This was the first film from Elio Petri, a more mainstream director than those usually covered here, but one who is worthy of consideration as something of a forgotten figure in the Italian cinema of the 1960s and 1970s.
For, besides making a number of excellent films that managed to combine social comment with entertainment, he also happened to win the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1970 with Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, a film that also out-grossed The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, released in the same year.
A classic stairwell shot
Like Investigation; A Quiet Place in the Country; We Still Kill the Old Way and Todo Modo, L’Assassino / The Lady Killer of Rome could be broadly termed a giallo. But, again in common with these films, it takes a distinctive approach to its subject matter.
More specifically, it could be understood as a companion piece to Investigation, offering an inversion of the later film’s structure. There the protagonist, the murderer, incarnated by Petri’s later fetish actor Gian-Maria Volonte, is the police commissioner leading the investigation into the crime he himself has committed. Here, the protagonist, incarnated by Marcello Mastroianni, is the man suspected of the murder of his mistress, which itself is never seen, a citizen very much under suspicion on account of his amoral, playboy lifestyle.
Alienated man, dominated by his environment
Mastroianni’s character, Nello Poletti, also happens to be an antique dealer, indebted to and thus dependent on said mistress, suggesting a possible interconnection with Blood and Black Lace beyond the 'assassin' of their Italian titles and the presence in a supporting role of Franco Ressel.
Besides creating a Kafka-esque nightmare out of these situations, where no-one except the powerful is innocent and the law arbitrary and absolute, the other major influence here emerges as Camus, with the various flashbacks – or pseudo-flashbacks – to pivotal incidents in the character’s life, such as his selfish treatment of his mother, older mistress and younger girlfriend, the former seeming to reference The Stranger, and his once failing to intervene to prevent a man’s suicide, a la The Fall.
Both the central performance from Marcello Mastroianni and Petri’s direction are highly impressive, with the actor’s nuanced performance skilfully making us unsure of whether or not he is in fact guilty, and indeed also raising questions of what exactly this word might mean in this particular context, and the director utilising a nice mixture of neo-realist, post-neo-realist and expressionist / expressive images.
A curiously off-centre composition visually repeats the message of the dialogue
Yet, if there is an element of Antonioni’s style in this post-neo-realist aspect of the film, Petri also resists making an anti-giallo in which the mystery – did he or didn’t he do it – would have remained unresolved.
Of particular note is the handling of the aforementioned ‘quasi-flashbacks,’ precisely because they can’t quite be read so clearly as such, having that Rashomon-like quality of being the subjective, interested reconstructions of their originator.
As to the actual resolution, I’ll leave to watch the film for yourself, even if anyone with a knowledge of Petri’s background, work and politics and probably work it out for themselves...
Or, rather, one resolution, for apparently in some territories – including Australia, the subtitled version under review having come from an Australian TV broadcast – the ending was altered to give it a different inflection – an element which raises the wider question of what happens, as is so often the case with Euro-cult films, when the distributor or censors become effective co-authors.
With crisp black and white cinematography courtesy of none other than Carlo di Palma, sharply written dialogue by Pasquale Festa Campanile and Massimo Franciosa, and a pleasing jazzy score, The Ladykiller of Rome, well, slays...