In the future, people play a game of hunter and victim: the participants take turns, in the hope of killing ten victims and claiming a financial prize. Filmmaker Caroline (Ursula Andress) has just been chased around New York City by a would-be killer, but she managed to foil him by hiding in an art gallery, posing as an artiste, then shooting the man with a concealed pair of pistols in front of the attendees. But now she may have met her match as she is selected to be the hunter of Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), who has made a fortune with this set-up. What if they fall in love, will that throw a spanner in the works?
Based on Robert Sheckley's short story The Seventh Victim, this elegant science fiction satire is a little too cool for its own good. Ther leads are well-cast: a bleached blonde Mastroianni has his accustomed world-weary charm and Andress is glacially beautiful as always, but all the glossy cynicism makes The 10th Victim a difficult film to warm to, no matter that the presence of romance in the two main character's lives should be humanising them in the chilly emotions of the posited future. Director Elio Petri was a Communist, which made his twenty-first century more a takedown of the contemporary sixties.
Here, life has become a throwaway accessory, death is merely part of a game; if you get too old you are "disposed" of (Marcello keeps his parents hidden away in a box room in his home, not because he loves them, but because he doesn't like being told what to do!). Almost everyone keeps their emotions in check and artifice is more important than real feelings. In fact, Marcello spends more time worrying about how to rid himself of his wife and mistress (Elsa Martinelli), who get to wield their own weapons before the end credits roll, than he does about getting killed, indicative of the Italian preoccupation on the worth of marriage in films of the day.
It is against this background that Marcello and Caroline perform their bizarre courtship - it's like the mating ritual of two deadly spiders. Despite the abundance of murderers, nobody in the film gets their hands dirty, all the killers use guns, or even exploding boots and hungry crocodiles but we never see any blood or gore. It may have been at the inception of the state colluding with murderous entertainment media subgenre of science fiction that reached its apex with The Hunger Games, but you never got the impression it was truly wrestling its targets to the ground, though the action is often interrupted by gunfights as other contestants break into the story's background and try to assassinate one another.
There are some striking scenes, such as that opening murder in the art club where the victim is shot by Andress's spangly brassiere, the sunset congregation at the beach where, posing as an ultra-sincere cult leader, Marcello uses a pill to make himself cry to make fun of the religious in time honoured Commie tradition, and the filming of the advertisement for Ming Tea (where Austin Powers got the name of his band from) where Caroline has finally lured Marcello, complete with dancers and people dressed as teacups. In this decadent society, death is entertainment, relationships are insincere and comics are literature (I don't have a problem with that bit, actually).
Overall, The 10th Victim would be cool as a cucumber if it weren't for the frenetic last ten minutes where the film becomes a zany farce and speaks more to the idea of love being a burden, with the woman trapping the man into a life of domesticity when he feels he should really be out in the world sowing his wild oats and er, killing people (?). I suppose it makes a nice change from the iciness of the rest of the story, but seems to belong in another film. The music by Pierro Piccioni was a definite highlight, an electric organ-led melody that enhanced the action with some insouciance. Watch for: the big eye on a wall, the trainer who seems to have had most of his body parts replaced, Marcello's best friend (a robot dog refashioned as an ugly little cyborg) and the two saxophone players.