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Ming Tea Makes Better Lovers: Modern Life and The Tenth Victim (1965)

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At first glance Elio Petri’s delirious 1965 sci-fi satire The Tenth Victim (La decima vittima) seems to stand out like a sore thumb from the rest of his body of work. Starting out as assistant director for neorealist great Giuseppe De Santis, working on such classics as Bitter Rice (1949), and debuting as a director in his own right with intelligent thriller L’assassino (1961), he’s best remembered today for the sublime slice of cinema politico that is Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970). However, beyond The Tenth Victim‘s pop art, mini-skirts and general air of ‘sixties goofiness’ it’s clear that Petri (along with co-writers Tonino Guerra and Ennio Flaiano) was subverting popular forms to ask some serious questions – and incredibly prescient ones at that.

The film plays like a moving fumetti, powered along by the ‘Spiral Waltz’ theme of Piero Piccioni’s wonderfully (and intentionally) kitsch ‘future-jazz’ score. It is the future, wars have been outlawed, and in their place is ‘The Big Hunt’; a seemingly worldwide phenomenon where willing contestants are “chosen electronically by a computer in Geneva” to track down and kill each other. Each contestant must undergo ten rounds, five as hunter, five as the hunted, and anyone surviving all ten gains a grand prize of one million dollars. We join the film as American Caroline Meredith (Ursula Andress) makes her ninth kill, and the computer selects the equally formidable Marcello Poletti (Marcello Mastroianni) as her tenth and final victim, necessitating a journey to Rome to hunt him down.

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Italy’s post-war ‘economic miracle’ saw major changes at all levels of society, with modernist buildings springing from the rubble, a new travel infrastructure created to facilitate the booming businesses, and levels of disposable income for the average citizen that were unthinkable before. The most famous early big screen manifestation of this was of course La dolce vita (1960), but we also see this newfound affluence and modernity clearly on display in the hundreds of jet-setting spy capers, superhero films, thrillers and gialli of the sixties and early seventies. The Tenth Victim was made in the midst of this, and despite its light touch reflects Petri’s concerns about where it was all going, not only as a socialist from a working class background, but also as an intellectual.

It’s hard to think of two more suitable leads to capture this zeitgeist. Andress famously rose from the sea and into immortality in inaugural James Bond escapade Dr No (1962), and the chiselled Swiss actress neatly falls into the popular Italian type of the maggiorata fisica – the formidable, highly physical woman embodied by the likes of Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida. Aside from the obvious 007 connection she provides and the fact that the film was clearly aimed at the same market, we also find Mastroianni playing a Bond-like character: a laconic stone killer and incorrigible ‘ladies’ man’. Despite Bond being of decidedly British stock, he can be easily identified with the Italian ‘superman’ figure, itself a hangover from Italy’s fascist era, the ideal of masculinity as promulgated by Mussolini. These figures – rugged, individualistic, anti-intellectual, and usually in possession of some superhuman skill or other – can be seen throughout Italian genre cinema of the period, from Hercules to the Man with No Name, and have since gone on to dominate Hollywood cinema, finding their ultimate expression, perhaps, in the form of Arnold Schwarzenegger.   

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However, here Petri subverts this to shine a light on the cult of the individual. It’s far from unbelievable that there would be no shortage of people eager to enter the Big Hunt in a world where the acquisition of wealth and fame for oneself are the highest cultural values. A callous lack of concern for the suffering or death of others may be nothing new, but to Petri this must have seemed to be running riot with the new breeds of capitalism and self-centred consumerism sweeping his nation. The climax of each Hunt is carried out in public, and televised around the world where possible, greeted by rounds of applause and general adulation from the onlookers. Bodies of the victims are left floating in the Tiber.

Today we seem to define our ‘individuality’ almost solely through our consumer choices, yet millions of us believe that we deserve to be rich and famous by virtue of simply ‘being ourselves’. One quick look at reality TV and certain people’s social media antics, and suddenly Petri’s hyperbolic ‘dog eat dog world’ doesn’t seem all that fantastical after all. Incidentally, Poletti’s ‘day job’ is at the head of a hokey sunset-worshipping cult that even he doesn’t believe in. He does it because he “gets 20%”.

Early in the film, a helicopter flying over Rome can’t help but remind one of the opening of La dolce vita, although the helicopter here isn’t transporting a huge statue of Christ, but instead bringing our ‘American’ goddess to Rome. They’re scouting for locations in which Meredith can kill Poletti as part of a TV advert for her sponsors, ‘Ming Tea’. The Colosseum is dismissed as “too run down”, so they settle on the Temple of Venus instead. This mighty echo of the ancient empire is reduced to a backdrop for a commercial, complete with female dancers in anime-esque costumes and men dressed like cups of tea. As they fly over the Vatican, we learn that the current Pope is American and, to avoid the makers getting into hot water, that the church doesn’t approve of the Hunt. As the ‘economic miracle’ unfolded, so too did concerns about an American cultural takeover – a takeover which is now more or less complete.

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In this future we also find that comic books have replaced literature, with Poletti’s favourite being The Phantom, the famous American strip by Lee Falk. Petri isn’t suggesting that comics can’t be art in themselves, but rather that the general culture has been dumbed down to an extent that even such a seemingly cosmopolitan gentlemen as Poletti doesn’t see any value in ‘high’ literature. Such infantilisation of the masses is a surefire method of maintaining control – and sure enough we find today that the biggest box office draws are Marvel/ DC superhero films, with the vast majority of their audiences not even seeming all that interested in investigating the printed matter that they’re based on.

What’s more, the classic comic books that comprise Poletti’s stash can indeed now surely be seen as something akin to high literature in comparison to some of today’s preferred childhood entertainments. Take for example YouTube videos of other people playing Minecraft or the ‘unboxing’ of toys. Budding consumers watching footage of others consuming. Of course, many children still can and do enjoy the printed word, but it would be interesting to know what Petri would have made of these phenomena! In a similar way, The Tenth Victim itself now appears a great deal closer to ‘high’ art in comparison to many of the supposedly ‘adult’ sub-comic book capers we see breaking box office records today.

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While we’re on the topic of infantilisation, we also find that Petri foresees the ‘cult of youth’ that pervades our culture today. In the scene were Poletti takes Meredith back to his house, she happens upon his elderly parents hidden behind a sliding door in a small room that looks like some Victorian stage set. It turns out that he has a good reason for this: in this future older people are people are liquidated, presumably to avoid them cluttering up the place and compromising the pop art aesthetic. We never see any poor people either. As a tannoy announcement at the Department of the Hunt asks, “Why have birth control when you can have death control?”

However, while much of the above serves to make The Tenth Victim sound like some grim, depressing dystopian melodrama, the fact of the matter remains that the movie is actually a great deal of fun, a supercool slice of arch sixties silliness. The killings are rendered in a comedic fashion, with Andress dispatching a victim utilising the finest in double-gun-brassiere bling and Mastroianni offing one mark – a comedy Nazi – by rigging his riding boots with explosives, just waiting to go off when he inevitably clicks his heels. And at the heart of the story is a romantic comedy, wherein the two contestants are star-crossed lovers, the Hunt becoming a metaphor for courtship as they circle and stalk each other, each sizing the other up. Hence Piccioni’s delirious ‘Spiral Waltz’.

Although that one million dollar prize money remains a great deal to 99% of us, it also doesn’t represent quite so much of an astronomical sum today, where the average Hollywood film costs hundreds of millions to produce and market. This can’t help but put one in mind of the scene in the Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) where the assembled powers that be fall about laughing when villain-from-the-sixties ‘Dr Evil’ demands that very sum when trying to hold the world to ransom. Hardly surprising, as that series of films originated from a faux-band set-up that introduced Mike Myers’ Powers persona in the first place. The band’s name? ‘Ming Tea’.

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About Rob Talbot

Returning from early days of Diabolique, Rob Talbot is a compulsive writer and cult cinema obsessive. He also writes for UK horror magazine Scream, including the popular 'Eurohorror of the Week' column for their website, and has also been published extensively in Starburst and Bedabbled!: British Horror & Cult Cinema, amongst others. Other obsessions include Italian soundtracks, Krautrock, and hard SF novels.

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