Appearing at the peak of Italy’s cinematic New Wave, L’Assassino immediately stamps its cool credentials in the opening moments. Marcello Mastroianni, clad in designer suit, arrives at his apartment to the accompaniment of a slick cool jazz score. Within moments, he’s chatting away on an ultra modernist phone and singeing his hair with a candle in some arcane hairdressing ritual. It feels like an announcement of intent, a positive revolt into style. And so it it, though Elio Petri’s film takes us in a direction that these early moments only hint at.
Mastroianni is Alfredo Marcelli, playboy antiques dealer who is interrupted one morning by a gaggle of policemen, who take him into custody without revealing why. Instead, he’s questioned without ever knowing what he is supposed to be answering about and left to sweat, with no access to a lawyer or information about why he is here.
It’s a rather Kafkaesque opening to the film, with Marcelli finding himself a mere cog in the machine that is working against him, and this sinister, mysterious and paranoid opening section is arguably the most interesting part of the film, showing as it does how quickly a person can be stripped of all power and reduced to nothing the the apparatus of the state.
Eventually, things become clearer. Marcelli’s former lover and business partner, an older woman called Adalgisa de Matteis (Micheline Presle) has been murdered, and as the last person to see her alive, he’s the prime suspect. So begins an increasingly odd investigation, with Marcelli dragged through the crime scene and then locked up by police men who don’t seem especially interested in evidence – they have decided that Marcelli is the guilty man, and so he is the guilty man. This isn’t such a far-fetched idea – we’ve seen in real life how the police in Britain and America are reluctant to ever admit to being wrong, even if someone is acquitted of a crime. Once an arrest is made, then the arrestee is automatically seen as guilty.
So it is here. The police in fact don’t seen especially interested in proving his guilt – he’s the obvious suspect, he’s been arrested and that is it. As Marcelli desperately proclaims his innocence and makes ham-fisted attempts to prove it, often only making things worse for himself, so the authorities seem all the more determined that he is guilty. The public, having read about the story in the press, are keen to point out what a strange and sinister character Marcelli was (again, this is a depressingly accurate depiction of real life, where anyone arrested for a crime will be painted as a bit of a weirdo and a ‘loner’ – just as Chris Jeffries) and two fellow criminals – or are they? – that he shares a cell with constantly harangue him to confess.
But like the police, the film itself is perhaps less interested in Marcelli’s guilt or innocence, and more concerned with putting the man himself on trial. As his situation gets worse, we see flashbacks to incidents in his life that show Marcelli to be self-centred and shifty. He’s a con-man who pays a fraction of the value for the antiques he buys, a two-timing and selfish lover, a bad son and a cold hearted cynic. None of these are capital crimes – or crimes at all, really – but they show a character who has lost touch with his own humanity. These, the film is saying, are his real sins, and it will take this extreme situation to make him aware of them. But even now, he’s essentially self-absorbed – his regrets are all his own, and little attention is given to his dead lover, who becomes little more than a cypher to hang the bigger plot from.
Petri’s film is a fascinating puzzle that is perhaps more admirable than engaging. Not that the film doesn’t hold your attention throughout, but as films where Mastroianni undergoes existential angst are concerned, this is rather less satisfying than Fellini’s 8½ , if only because Marcelli is such a shallow character that it’s rather difficult to become involved in his plight, while the flashbacks don’t really fill in the supporting characters – Adalgisa, his younger lover Antonella (Cristina Galoni) and others. However, Salvo Randone as the cynical cop Palumbo is impressively indefatigable and some of the minor characters are impressively authentic looking. Structurally, it’s almost an anti-Hitchcock – the everyman suddenly accused of murder and determined to prove his innocence is a classic Hitchcockian trope, but here the question of guilt or innocence seems to come a very distant second to the examination of self that the lead character undergoes.
Certainly, this is an extremely slick and stylish piece of film making, and makes you wonder why Petri is not a better known director – while some of his films have cult status, the distribution of his work outside Italy has been rather pitiful. He seems to have been in the shadow of his contemporaries, and that’s a shame, because L’Assassino shows a real visual flair and sense of the dramatic. It might, ultimately, be a triumph of style over substance, but it’s a lot of style.
Arrow’s new edition looks fantastic, and comes with a couple of documentaries and a substantial booklet that includes some of Petri’s writing from his time as a film critic. It’s a nice addition to a film that, while flawed, is nevertheless a must-see for fans of classic Italian cinema.