Color, 1971, 100 mins. 41 secs. / 104 mins. 52 secs.
Directed by Maurizio Lucidi
Starring Tomas Milian, Pierre Clémenti, Katia Christine, Marisa Bartoli
Mondo Macabro (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Shameless Screen Entertainment (DVD) (UK R0 PAL), New Video (DVD) (Germany R0 PAL), Surf Video (DVD) (Italy R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

The giallo craze in Italian cinema had exploded to its busiest level ever from 1971 through 1973 in the wake of the success of films like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and given the fact that dozens of films were being churned out each year, it was natural for more than a few to fall through the cracks. One of the best of these lesser-known gems is 1971's The Designated Victim, an overt riff on Strangers on a Train that bears a stronger resemblance to the source novel by Patricia Highsmith than Alfred Hitchcock's radically altered screen version. Apart from its nudity-laden opening credits, the film largely avoids the splashy sex and violence that made the giallo such a lucrative export from Italy at the time, a likely reason it was barely shown outside of Italy despite starring two of Europe's most prominent leading men at the time. Since then its handful of English-friendly home video releases have boosted its reputation among giallo fans, though it still hasn't really gotten its full due.

Stuck in a dead marriage, Milan advertising businessman Stefano (Milian) spends his time on a trip to Venice with his mistress, Fabienne (Christine), and taking in the local sights. During an evening of gambling he exchanges looks with the flamboyant Count Matteo Tiepolo (Belle de Jour's Clémenti), the first of several encounters that will grow increasingly sinister. During a nocturnal gondola ride together the Count proposes a murder exchange, whereby Matteo will kill off the Count's brother in exchange for getting rid of Stefano's wife. When the Count seems to go through with his plan, Stefano realizes the whole thing wasn't just some decadent joke and finds himself pressured to carry out a murder he doesn't want to commit.

Despite its obvious narrative debts in the script co-written by future Night Train Murders, Who Saw Her Die? and Short Night of Glass Dolls filmmaker Aldo Lado, The Designated Victim definitely feels like its own beast with the Venetian setting making for an unusual and effective backdrop all the way to the memorable, tense climax. The film is carried almost entirely by the two leads who dominate every scene, with their contrasting appearances and acting styles making for a wry comment on the lingering counterculture at the time that was still fueling lots of gialli (most visibly in the films Umberto Lenzi was cranking out around the same time). It's easily one of the strongest films from director Maurizio Lucidi, who was mostly a gun for hire on star-heavy films like Stateline Motel and Street People before his career went downhill in the '80s, leading to several adult titles and a place in the history books as one of the many directors kicked off of Nosferatu in Venice.

After years as a cinematic footnote, The Designated Victim made its DVD bow in 2007 from German label New Video who presented it with Italian, English, and German audio options plus an alternate Italian track with... uh, less music, apparently, plus optional German subtitles. The widescreen transfer didn't look bad at the time, though it can get very dark and muddy with the scope compositions visibly squished. Extras include a German lobby card and poster gallery (6m40s), a German text essay with music by Michael Puttmann (5m40s), a fuzzy alternate Italian opening credit sequence (6m40s), a reel of fairly inconsequential extended scenes from an alternate cut for Italian TV broadcast (5m56s) with optional German or English subs, and bonus trailers for The Tough Ones, The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire, and Almost Human. That same year also saw an Italian DVD release with no English-friendly options. In 2008, Shameless Screen Entertainment brought the film to U.K. DVD featuring both the English and Italian tracks with optional English subtitles, more accurate (and less squeezed scope framing), and much better color and detail than the earlier disc. That said, it swings awfully far in the other direction on the brightness scale, pretty much removing any real shadows or real black tones. Extras include an informative pop-up fact track during the film by Stefan Novak, the original English-language trailer, a gallery of home video release art, the same Italian deleted scenes with subtitles (and the same broadcast bug in the corner), and the usual batch of newly-created bonus promos.

Almost 15 years later, The Designated Victim finally got a much-needed revisit with its first U.S. release of any kind and its global Blu-ray debut from Mondo Macabro including a limited 1500-unit, red-case edition that comes a set of lobby card reproduction art cards, reversible cover art, and an exclusive illustrated booklet featuring a new essay by Roberto Curti, "On Designated Victims," which offers a fascinating reading of the use of the word "plagiarism" and how it applies to multiple inspirations for this film including a real 1958 murder case tied to other films as well. He also goes into the legal hassles Clementi encountered just after making the film, which would take a permanent toll on him. The new 4K restoration from the original camera negative is a substantial step up in terms of detail with a crisp presentation that still leaves the substantial film grain in the darker scenes alone in its natural state. Even without reading the opening restoration notes it's obvious that the film lab L'Immagine Ritrovata was involved since it has those unmistakable tan-leaning white levels seen on virtually all of their other restorations. Both the Italian and English tracks are included in LPCM 1.0 mono with optional English subtitles and sound pristine; it's a toss up which one is better since it's dubbed either way, with Milian speaking the lion's share of his lines in Italian and Clementi in something that looks like heavily accented English. That said, the Italian track is mixed with a lot more care including a complex layering of sound effects in outdoors scenes often missing from the English one.

The film can also be played in an extended version, reinstating those SD deleted bits back into the film for the first time in decades if you'd like to see how they play out in context. It's fascinating to watch it all stitched together, variations in quality aside, though first-time viewers should definitely stick with the usual theatrical cut before proceeding. A substantial new audio commentary by the Fragments of Fear podcast, a.k.a. Rachael Nisbet and Peter Jilmstad, isn't really scene specific and focuses instead on the state of the early '70s giallo, the debts to earlier Hollywood and European thrillers, the way the visual style mirrors the fractured brotherhood motif of the story, and the backgrounds of the director, cast, and multiple writers. A "Death and Beauty in Venice" interview with Lado (48m4s), who both co-wrote and served as assistant director, covers his time in the giallo trenches, his various jobs in the industry, his awareness (or kind-of lack thereof of Strangers on a Train), and the working relationship between the two main actors as well as his later encounters with Milian. Check out Lado's distinctive taste in hats, too. Next comes a NSFW interview with Pierre's son, Balthazar Clémenti, in "Pope of Counterculture" (27m42s), a lengthy survey of the actor's life and career including his often peculiar role choices, his political activism, and his work with some of the most notable directors of the era. Also included are the English trailer, an alternate English VHS trailer as Slam-Out, the Italian trailer, and the English-language main credits (versus the Italian ones seen in the main feature itself).

Mondo Macabro (Blu-ray)

The Designated Victim The Designated Victim The Designated Victim
The Designated Victim The Designated Victim

Shameless (DVD)

The Designated Victim The Designated Victim The Designated Victim
The Designated Victim The Designated Victim

X-Rated Kult (DVD)

The Designated Victim The Designated Victim The Designated Victim
The Designated Victim The Designated Victim

Reviewed on August 25, 2021