The cast and the lurid German title (which translates to "Angel of Death") might suggest otherwise, but Maurizio Lucidi's La Vittima Designata (The Designated Victim) is far from your average exploitation effort. Instead, we are presented with a brilliant psychological thriller based on Patricia Highsmith's "Strangers On A Train"; but where Hitchcock kept his adaption faithful to the original, Lucidi shifts the action to a foggy Venice, adding an Italian spin that is so typical for the film's time.
Tomas Milian stars as Stefano, a successful designer who runs an advertising agency together with his wife Luisa (played by an unusually strong Marisa Bartoli). Fed up with his wife's domineering manners, he prefers to be comforted by the beautiful Fabienne (Katia Christine) and wants to start a new life with her. However, he can't sell the agency without the consent of his wife, who has no intentions of closing it. One day, Stefano meets the eccentric Count Matteo Tiepolo. They quickly become friends and tell each other of their problems, and Tiepolo makes Stefano an unusual offer: He kills Stefano's wife, and in turn, Stefano must kill Tiepolo's brother. Since both parties are strangers to their victims, Tiepolo considers this the perfect crime. At first, Stefano takes this as a joke and refuses, but when his wife is murdered and he becomes the main suspect, it seems the only way to prove his innocence is to commit the murder for Tiepolo.
What makes or breaks a small-scope, psychological movie like La Vittima Designata are primarily the actors, and fortunately, the lead performances by Milian and Clementi help to heave it far above the genre mold. Tomas Milian acts with his usual confidence and credibility, though the real show-stealer here is Pierre Clementi. He plays his character with an utterly powerful, mystical presence which can only be described as exceptional and should be reason alone to watch this film. Complemented by the beautiful, often slightly eerie shots of Venice, Lucidi manages to build a larger-than-life, Giallo-inspired atmosphere the viewer is soon captivated in. And that's what it's all about - Lucidi's direction is solidly paced and a certain subdued suspense always abounds. But there are no graphic murder scenes here, no violent confrontations save for the finale. Indeed, La Vittima Designata's low-key, minimalist angle is what sets it even further apart.
That said, the only problem of La Vittima Designata could be attributed to the "Italian spin" I mentioned at the beginning - like similar efforts of that era, Lucidi brings his own to a fitting, but ultimately very abrupt conclusion; one that is not really detrimental to the overall quality, but nonetheless leaves the viewer slightly confused. One or two more scenes couldn't have hurt here. Either way, even as it stands, La Vittima Designata is one of the most captivating and poetic Italian thrillers I've seen in a long while.
The German disc by NEW Entertainment World marks the first worldwide DVD release of this little gem. The picture has been cleaned and enhanced thoroughly and, bar for a few scratches here and there, looks pristine. NEW chose to insert scenes cut in the original German version, which have not been touched up and therefore slightly distract from the otherwise excellent video quality. German, English and Italian audiotracks as well as German subtitles are provided, so fans looking to import this one should be pleased. Extras include an essay on the film in German, deleted scenes, a picture gallery, a bunch of trailers for other films released by NEW, and perhaps most interestingly, the complete soundtrack - which was composed by Luis Enriquez Bacalov, who collaborated on this with the Italian progressive rock band New Trolls (and would go on to do a similar thing one year later with Osanna on the Milano Calibre 9 soundtrack). Overall, the disc is highly recommended.
La Vittima Designata is a sublime and unique piece of work which has been criminally overlooked until now. It doesn't sport the sensationalism of other Italian crime films, which might make it less appealing to a few people - but if you are also open to more serious Italian cinema, I really urge you to give this one a try.