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A UK region 0 DVD review of THE DESIGNATED VICTIM by Gort

See if any of this sounds familiar. Advertising executive Stefano Argenti (Thomas Milian) is having an affair with pretty French girl Fabienne Béranger (Katia Christine). He is also trying unsuccessfully to persuade his wife Luisa (Marisa Bartoli) to sell her business shares so that he can do whatever the hell he needs to with the proceeds. He really wants that dosh, so is getting in some practice forging Luisa's signature in the hope of pulling the deal off behind her back. Ring any bells? Nothing specific, I'm guessing. Well try this for size.

In the midst of this, a series of seemingly chance encounters sees Stefano befriended by the young Count Matteo Tiepolo (Pierre Clémenti) and the two are soon swapping personal stories. Stefano tells Matteo about his wife and Matteo opens up about his cruel and possessive brother. "If someone telephoned you that your wife were dead," the Count asks Stefano, "what would you do?" Stefano brushes this off, but a short while later Matteo ups the ante. He suggests that he kill Stefano's wife for him, then in exchange Stefano could take care of his brother. As neither of them would have a motive for their specific murders, who could possibly suspect them? Recognise it now? That's right, The Designated Victim is a partial remake of Hitchcock's rightly celebrated Strangers on a Train.

One of the problems for remakes of well known films is that any movie-aware viewer is going to have a pretty good idea how the plot will play out even before they sit down for the first viewing. It's a curse that certainly hovers over The Designated Victim. But this is no quickie Hitchcock knock-off and is different enough in approach to be classified less as a remake than an alternative take on the same theme. And believe it or not, it's a subtler, more atmospheric work than Hitch's. That's not a dig at the original, no sir, but an appreciation of this film's specific qualities. It's actually a pretty cool movie in its own right.

The Designated Victim is one of those intermittent Shameless titles that are a lot classier than their yellow box presentation suggests. I'm in no way knocking the yellow box look, as I have a whole yellow shelf of them now and they have pride of place in my DVD collection. But come to The Designated Victim expecting a giallo thriller and its associated elements and you may well be disappointed. For a start there's hardly a gratuitous moment in the film (even the nudity of the opening credits has a touch of character-shaping class to its presentation), there's almost no on-screen violence, the prog-rock score is actually pretty good, and the performances from a well-chosen cast are surprisingly and almost naturalistically low-key. That last one results in two lead characters who prove instantly interesting and who remain so for the run of the film. Stefano may be after his wife's money and cheating behind her back (and on his girlfriend, as it happens, but at least he didn't instigate that one), but following Luisa's murder it's hard not to sympathise with his predicament. Matteo, on the other hand, is interesting because he's genuinely odd, a wealthy bohemian existentialist whose back-story is only hinted at but which provides substantial food for speculation.

And then there's the dubbing. In what marks a first for Shameless, both the original Italian and the English dubs have been included with optional subtitles for the former. I use the term dub for both tracks because both have clearly been post-recorded, a process common for Italian cinema of this period. But having only recently complained about English dubs on foreign language movies and groaned at the one on the simultaneous Shameless release of Strip Nude for Your Killer, I'm now sitting here with a knife, fork and napkin and preparing to eat my words. The spoken dialogue may very obviously not match the mouth movements in places (nor does some of the Italian, actually), but in many other respects the English dub is spot on, the tone and delivery of the voice artists, most of whom are well chosen and directed, complimenting the subtlety of the screen performances. So well matched are some of the voices to their characters that – and I can't believe I'm saying this – I almost preferred the English track to the Italian one. But I really, really appreciate having both to choose from.

It's handsomely shot in scope by Aldo Tonti (who also shot Nicholas Ray's The Savage Innocents, a particular favourite of mine), with some fine location work that includes off-season Venice, which is always a winner. The character interplay consistently intrigues, and later on the film further distances itself from any giallo association with a detective who's smart enough to quickly see through any front Stefano throws up and produce the evidence to back his suspicions. Early on it becomes clear that the small company of writers (who include Who Saw Her Die? and Night Train Murders director Aldo Lado, also one of the assistant directors here) and director Maurizio Lucidi are borrowing the central conceit only and are going their own way with the story. This leads to an ending that differs considerably from the original and is less dramatically conclusive, and I mean that as a compliment.

The Designated Victim surprised the hell out of me on a number of fronts. It remakes classic Hitchcock without standing in the original's shadow, its performances are subtle and believable, it has an underlying melancholy that makes the ending particularly effective, and its English dub is one of the best I've heard. Stylishly made without every drawing attention to the filmmaking, this really is a minor gem of rediscovery from Shameless, and deserves to find an audience beyond the Italian 70s thriller faithful.

sound and vision

Before the film starts, there's a message from the good people at Shameless regarding the variable quality of the print, which has been restored from a variety of sources, some good, some not so good, and some low-band video. At it's best the transfer is very impressive, an anamorphic 2.35:1 image whose sharpness, colour and contrast are all you could hope for. This does vary with the source material, with increases of grain, small slips in contrast and definition, and every now and then there's a small invasion of dust. Just occasionally there's a stark quality drop and an aspect ratio change to windowboxed 16:9 when the video sourced clips kick in. Given that this is was the only way to produce a fully restored version, I have no problem with this and the video clips are impeccably edited into the flow – the switch between formats occurs sometimes mid-shot but with a perfect match of character and movement.

Both the English and Italian tracks are Dolby 2.0 mono. The English track is in slightly better shape, being clearer and free of the slight hiss that sits behind the Italian track. There are optional subtitles for the Italian track and these are both clear and appear to relate to the spoken Italian rather than just being a transcript of the English dub, whose wording is slightly different.

extra features

We know our Shameless DVDs by now and extra features are usually restricted to a trailer. Not this time. For this 'fan edition' we not only get a restored cut and two soundtracks, but the most extras we've yet seen on a Shameless release. That doesn't mean there's a lot, but it's still a welcome move.

Before you get too excited, know that this is not a spoken commentary in the traditional sense but a textual fact track. When selected it pops up intermittently with information about actors, actresses, locations, the soundtrack and other movies the cast and crew have been involved with. Compiled by enthusiast for the film, Stefan Novak, it provides some interesting background info, but there are some sizeable gaps between them and if you're going to appreciate this extra be ready to settle down for another viewing of them film, with brief annotations.

Theatrical Trailer (3:23)
This does look like the original trailer and isn't it bad shape, but it kicks off with the film's final scene and includes a few other spoilers, so I'd save this one for after you've seen the feature.

Picture Gallery
12 video covers, New Trolls music covers and 9 publicity stills.

Deleted scenes
9 deleted scenes culled from what looks like a VHS of a TV screening (there's a logo in the bottom left-hand corner) that range from a minute-and-a-half to just six seconds in length. Of interest nonetheless.

There's also the usual collection of trailers for other Shameless releases.


Now here's a thing. I wasn't as taken as I'd expected to be with Shameless's other recent release Strip Nude for Your Killer, in part because of the English dub, and here I find myself admiring another of the distributor's titles in part because of – yep – the English dub. The difference getting it right makes. But there's much more to it than that. The Designated Victim is an unexpectedly low-key treat that has quality to spare but never shouts about it, or about anything for that matter. Yes it's a remake of a terrific original, but only up to a point, as Lucidi and his writers do their own thing with the set-up and have made a film that deserves to be recognised for its own very specific cinematic and dramatic achievements. This, coupled with the work on the restoration and transfer and the extra features, make The Designated Victim about the best release yet from Shameless. Heartily recommended.

The Designated Victim
La Vittima designata

Italy 1971
95 mins
Maurizio Lucidi
Tomas Milian
Pierre Clémenti
Katia Christine
Luigi Casellato
Marisa Bartoli
Alessandra Cardini

DVD details
region 0
2.35:1 anamorphic
Dolby 2.0 mono
Textual commentary
Deleted scenes

release date
3 November 2008
review posted
4 November 2008

See all of Gort's reviews