatone and La Dolce Vita, Petri’s feature film debut The Assassin co-written by frequent collaborator Tonino Guerra follows rich fop antiques dealer Alfredo Martelli (Marcello Mastroianni) who finds his idyllic lifestyle turned upside down when he becomes the prime suspect in the murder of his elder, wealthier lover Adalgisa de Matteis (Micheline Presle).  Arrested and incarcerated without explanation as an increasingly fascistic police investigation begins, The Assassin much like the director’s future Trilogy of Neuroses becomes less about solving the crime than it illustrates the mutual hypocrisies on both sides of the social ladder.

Visually arresting thanks to future Blow-Up cinematographer Carlo Di Palmi, Petri’s The Assassin brilliantly exploits the archaic city of Rome as a modern city strolled by the well-to-do elites while the poor and homeless slither and skulk about like a pestilence.  The film also sports a wonderfully sardonic jazzy score by The Witches composer Piero Piccioni which serves to highlight our protagonist’s elite lifestyle as well as underscore the absurdity of the scenario.  As with his bitterly funny social satire Property is No Longer a Theft, the acerbic series of vices exchanged by the polar opposite extremes of society are anchored by a brilliant central performance by leading man Mastroianni. 

Already a superstar after starring in Federico Fellini’s and La Dolce Vita, Mastroianni manages to evoke sympathy as well as scorn without losing the viewer’s support and belief in the antique dealer’s innocence.  While aided by a stellar cast including some surprising moments of flashbacks of Martelli as a youth, Mastroianni singlehandedly carries most of the picture all by himself.  In another actor’s hands, the character as written and presented would be tough for audiences to swallow as we’re walked through uglier chapters in Martelli’s past life taking advantage of the poor.  It’s a testament to Mastroianni’s screen presence and charisma that our sympathies remain with Martelli even as the picture gives us numerous reasons to abandon him.

An effective debut signaling the emergence of a soon-to-be major talent in Italian film, The Assassin while opening to critical acclaim unfortunately became lost in the shuffle amid the many other great Italian cinematic milestones released around the same period.  It wasn’t until around the director’s last collaboration with screenwriter Tonino Guerra, A Quiet Place in the Country, that Petri became recognized in Italy as a formidable political filmmaker.  While Petri indeed went on to make far stronger films later in his career, The Assassin remains an impressive first-time effort from a soon-to-be auteur in the process of figuring out his thematic interests.  If nothing else, it provides another reminder to cinephiles as to why Mastroianni was and still is regarded as one of Italy’s finest film actors.

-Andrew Kotwicki