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The Designated Victim (1971)
24th Oct 08
A rich aristocrat proposes the perfect crime to a businessman with a troublesome wife...
Yet again those admirable chaps at Shameless Screen Entertainment have brought us another welcome addition to stress out our already over-packed DVD shelving units, now becoming increasingly congested with garish yellow sleeve designs. The Designated Victim was more rare than most however - you couldn't just order a Region 1 copy before Shameless came along - no, this movie was virtually lost altogether, especially a ‘complete’ cut like this, the missing footage being taken from a television version. Naturally, anticipation grows over a title as rare as this, and who can blame us for getting excited about the idea of a 70s Italian version of a Hitchcock classic, replacing the slightly irritating Farley Granger with the essence of Italian b-movie cool, Mr Tomas Milian?
Milian plays Stefano Argenti, a successful advertising designer who wants to sell his share of the company and move back to his native Venezuela. Unfortunately for him, his cold-hearted wife is the share signatory, and refuses to sell, trapping Stefano in an awkward position. When he takes Fabienne, his mistress, to Venice for a few days he encounters a bizarre, debonair aristocrat, Count Count Matteo Tiepolo (Pierre Clémenti) on three separate occasions. They form a strange bond, as Matteo explains his unconventional moral attitudes ("Murder is an experience I've never had...isn't there anyone you'd like to kill?"), and before you know it, he proposes the perfect crime: Matteo kills Stefano's wife, and in return, Stefano kills Matteo's cruel brother.
But Stefano is no murderer, not like his mental new friend - he flatly refuses the proposition and retreats back to Milan, but you know how it is - some people are just so persistent, especially when they look like a more suave version of Justin Hawkins. The long haired Count seems quite sweet and friendly, almost desperate to see that his cunning plan is executed, so much so that he ignores Stefano's reluctance to proceed, then turns up one evening at his wife's apartment, where he strangles her. Horrified, Stefano appears at the scene of the crime in a believably distressed state and after undergoing police questioning, he encounters the dastardly Count yet again, who then explains to him the procedure to do away with his brother. Slowly but surely, the terrified Stefano realises that the Count holds all the aces, and that there’s no easy way out of this mess.
This is far from your typical Shameless fare. The Designated Victim is not a giallo, nor does it contain gratuitous amounts of violent deaths and/or female nudity. It's basically just a tight little thriller - an Italian re-imagining of a Hitchcock movie, but it's apparent that director Lucidi is no Hitchcock (although I never regarded Strangers on a Train as one of his best). His style does flirt with inspiration and he avoids prolonging the procedural aspects of the police investigation, which nevertheless plays an important part of the plot. The narrative drive is strong here, and (maybe because this avoids giallo leanings) doesn’t feel unnecessarily convoluted. The film’s conclusion is, however, really hurried, and this is definitely one of its biggest flaws, but this is a trait The Designated Victim shares with other Italian quickies, like What Have They Done to Your Daughters?
The movie focuses on the increasingly tense unfolding of threatening events, the almost otherworldly Count Matteo Tiepolo, and poor Stefano's plight. It's good to see Milian playing a straight, victim role, and director Maurizio Lucidi gets a well-tuned performance from him, even if he is occasionally prone to overdoing it a little. But who doesn't in Italian genre movies? That's part of why we love them. The actor who you’re most likely to remember afterwards however is Pierre Clémenti, who turns a remarkably charismatic performance as the weird Count, his flamboyant presence permeates every frame he’s in, and you almost can’t wait to see what he’s wearing from scene to scene! It’s a real shame we didn’t see more of Clémenti.
While his direction lacks the flair of many of his contemporaries, Lucidi manages to create a good atmosphere throughout; the fashions (especially that of the Count) are something to behold, always a common denominator you can rely upon with movies from this period. The use of Venetian locations is pure candy for the eyes, even using the Grand Canal as a main reference for Stefano’s part of the deal. And, in true Italian style, the proceedings are enhanced enormously by a beautiful soundtrack courtesy of Luis Enríquez Bacalov, with luscious baroque passages – a score much more in the classical tradition than other Italian genre movies from this period, so you can forget funky wah-wah and Schifrin-esque percussion (but the trusty harpsichord features heavily!). It feels totally appropriate to the overall mood.
In summary, this is definitely an overlooked movie which deserves a wider audience, but don’t expect the de rigueur madcap sensationalism that one normally associates with these titles. Not that madcap sensationalism is a bad thing of course, I’m all for it.