It took Dario Argento thirty-five years to formally acknowledge his indebtedness to Hitchcock in the form of Do You Like Hitchcock, in which a film student comes to suspect his neighbour has taken inspiration from the Anglo director's 1951 Patricia Highsmith adaptation Strangers on a Train when her mother is murdered. It was by no means the first giallo to do so, however, as this 1971 entry from the little-known Maurizio Lucidi demonstrates.
At first glance Milanese businessman Stefano Argenti seems to have it all: wealth, success, and a beautiful girlfriend, Fabienne. In reality, however, he is still dependent on his neurotic and shrewish wife, Luisa. She got him started in the advertising business and holds the shares in their agency in her name. Neither is she about to sell up at a bargain price just so that Stefano can go back to his homeland, Venezuela, with no particular stated aim in mind; Stefano can hardly explain that Fabienne rather than Luisa is the one who figures in his plans.
The first moment of contact between Stefano and the as yet unidentified Count, and also a concessions to black-gloved convention
Enjoying a few days away in Venice with Fabienne, a solution to Stefano's dilemma presents itself in the form of a seemingly chance encounter with Count Matteo Tiepolo. Coincidence soon transforms into conspiracy as the two men exchange stories and, releasing that they are in a identical positions in having unwanted relatives, make a tacit agreement to switch murders: Tiepolo will take care of Luisa, then Stefano will kill Matteo's brother...
Pierre Clementi as the vampire-like Count; coincidentally director Maurizio Lucidi later worked uncredited on Nosferatu in Venice
Although it is difficult to fully gauge La Vittima designata / The Designated Victim – the alternate Slam Out title seems meaningless and inappropriate – from the slightly cropped, English dub version I saw here, it nevertheless comes across as a quality piece of work; in this regard is worth also noting that this is one of those films where a credit for preparing the English-language version is given. (Unfortunately, while the film is now available on DVD, there does not seem to be the optimal English subs / Italian dub option.)
Clementi is perfectly cast as Tiepolo, while Milian once again impresses with his versatility as Argenti. Although the female leads are adequate in performance and eye candy respectively, I couldn't help mentally substituting Laura Betti for Marisa Bartoli as Luisa and Dagmar Lassander for Katia Christine as Fabienne respectively and finding my imaginary cast more enticing; I suspect others will find something similar.
The score, composed by Luis Enrique Bacalov and performed by The New Trolls has a symphonic / progressive rock vibe to it. Not only is it comparatively unusual compared to the more usual easy listening, musique concrete and party music idioms, it works. Milian also contributes here, providing the gently sung title theme, with lyrics derived from Hamlet of all things – “to die, to sleep, maybe to dream...” – that recurs throughout the action and, crucially, resonates beyond the final act.
The mise en scène is subtle by the standards of much filone film-making, making it clear that Tiepolo is Argenti's douple without resorting to more characteristic, heavy-handed devices. Shock zooms and extreme close-ups are conspicuous in their absence (Perhaps we have a nicely ironic doubling between Luisa's repeated insistence that her husband be quiet, as yet another little tic adding to his sense that she must die, and the filmmakers' preferred approach to their material?)
Milan and Venice are used effectively – if the latter's representation perhaps smacks of tourist cliché, the point is that such touristic imagery, as seen in the first exchange between Argenti and Tiepolo, is warranted precisely because Argenti and Fabienne are at that moment tourists sightseeing in the city.
We also have to remember that their respective roles, as ad-man and model, are in a sense all about the perpetual (re)definition of signifiers. A romantic weekend in Venice or a bouquet of flowers equals love (per “say it with flowers”) and Tiepolo is to all intents and purposes that image besides that dictionary definition of decadent, decaying aristo.
Thus, if the filmmakers do not manage to transcend their source material they do engage with and go some way towards subverting or Italianising it. While the basic themes are the same as those of Strangers on a Train – exchange / transference of guilt, the double etc.– there are sufficient variations on that film's patterns to establish The Designated Victim as something more than – to here throw in some cliché metaphors of one's own – spiced-up leftovers with added garlic sauce (i.e. post-studio code nudity etc.)
In this regard, Argenti is also quickly established as a more compromised character than Strangers on a Train's Guy Haines. Rather than being shocked by Tiepolo's making good on his proposal, Argenti takes it at face value and attempts to make the most of the situation. His problem is not murder per se, but queasiness over having to perform the act itself by way of reciprocation, with a further interesting variation insofar as the absence of either man's family also means that he never actually sees the monstrous brother whom he is to slay.
It is this same unease that also establishes something of a distinction between the two men; that they are not complete doubles. (Although of course we can always here bring in the mirror double as meconnaissance / misrecognition if we want to get all psychoanalytical; as per usual I don't.) for while Tiepolo may well be a psychopath in the mode of Bruno Anthony or the later Tom Ripley, Argenti needs another to spur him into action and fundamentally appears to lacks the requisite guile and cunning. Here we can note his feeble early attempts at convincing Luisa to sell her shares for their mutual benefit, with his use of “I” rather than “we” putting her on guard. Or consider the awkwardness with which he gives his alibi to the police, able to tell them he was “at the movies” but not what film he saw, other than it was “a western”.
Yet perhaps this is also an honest statement of fact about the filone cinema and the way many critics have consistently failed to engage with in by relegating films like this to the status of inferior-Italian-imitation-with-nothing-to-say almost as a matter of policy rather than approaching them without prejudice and with an openness to the possibility that they might actually be something more. This was, after all, the great achievement of the French critics of the 1950s in looking anew at American Hitchcock vis-a-vis British. The challenge now, I would contend, is to afford this same consideration to the 1970s Italian post-Hitchcock of the giallo, especially as it exists beyond Argento.