The Designated Victim/La vittima designata (1971)

‘There are no indiscreet questions, only indiscreet answers.’

An advertising executive wants to live the high life with his beautiful mistress, but his wife won’t sell their stake in the family business. A charismatic stranger offers to help by killing her, but he expects a reciprocal murder in exchange. The executive refuses, but the stranger slays her anyway and expects the same of his new friend…

An uncredited Giallo reimagining of Patricia Highsmith’s bestselling novel ‘Strangers On A Train’. Directed by Maurizio Lucidi, it stars Tomas Milian and Pierre Clémenti in a screenplay by Fulvio Gicca Palli, which departs somewhat from the source material.

Handsome young designer Stefano (Milian) hit paydirt when he married rich, older woman Luisa Augenti (Marisa Bartoli). Not only was it a smart financial move, but it also landed him a leading job in her advertising business. But, a few years down the line, things aren’t so rosy. He has helped the business to become an outstanding success, but he’s fallen in love with model Fabienne Béranger (Katia Christine) and wants out. Unfortunately, all the company shares are in Bartoli’s name, and she won’t sell.

While on a getaway in Venice with Christine, the unhappy executive runs into the eccentric young Count Matteo Tiepolo (Clémenti), who is interested in his problems. The nobleman is working through his own family issues and suggests the two of them swap murders. He will dispose of Bartoli, and Milian can deal with his abusive brother. Milian laughs it off, but Clémenti won’t let it go and keeps turning up, later on, pushing the idea. Meanwhile, Milian plans to forge Bartoli’s signature and sell the company shares, but she finds out about his scheme and also discovers his affair with Christine. Sent packing, he spends the night with a German girl, Christina Müller (Alessandra Cardini), who he runs into at the airport. When he calls home the next day, the telephone is answered by Commissario Finzi (Luigi Casellato). His wife has been strangled.

The central conceit of a ‘murder swap’ has been reworked in movies and television on many occasions since Highsmith’s original novel. It’s an intriguing concept and is broad enough that it can be adapted to many situations and characters, all different enough to avoid awarding her credit (and royalties). The definitive version is, of course, Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Strangers On A Train’ (1950), and it is difficult not to make comparisons. Unsurprisingly, Lucidi’s film is not in that league, but it still has some points of interest and provides a decent level of entertainment.

The film starts strongly, taking no time to get to the backstreets of Venice, which provide an atmospheric backdrop to the first meeting of our two antagonists. Milian is initially stand-offish, while Clémenti is open and frank. The latter soon draws out the friendlier side of the adman, whose taciturn, buttoned-down nature is in direct contrast. The two actors play off each other well, and these scenes are the only time Milian’s character is even vaguely likeable. The rest of the time, he’s selfish, entitled and miserable. It’s an interesting choice, perhaps intended to slightly emphasise the gay subtext, a notion supported by the way Clémenti stalks his new best friend after their initial encounter. However, more audience sympathy for Milian would assist with the drama later when Casellato’s investigations identify him as the prime suspect in Bartoli’s murder.

Lucidi opts for a slow, unhurried pace which is fine as the story always feels like it is evolving in a natural and realistic manner. However, it does highlight one of its most significant flaws. The whole ‘Strangers On A Train’ concept depends on just that; the two individuals being strangers. Although this is initially true here, by the time the film reaches the hour mark, Milian and Clémenti have been seen together in public places on multiple occasions, which makes the likelihood of their escaping justice somewhat unlikely. However, an alternate interpretation of this apparent shortcoming may play into the picture’s rather abrupt and somewhat ambiguous ending. The final twist calls into question Clémenti’s motivations all along, and, although at first glance, it’s an unsatisfying climax, it does open a field of interesting speculation.

This was the director’s fourth film and the only Giallo in his almost 40-year career. Here, he adopts a matter-of-fact approach to the material, swearing off any elaborate camera moves or extravagant, stylistic flourishes. He also resists the temptation to take the usual potshots at the rich and idle, much favoured by Italian filmmakers of the period. Instead, he makes a point of showing Milian at work, rather than attending ritzy parties, and his circle of friends seems limited to business acquaintances, his mistress and his wife. It’s also made clear that he is good at his job and that it’s through his hard work and talent that the agency is prospering. Similarly, although Clémenti gets a glamorous entrance, complete with a striking, zombie-like beauty on his arm, his affluence is only ever referenced, never shown.

Milian was born in Cuba and studied method acting at the New York studio of famous coach Lee Strasburg. He relocated to Italy in the late 1950s and was quick to make an impression with featured supporting roles in award-winning films such as ‘Night Heat/La notte brava’ (1959) and, as the lead, in Alfredo Giannetti’s ‘Day By Day, Desperately/Giorno per giorno, disperatamente’ (1961). The actor found his groove as a complicated outlaw in Spaghetti Western ‘The Ugly Ones/El precio de un hombre: The Bounty Killer’ (1966). Several notable examples of the genre followed, such as ‘Django Kill!/Se sei vivo spara’ (1967) and Sergio Sollima’s brilliant ‘Face To Face/Faccia a faccia’ (1967). Later, he sidestepped to Dennis Hopper’s bizarre ‘The Last Movie’ (1971), to the lead in Lucio Fulci’s celebrated Giallo ‘Don’t Torture A Ducking’ (1972) and to crime pictures and comedies throughout the rest of the decade. Occasional guest star roles on US network TV hits like ‘The Equalizer’, ‘LA Law’ and ‘Miami Vice’ followed and, in 1992, he starred in failed sitcom ‘Frannie’s Turn’, a showcase for UK actress Miriam Margolyes and the first sitcom created by now famous writer-producer Chuck Lorre.

A solid entry in the Giallo sub-genre. It never really grips but maintains interest until the final curtain.


One thought on “The Designated Victim/La vittima designata (1971)

  1. Short Night of Glass Dolls/La corta notte delle bambole di vetro (1971) – Mark David Welsh

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