Robert Sheckley’s ‘The Seventh Victim’, a prescient short story of murder as public spectacle, was first published in 1953, well before The Hunger Games. Elio Petri adapted it as the Ursula Andress movie, The 10th Victim, also the title of Sheckley’s 1966 novelisation. It is set in a near future where killing people is a competitive sport …
I submit this film & book review for: Carl V’s The 2014 Sci-Fi Experience at Stainless Steel Droppings; Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for review links, click here); Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo; and Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme at his wonderful Sweet Freedom blog.
“A good kill will do you a world of good” – The Seventh Victim (1953)
Sheckley’s original short story, first published in the April 1953 edition of Galaxy Science Fiction, depicts a future in which the people of Earth hunt each other for sport, the ultimate victor being the one that survives ten rounds as ‘Victim’ and ten as a ‘Hunter’. Joining the ‘Tens Club’ is now the ultimate social accolade. The protagonist is ad executive Stanton Frelaine, who is alerted by the ‘Emotional Catharsis Board’ that he is to be the Hunter for the seventh time and that his designated victim is one Janet-Marie Patzig, the first time he has had to track down a woman. This makes him uneasy but he travels to New York and to his horror tracks her down with ease, finding her sipping a drink at a bar just waiting to be picked off. This initially infuriates him as the ease will rob him of the full cathartic effect that the kill is mean to provide – this is a future after all in which wars are over but where individual duels have taken their place, satisfying an atavistic desire that just won’t go away.
“Damn women, he grumbled to himself, always trying to horn in on a man’s game. Why Can’t they stay home?” – The Seventh Victim (1953)
But he finds himself unable to kill her and instead takes her out to dinner and slowly but surely falls in love as she admits that she doesn’t want to take part in the hunt anymore – what will they do?
In adapting it for the screen, Elio Petri and his screenwriters expanded the story considerably, broadening the satiric element and making it much more of a swinging sixties kind of experience and a spoof on the media, advertising, celebrity culture and what we now call reality TV. We open in New York where breathtaking American beauty Caroline Meredith (Andress, here briefly donning a black wig) is being chased by a Chinese hunter (George Wang), ultimately disarming and dispatching him with a device that would later inspire Matt Helm (in The Ambushers movie and later the Austin Powers fembots) – here is how Sheckley described it in his novelisation:
“Caroline’s was a more practical garment than that archetypal brassiere of yore; for, as she faced the startled Hunter, each breast fired a single shot” – The Tenth Victim (1966)
Caroline is on the cusp of her tenth kill so the decision is made by advertisers to turn her next and final hunt into a major televisual event. Her designated victim is Marcello Pollitti (Mastroianni, in a blonde rinse), an Italian comic book fan (especially the strips of Lee Falk) who, despite a successful kill, seems to be enshrouded in a permanent state of lassitude. His European ennui, contrasted with Caroline’s predictably aggressive ‘can do’ spirit, can at least be partly attributed to his money woes as his ex-wife steals the winnings from his last kill and the oppressive attentions of Olga, his glamorous girlfriend (played by the ravishing Elsa Martinelli).
“She was an extremely attractive woman if you liked the type, which could best be described as homicidal schizophrenic paranoiac with kittenish overtones” – The Tenth Victim (1966)
The movie thus inverts the sexes from the short story, with Caroline slowly coming to care for Marcello, who seems to not to care if he lives or dies. This kind of nihilism and lethargy is in fact super typical of Sheckley’s protagonists, as is the somewhat episodic plot. The plan is for the hunt to end at the Colosseum, its gladiatorial echoes seemingly apropos even in the new media age. But things don’t go according to plan. The Victim and Hunter get to know each other and, after a few attempts to knock each other off – including one delirious plan requiring crocodiles, ejector seats and a swimming pool found only in the movie but not in the novelisation – the potential for an actual relationship growing between the two seems to subvert the nature of the game. Will a third possible outcome be found this time, or will cynicism and the latent barbarism of a decadent, post-war society ultimately prevail? My paperback edition from the 1980s (seen here on the right) comes emblazoned with appreciative encomia from the likes of Douglas Adams and John le Carré, which should give you some idea of both its generic affiliations (thriller and SF) and its general tone (satiric and anti-establishment).
“Tell me, my treasure,” said Pollitti, “do you have anything else planned for us?” – The Tenth Victim (1966)
Sheckley’s work in the 1950s and 60s often displayed a sparkling wit along with a stinging sense of irony and this adaptation brings to it that political edge that we associate with the work of writer-director Elio Petri, best known for his Oscar-winning allegorical thriller, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. The film is certainly a product of its times but it presages much we would associate with later works such as Logan’s Run (a subplot involving Pollitti hiding his elderly parents who should have been handed over to the state due to their advancing years was also not included in the novelisation), Nigel Kneale’s TV play The Year of the Sex Olympics and the absurdly popular Hunger Games series. Sheckley and Petri’s iteration, a sardonic SF retelling of The Most Dangerous Game, got there first though and is very much worth a look – and a read. Sheckley’s novelisation, while sticking fairly closely to the screenplay in the sense that they have the same beginning, middle and conclusion, also adds much that is purely his own (including most of the dialogue and a whole subplot involving the bitchy and backbiting advertisers behind the event) while also removing all kinds of sequences as mentioned above as well as his version of scenes that may have been cut from the final edit. The finale takes various elements from the script but completely revises them, making it much shorter and succinct (let’s face it, speed of narrative remains one of the defining differences between European and American popular culture).
Incidentally, the original 1953 story was also adapted for radio by Ernest Kinoy (you can read his script here and listen to it here). Later Sheckley expanded his story with a pair of inferior sequels.
The Victim series
- The Seventh Victim (1953)
- The Tenth Victim (1966)
- Victim Prime (1987)
- Hunter / Victim (1988)
DVD Availability: Available internationally in various editions, in the US the film is has been released in region free DVD and Blu-ray editions – the latter has a remastered image that is streets away of the original DVD, which however was pretty decent to begin with. They both offer the film in either Italian or English – in the Italian version at least you can hear Mastroianni speak his own dialogue but otherwise both iterations were post-synced (Andress is not heard in either, which weirdly was often the case even at the height of her fame).
The Tenth Victim (1965)
Director: Elio Petri
Producer: Carlo Ponti
Screenplay: Tonino Guerra, Giorgio Salvioni, Ennio Flaiano, Elio Petri
Cinematography: Gianni Di Venanzo
Art Direction: Piero Poletto
Music: Piero Piccioni
Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Ursula Andress, Elsa Martinelli, Massimo Serato, Luce Bonifassy,Salvo Randone
I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘Number’ category (for other participants’ reviews, click here):