The Designated Victim DVD review

A stylish euro-thriller with a great soundtrack, but it was almost beyond rescuing in terms of image quality...

The Designated Victim

Shameless Screen Entertainment, the world’s go-to company for out-of-print, hard-to-find sex ‘n gore flicks, has just released Maurizio Lucidi’s 1971 Italian thriller, The Designated Victim, on DVD. This is the first ever UK release for the movie, which takes liberal inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock’s famous adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, and creates something a little more edgy and nightmarish.

After a briefly titillating opening sequence involving protagonist Stefano (Tomas Milian) and model-cum-mistress Fabienne (Katia Christine), the film quickly develops into a sexless, bloodless thriller, driven by characters and an almost surreal representation of life.

Stefano is hoping to make some money for himself by selling stocks, but needs his overbearing, nagging wife’s (Marisa Bartoli) consent first. Safe to say, she’s having none of it, so Stefano spends more and more time courting his buxom lover. On an excursion to Venice, they meet a foppish Count Matteo (Pierre Clement), who pontificates about philosophy, Romanticism and controlling one’s destiny (‘I love melodrama’ ‘On the stage?’ ‘No, in life’). Before long, the count reveals his plans for ‘the perfect murder’. He would kill the troublesome wife, and in return Stefano would kill Matteo’s brother. As they are unrelated to the victims, and fresh acquaintances, the idea goes that no one will suspect them. Stefano initially laughs off the suggestion, but before long his wife is murdered, and Matteo expects his friend to uphold his end of the bargain.

The film is played with utter conviction; Pierre Clementi nails the decadent, creepy Matteo, and Tomas Milian manages to hide Stefano’s spineless, indecisive core behind a slowly-crumbling wall of laughs, smiles and evasion.

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As a thriller, this is slow-burning, almost too slow. The first half of the film is pure exposition and build-up; Stefano sulks and argues with his wife, makes half-hearted plans to forge her signature and elope with his lover and the money, all the while being stalked and pursued by Matteo. Here, the film meanders and rambles, and it is only in the final act, a twisted conclusion, that it really grips the viewer. Stefano’s wife is killed, and he is bound by lies, false alibis and blackmail to repay the favour. The layers of deceit and paranoia in Matteo’s meticulously executed plan are a joy to watch, and keep the viewer guessing up until the very end of the film.

There are hints, here and there, of homoerotic undertones, which often threaten to blossom into the fully-fledged homophobia. Matteo’s infatuation, pursuit and eventual emotional torture of Stefano are nevertheless rooted in the sexual, as he pouts at, strokes and bullies the other man. This adds to the palpable melodramatic aspects of the film, which are slightly unsettling but very effective.

Matteo’s to-the-point suggestion of casual murder is echoed by Stefano’s wife, who, on a boat trip at Lake Como, directly accuses her husband of not having the courage to capsize the boat and drown her. It is a bizarre, operatic world, but it is well complimented by its setting: an unwelcoming Northern Italy. Even Venice, one of the most fetishised locations in art history, is presented as misty, cold and bleak.

Also contributing to this air of slightly off-kilter tension is the stellar soundtrack, composed by Luis Bacalov (Tarantino pilfered a couple of his cues for Kill Bill), in collaboration with Italian progressive rock band, The New Trolls. A recurring harpsichord theme underpins Matteo’s scenes, perfectly expressing the character’s melodramatic ambitions and the film’s baroque tendencies.

Ultimately, the film is no lost classic, but its conclusion puts it up there with the best of those wildly entertaining late-night capers. The kind with broad, often silly brush-strokes, but without the calculated self-awareness and self-parody that deflate many more recent films.

Sadly, Shameless’ efforts to get this film on DVD have revealed just how neglected it has been over the last 30-odd years. The video track for this release has been assembled from various sources, including some which look like VHS-quality. The resulting ‘rebuild edit’ mostly runs in a nice, cleaned-up 16:9 anamorphic widescreen format, but there are obvious drops in quality every now and then. The result is workable, especially considering the source material and the production budget, but the Criterion-spoiled ‘high fidelity’ crowd should lower their expectations.

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In creating this ‘Fan Edition’, Shameless have assembled a generous package. The film comes with optional English or Italian audio tracks, along with a newly-rewritten English subtitle track. The producers are indebted to Designated Victim expert, Stefan Novak, who contacted them during the making of the DVD and offered them his specialist knowledge. This manifests here as a ‘Shameless Fact Track’, which runs as subtitles along with the film, giving insights to elements of the production, shooting locations, and biographical information of the actors, and so on. It goes a good way to contextualising the film, and inviting designated virgins into the film’s cult.

Also on the DVD are a brace of deleted scenes, which understandably vary in quality and relevance, and an art gallery of promotional pictures and VHS cover scans. There may be nothing earth-shattering here, but that is the name of the game. Shameless are a low-budget operation, after all, and their geeky pride in putting out this film is obvious and infectious. It may be the most loving presentation of an obscure, out of print giallo gem available.

Film:

3 stars
Extras:
3 stars

Rating:

4 out of 5