Alfredo Martelli is an antique dealer, living in Rome. He returns home one evening and proceeds to prepare himself for a date with his fiancé. Like all good-looking Italians in the early 1960s, this involves a sharp suit, a sniff of a flower, a jazz record and a liberal sprinkling of bath salts, before settling down for a smoke, a soak and a snooze. Awoken from his watery slumber by a phone call from his girlfriend, Alfredo is further disturbed by a visit from four men, who he jokingly suggests are an antique buying company, but who soon reveal themselves to be police officers. Taken to the local station for questioning, Alfredo is informed that his former lover Adalgisa has been found murdered and he is the chief suspect. While our protagonist is questioned, threatened, confused and lead through an increasingly surreal police investigation by Police Commissario Palumbo, Alfredo’s background of unscrupulous antique deals, relationship infidelities and lying to his Mum, is told through a series of flashbacks, until both Alfredo and the viewer are unsure whether he or his lifestyle is on trial.
Released in 1961, L’assassino is the debut feature from Elio Petri and is as assured and as confident as you could possibly want from a first time director. Reflecting on the increasingly relaxed morals of the sixties, while also taking a sly, satirical poke at authority, the film is shot in a very unshowy style and on occasions is almost theatrical in its staging. This ensures that the direction never swamps the story and as Martelli (played with the uber-coolness you’d expect from Marcello Mastroianni) sinks into increasing desperation, the pressure builds from the police, criminals and his conscience and the tension he feels translates well to the viewer. Aside from Mastroianni, the performances are first class all round, with Salvo Randone particularly good value as the hard-nosed, but slightly unsettling Commissario Palumbo and Micheline Presle doing a fine turn as the wealthy victim, always calling the shots in her relationships, but never seeming to find happiness.
L’assassino has its UK Blu-ray debut courtesy of Arrow Video and is presented in a nice clean 1.85:1 print. An opening title card informs us that the film has been restored from the original camera negative which was missing the first and last reels, and from a first-generation interpositive. Sure enough, the beginning and end of the film are slightly less sharp and detailed as the rest of the film, but these are very short pieces and are in no way jarring. Overall, the picture is clean, bright and devoid of any damage. Sound is offered in mono LPCM and again is clear, detailed and perfectly sufficient to let those jazz flavourings shine through. English subtitles are available for non-Italian speakers.
Kudos must be given to Arrow for bothering to create some extras for a relatively little-known film, made over fifty years ago. We get a 10 minute introduction to the film (and to director Petri) from Italian cinema expert Pasquale Iannone, who despite clearly knowing his stuff, has a distracting habit of continually glancing down at his notes, followed by a 51 minute documentary on the life and career of the film’s writer Tonino Guerra. This is an enjoyable, if a little dry, romp through Guerra’s collaborations with some of cinema’s most highly regarded directors, while also touching on his turns as a poet, painter, ceramist and artist. A 4 minute trailer rounds off the discs extras.
A reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork and a booklet featuring new writing on the film, plus a selection of contemporary reviews are also included with the disc, although these were not provided for review purposes. As a Blu-ray/DVD combo, this release also features the film and extras on an accompanying DVD.
Despite having never heard of L’assassino (nor, more shamefully, its director), I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a straightforward, no frills film, which tells an interesting, plausible story and thus keeps the viewer interested. The time and the place also play a part in its appeal. Seeing footage of any city from fifty years ago never gets old and this goes for the Rome of L’assassino. Arrow have brought us an excellent presentation of the film and have not only ensured that the film looks the best it has looked for years, but have also taken the time to flesh out the disc with some complimentary extras. Recommended viewing and another pat on the back for Arrow Video.