“The Assassin” (“L’assassino”)
An Ordinary Man Doing the Out of the Ordinary
“The Assassin” is a small-scale film that bears some debt to the French new wave cinema that were being produced by Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and others. It is very much an intimate tale; the story of an ordinary man trying to do something a little out of the ordinary, and the effect that it has upon his life, if any.
Alfredo Martelli (Marcello Mastroianni) is a moderately wealthy playboy who runs an antiques business. When his wealthy mistress and benefactor, Adalgisa (Micheline Presle) is found murdered, a series of events follows. The evidence all points to him as the killer: he was the last person to see her alive, he owed her a large amount of money and he is all set to marry the young, rich and dumb Nicoletta (Cristina Gajoni).
Martelli is arrested by the police and questioned by the Commissioner Palumbo (Salvo Randone) and he tells him that Adalgisa had been content with their casual relationship and had even gone so far as to suggest the marriage to Nicoletta as a way of prolonging their affair. On that last night he claims that they made love and then he left her. Marcello Mastroianni faces up to the Italian justice system in The Assassin and director Elio Petri uses the murder as a way to focus on Martelli’s egoism.
Flashbacks show a variety of ways in which Martelli treated other people badly. He buys stolen goods from a desperate housebreaker for a small sum and then sells them to aristocrats at a vastly marked up price. He taunts a drunkard trying to pull an insurance scam thus causing the man to kill himself in a fit of depression. He fools a shy maid into taking off her clothes by persuading a lecherous friend to pose as a doctor and most important is that he treats his mother with disrespect. After each instance he’s shown to be momentarily regretful but continues to do the same over and over. We get the idea that even after the trauma of being imprisoned he will just go back to his old ways, and even use the temporary discomfort and notoriety to further extend his selfishness.
During the police inquiry, he examines own conscience. His excuse is that the morals of the day were not around when he was growing up and he was very influenced by earlier times and he mentions the influence that existentialist philosophy has had on him. While the increasingly Kafkaesque police investigation proceeds, it becomes less and less important whether Martelli actually committed the crime as his entire lifestyle is what is really on trial here.
At the core of this film is murder mystery where the police are quick to rush to judgment and in the process they forever change an innocent man’s life. The bulk of this film is told via Martelli who a few minutes into the film is brought to the police station and spends the majority of the film there. Once in custody he is put through a series of usual interrogations in hope of breaking him and ultimately forcing him to confess. Most of the back-story is related via flashbacks that retrace the events as Martelli remembers them. Fortunately for the protagonist the police take him to the scene of the crime in hope of jarring his memory and this inadvertently leads law enforcement to the truth they were so desperate to fabricate.
The film is a visual feast. Mastroianni uses all of the right emotions as his character tries to maintain his sanity as his world crumbles around him. Another performance of note is Salvo Randone as the police commissioner is also excellent. The rest of the cast does a fine job in propelling the plot forward.
2K digital restoration from the Cineteca di Bologna
Uncompressed Mono 2.0 PCM Audio
Elio Petri and L’Assassino, an introduction by Italian cinema expert Pasquale Iannone
Tonino Guerra: A Poet in the Movies: Nicola Tranquillino’s documentary about the great Italian screenwriter
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jay Shaw
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Booklet featuring writing on the film by Petri expert Camilla Zamboni, Petri’s own critical analysis of 1950s Italian cinema, plus a selection of contemporary reviews