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April 19, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #172 - The 10th Victim

Long before The Hunger Games and even before most of what we call "reality" television, a 1965 Italian film predicted on-air murders thanks to a government sponsored killing game. The film is The 10th Victim, and the game is "The Big Hunt" - in which those who need an outlet for their aggression are legally entered into a battle as "Hunter" and "Victim."  The distinctions don't really make sense - both participants are well armed and basically it's an excuse for men and women to shoot at each other - but they do make for solid entertainment.
As far as I can see, the host of the show inside the movie never really expands upon why the participants in The Big Hunt are all male vs. female - but it's pretty obvious when you look at the casting of the movie.  Ursula Andress, riding a wave of popularity from her iconic role in Dr. No, and Italian superstar Marcello Mastroianni were two of the hottest names and faces in European cinema of the 1960s, and the chance to pit these really, really, ridiculously good-looking stars into a romantic game of death is a chance few producers would pass up at the time.
That said, it's a given that writer Tonino Guerra and director Elio Petri spend much of the film trying to make their stars the centerpiece of a fated romance that is set against some of the most beautiful Italian settings possible. The romance between the two characters - who are, naturally, the hunter and victim in one of the Hunt's contests - never really feels sincere on any level other than "we have to be close to each other anyway and we're both trying to seduce the other and we're also good looking", but the duo have an excellent chemistry throughout the proceedings as the yin and yang of this deadly game.
Andress' American character is the more driven of the two, because she has won nine previous matchups and is set to earn her retirement once she drops her tenth victim.  Mastroianni, on the other hand, gets to play the victim as a calmer, cooler character.  He's not giving up the game, but he seems to toy with his hunter as she gets close to him and instigates a relationship.  We never get the feeling that he knows the extent of the plan that her and the TV crews who are trying to rig the game have in store for him, but from the moment their relationship begins we can be certain that many plot twists are ahead.
The 10th Victim does not expect the viewer to take its plot too seriously, and the tone is tongue-in-cheek for much of the film. It's a relatively dry satire that doesn't go for many big laughs, but most of the scenes involving the lead characters and the workers behind the scenes of the hunt make it clear that the film is not too serious with us. One of the most enjoyable recurring tricks in the film involves the Ming Tea Company that is sponsoring Andress' character and hoping to turn her final kill into an ad campaign.  Advertising is a source of comedy in later films about deadly sports and/or reality TV domination, but few films have ever matched the flamboyant Ming Tea extravaganza that erupts in the final act of this film. (In case it sounds familiar, the Ming Tea name is just one of the things that was borrowed from this film and transported into the Austin Powers series.)
It's a shame that the satire and romance take up so much of the film, because part of me wants to see a film that claims "If we had The Big Hunt in 1940, Adolf Hitler would have surely been a member and there would have been no war!" and actually expands on how the game works as a release of aggressive desires. But the film is still visually incredible - the blu-ray presentation by Blue Underground is amazingly fresh and clear - and the two stars moving about this purely 1960s production is more than enough reason to admire Petri's playfully plotted film. It doesn't have the laughs of something like the spy spoof Fathom or the tension of other The Most Dangerous Game clones (even The Running Man probably has more drama than this one), but The 10th Victim is a success because it keeps us staring at the screen and never breaks from its trance-enducing style.

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