Among the great wave of film debuts in the late 1950s and early 1960s, that of Rome-born director Elio Petri is often overshadowed by those of his contemporaries both in Italy and abroad. Even in terms of Petri’s own body of work, later films such as the Oscar-winning Indagine d’un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto (Investigation of A Citizen Above Suspicion, 1970) and Todo modo (1976) are undoubtedly much better-known than his earlier work, especially outside of Italy.

Shot largely on location in the Italian capital, and starring Marcello Mastroianni and Salvo Randone, L’assassino (1961) is a typically Kafkaesque tale; the story of an unscrupulous antiques dealer in his mid-30s suspected of murdering his wealthy older lover. “L’Assassino reflected the changes wrought by the early 60s”, Petri said in a 1979 interview. “[What it was about] was a new generation of upstarts who lacked any kind of moral scruple.” (1) The director argued that, maybe even more than Kafka, the film was Camusian in its outlook, especially in terms of its use of irony. It is this tone that can be said to differentiate Petri’s approach from that of Michelangelo Antonioni, whose films of the same period, while often featuring similar types of characters, are not renowned for their sense of irony (and this despite both directors employing the screenwriting talents of Tonino Guerra). What also sets Petri apart from the director of L’avventura (1960) is his open engagement with the genre picture, in this case, the giallo (2).

In the opening minutes of L’assassino, bon viveur Alfredo Martelli (Mastroianni) is arrested on suspicion of murder. He is taken into custody where he becomes locked in a battle-of-wills with dogged police inspector Palumbo (Randone), whose attitude toward his suspect is based less on hard evidence than on an instinctive antipathy. As the investigation progresses, Petri employs a flashback structure to reveal important aspects of Martelli’s lifestyle and character, including his relationship with the victim Adalgisa (Micheline Presle) and his younger lover Nicoletta (Cristina Gaioni). Rather than a conventional giallo, therefore, what takes shape is a pitiless character study very much in keeping with other Mastroianni films of the period (perhaps most notably Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita). In Beyond The Latin Lover: Marcello Mastroianni, Masculinity, and Italian Cinema, Jacqueline Reich writes:

But what is Marcello’s character [in La Dolce Vita]? Who is he? Rather than the Latin lover, he is the inetto, the Italian incarnation of the schlemiel or anti-hero. Throughout the film, Marcello fails to accomplish anything. Incapable of making a choice between journalism and literature, he semi-prostitutes himself instead to the tabloids. Mired in mediocrity, he succumbs to the temptations of bourgeois and aristocratic decadence.(3)

While differing in several ways from his character in Fellini’s film, Mastroianni’s Martelli is similarly “mired in mediocrity”; he is concerned less with the authorities eventually proving his guilt and more with having his life placed under the microscope of a police investigation.

Historian Mira Liehm unfairly criticises Petri for what she calls a “lack of visual imagination” (4). His films, she claims,

rarely go beyond the limits of well-narrated plots with the characters moving on a circumscribed checkerboard. Their emotional impact is weakened by the director’s hesitations about what he really wants to do – mysteries, psychological studies, or political films – and this uncertainty results in a lack of style. (5)

For anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Petri’s body of work, such a view rings completely false. L’assassino, while perhaps not reaching the formal daring of later Petri works such as La decima vittima (The Tenth Victim, 1965) or Un tranquillo posto di campagna (A Quiet Place in the Country, 1968), is far bolder than Liehm’s withering claim suggests. Throughout the film, Petri generally opts for a smooth, crisp editing style as he moves back and forth in time. However, the central confrontation between Martelli and Palumbo – which takes place at a beach hotel almost exactly at the film’s mid-point – plays out in a handful of extended, expertly choreographed takes, set against a wide expanse of seashore. The sound of waves rushing back and forth onto the shore imbues the images with a palpable unease. Palumbo, in his fedora and raincoat, makes no effort to hide his scepticism as Martelli continues to plead his innocence: “I’m odious to you, aren’t I?” asks the suspect. “To tell the truth, yes you are.” Palumbo replies. “Your kind of people are strange, I don’t understand you […]. But you don’t have to worry – odious or not, I am always objective.” As the case against Martelli solidifies, the local community start turning against him. Petri presents a darkly comic selection of short scenes in which friends and colleagues line up to offer testimonies which do little to help Martelli’s case. “He was the first to ask for a Marlon Brando haircut”, his barber says. “You could tell he was a nutcase.”

Before its release, Petri’s first feature ran into trouble with the censors, who took exception to the film’s depiction of the relationship between individual and authority – so much so that they demanded no less than 90 cuts be made. The director joked that the relationship between the film and the censors was similar to that between Martelli and Palumbo, the latter endlessly suspicious of the former. L’assassino does however stand out as one of the finest Italian debuts of the 1960s, setting out the themes and preoccupations that Petri would return to throughout his career. Randone would become a regular for Petri (and indeed star in the director’s second picture I giorni contati (1962) the following year), while for Mastroianni the film always held a special place in a filmography swelling with eye-catching performances. Indeed, years later, when he was invited to Martin Scorsese’s home in Los Angeles, he was moved to tears when, hanging in pride of place among the director’s poster collection, he found none other than the original poster for L’assassino.


  1. Elio Petri interviewed by Aldo Tassone (ed.), Parla il cinema italiano Volume 2, Il Formichiere, Milano, 1979, p. 239. Author’s translation.
  2. In his interview with Tassone, Petri talks eloquently about his admiration for Antonioni: “As a director, he has always struck me with his perenially youthful, awestruck gaze […]. He helped me immensely, he was a great influence.” Interestingly, though, Petri also laments the fact that Antonioni rarely “abandons himself to [the task of] storytelling” (p. 277). Author’s translation.
  3. Jacqueline Reich, Beyond the Latin Lover: Marcello Mastroianni, Masculinity, and Italian Cinema, Indiana University Press, Indiana, 2004, pp. 39-40.
  4. Mira Liehm, Passion and Defiance: Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present, University of California Press, Los Angeles, 1984, p. 210.
  5. Liehm, p. 210.

L’assassino (1961 Italy/France 83 mins)

Prod Co: Vides Cinematografica/Société Générale de Cinématographie/Titanus Prod: Franco Cristaldi Dir: Elio Petri Scr: Tonino Guerra, Elio Petri Phot: Carlo Di Palma Ed: Ruggero Mastroianni Prod Des: Giovanni Checchi, Renzo Vespignani Mus: Piero Piccioni

Cast: Marcello Matroianni, Micheline Presle, Cristina Gaioni, Salva Randone, Andrea Checchi, Francesco Grandjacquet

About The Author

Pasquale Iannone teaches Film Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He is also a critic and broadcaster, regularly contributing to Sight & Sound and various BBC Radio programmes.

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