Strangers on a Gondola

The first Patricia Highsmith novel to be adapted to film was the author’s first book, published in 1950,  STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, which Alfred Hitchcock made into a movie the next year. Yet, with the exception of U.S. television which adapted some of Highsmith’s stories for the small screen (The Talented Mr. Ripley for Studio One in Hollywood in 1956, The Perfect Alibi for Jane Wyman Presents The Fireside Theatre in 1957, Annabel for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1962), no American film director would attempt another Highsmith screen adaptation for many years. European filmmakers, however, have returned again and again to her perversely fascinating thrillers which are marked by their disturbing psychological detail and macabre humor. Among these are René Clément’s visually stunning PURPLE NOON (1960), an adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Claude Autant-Lara’s Enough Rope (1963), based on the novel The Blunderer, Wim Wenders’ hallucinatory noir The American Friend (1977), adapted from Ripley’s Game, and This Sweet Sickness (1977) by French director Claude Miller. And, one of the least known – and uncredited – adaptations is LA VITTIMA DESIGNATA (1971, aka THE DESIGNATED VICTIM), which is a very loose, revisionist version of STRANGERS ON A TRAIN with colorful Italian location shooting in Venice, Milan and Lake Como.   


I first discovered THE DESIGNATED VICTIM on the Xploited Cinema web site – – and purchased the limited edition release from New Entertainment which offers the German language/subtitled version titled DER TODESENGEL with English,  Italian and German audio options. I’m not sure how this differs in quality and bonus features from the Shameless Screen Entertainment edition (both are PAL DVDs and can only be viewed on an all-region player) but one thing is clear from the poster art on both covers. The film, directed by Maurizio Lucidi, looks like undiluted Eurotrash in the grand tradition of the poliziotteschi (Italian cop drama) genre. The big surprise is that THE DESIGNATED VICTIM is actually a stylish and occasionally kinky variation on STRANGERS ON A TRAIN that preserves the homoerotic tension of the original and the central premise of “trading murders.” But almost everything else is a departure from the Highsmith novel which is probably why the original author is not cited in the film credits.

The opening frames of the movie look like yet another Italian specialty – the giallo (thriller) – as Stefano (Tomas Milian) is seen snapping nude photographs of Fabienne (Katia Christine), a model, and the jazzy editing cuts between Stefano and voyeuristic close-ups of nipples, lips, hips, a bare midriff, all of it scored to a cool lounge soundtrack by Luis Enriquez Bacalov. Instead of ending with a gory murder in true giallo style though, THE DESIGNATED VICTIM immediately segues into what looks like the beginning of an ad agency satire with Stefano previewing his latest commercial for a client. The brief black and white promo that we see is a wild product endorsement for chocolate and includes mini-homages to Mario Bava’s KILL BABY, KILL (the bouncing ball), Fellini’s opening shot of the airbound Christ statue in LA DOLCE VITA and the famous Hertz rent-a-car commercial (“Let Hertz put you in the driver’s seat…..”).

Once the lights come up, we learn that Stefano is leaving the agency to pursue his own interests and is selling his half of the partnership to the client in the screening room. The catch is that Stefano really doesn’t have the right to sell out his shares since they are mutually owned by him and his wife Luisa (Marisa Bartoli). Yet he is certain he can convince her to sell. In truth, he has no bargaining power at all and soon realizes that Luisa will never agree to this plan because it would relinquish her hold over him. She brought him up through the ranks, from a lowly designer, to become her husband and business partner. And while she is well aware of his mistress, she almost seems to take a sadistic pleasure in keeping him prisoner in a loveless marriage. It is at this point that the real storyline of THE DESIGNATED VICTIM emerges.

[Spoiler alerts for the remainder of the post]  While on holiday with Fabienne in Venice, Stefano crosses paths several times with Count Matteo (Pierre Clémente), a strange, foppish aristocrat, and strikes up a casual friendship with him. They first meet at a street vendor’s jewelry display by the canal where the hippies hang out. Matteo is introduced first by his green glove closing over Stefano’s hand in close-up as they both reach for the same necklace. Then the camera reveals Matteo in all his peacock splendor – red knit cap, purple runner, full length black coat with fur collar and red cuffs – accompanied by a woman with a dark, vampiric presence who never speaks (she remains an enigma in the film much like the mysterious dark siren who accompanied Peter Sellers’ Clare Quilty in 1962′s Lolita). The second meeting is at a casino and the third encounter is on a hired gondola, which Matteo, accompanied by his creepy companion, insists on sharing with Stefano and Fabienne. As the two women sit in the cabin, Matteo reveals his decadent, amoral nature in offhanded ways as he ponders this third fateful meeting:

Matteo: This is the third time we’ve met today. Three threes are nine, three fours are twelve. The stars say the next encounter will be the decisive one.

Stefano: Decisive for what?

Matteo: For the two of us (he gives Stefano the necklace they both admired earlier). Give this back to me when we become friends. I believe in friendship. It’s a virile sentiment. Love is just aggravation.

Stefano: And what about her? (referring to Matteo’s silent girlfriend)

Matteo: Oh, she’s my slave.

Stefano: I thought she was your fiancee.

Matteo: Oh no, by far she’s a passing fancy. The important thing is she doesn’t create a problem. I sold her to someone recently, simply for the experience.

Stefano: Experience?

Matteo: Are you disappointed in me? You see I’m one of those who likes to try anything for pleasure and enjoyment.

Stefano: Perhaps the only pleasure left is murdering someone.

Matteo: Yes. Murder is an experience I’ve never had. You’re quite right. To Kill. Look, isn’t there anyone you’d like to kill?

Of course, you know where this is headed if you’ve seen STRANGERS ON A TRAIN but one thing that is more overt and less subtle than the original is Matteo’s interest in Stefano. Whereas Bruno’s fascination with Guy was more subtly expressed in the Hitchcock film through his eyes, gestures and dialogue, Clemente’s Matteo is a very touchy-feely kind of guy, constantly putting his hands on Stefano in an overly familiar way and delving into his personal life with questions that should be setting off alarm bells with Stefano. Yet, the attraction is less sexual than the recognition of one’s alter ego in the other person and the battle between the conscious and the unconscious as it was in Highsmith’s original novel. STRANGERS ON A TRAIN is really an exploration of the duality of human nature, the good and bad together, and THE DESIGNATED VICTIM puts a mod seventies spin on it. And like the original story, it’s a man’s world. Women are relegated to the sidelines where they are either subservient (Fabienne), castrating (Luisa) or deceptive (Christina, a hitchhiker Stefano picks up on the highway).

The real driver of the narrative in THE DESIGNATED VICTIM is Matteo and you never know when or where he’s going to turn up next - on some back alley of Venice or at a florist shop in Milan or at Stefano’s office – but you know he will always be dressed in style and look FABULOUS…even when he shows up bloodied and cut by his violent brother (a character we never see). As Stefano tends to his friend’s wounds, he couldn’t be any more clueless about Matteo’s obsessiveness than Farley Granger’s dim bulb Ivy League jock in the Hitchcock original. But where Granger came across as a stolid, unimaginative hero with anger management issues, Tomas Milian’s Stefano is a much more cerebral character. He seems lost in thought for most of the film; while he is capable of conversing with others, he appears constantly distracted by his own thoughts. Maybe that’s why he’s such a brilliant designer. His mind is constantly racing with creative ideas or anxieties or fantasies. It’s also his biggest flaw since he doesn’t realize the danger he faces in his friendship with Matteo until he’s in too deep. And unlike STRANGERS ON A TRAIN in which Guy defeats Bruno in the end, there is no way out of the trap that Matteo sets for Stefano. Instead, THE DESIGNATED VICTIM builds to a taut climax in which Stefano is driven to commit murder in order to avoid life in jail (this aspect is faithful to the Highsmith novel). The final shot in the film carries the sting of a scorpion’s tail and leaves no doubt about the true identity of the “designated victim” of the title.  

THE DESIGNATED VICTIM is worth seeing for the two central performances alone and is much more of a psychological character study than a traditional thriller. The film’s first murder occurs offscreen – we only see the corpse and the forensic investigation – and except for the opening nude photo session, there is very little nudity or sex throughout the film which is completely atypical for an Italian film from this period (Are we missing a scene where Stefano has sex with the female hitchhiker he picks up on the highway?). No, the emphasis is on the escalating tension between Stefano and Matteo as the former works up a slow burn transition into panic mode.

Tomas Milian is impressive as Stefano and manages to make his frustrated jet-setter into a sympathetic hero. He’s a liar and a cheat and a failed embezzler but he’s not someone who would naturally gravitate toward murder or even hire someone to do it. In one of the key scenes – he and Luisa are alone on a boat in the middle of Lake Como – his wife seems to read his thoughts. “What’s germinating in your mind?,” she asks. “What are you thinking Stefano? You haven’t the courage to do what you’re contemplating.” Mimicking his thoughts, she says with undisguised glee, “If the boat would just turn over. Luisa can’t swim but I can. I would at last be free to do what I please and with whom I please.” In a dramatic reversal of a similar situation in the 1951 version of A PLACE IN THE SUN where Montgomery Clift plots to drown Shelley Winters at Lake Tahoe, it is Stefano’s wife who is the aggressor here, taunting her husband with his inability to take action or change his fate. And Milian cleverly underplays his part, drawing us into internal, churning desperation. It’s the perfect contrast to Pierre Clemente’s mesmerizing, Satanic portrayal of Matteo.

Milian, of course, has played his share of psychos, criminals and manic lowlifes before but Pierre Clemente seems to have carved out a special cinematic niche in his choice of eccentric and bizarre movie roles. After a brief period as a young leading man (How Not to Rob a Department Store [1965], Benjamin [1968]), he took the road less traveled and began to specialize in outre bad boys (Belle du Jour [1967]), madmen (Partner [1968]), cannibals (Pigpen aka Porcile [1969]), child molesters (The Conformist [1970], and avant-garde raconteurs (Necropolis [1970], Sweet Movie [1974]). With his piercing stare, flamboyant affectations and palpable intensity, he projects both evil and madness at the same time as Matteo. It’s one of his finest performances.

There are also some impressive craftsmen behind the scenes on THE DESIGNATED VICTIM such as cinematographer Aldo Tonti who lensed Rossellini’s Rome Open City [1946], Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria [1957], Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents [1960] and John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye [1967].  Composer Luis Enriquez Bacalov, who has scored more than 125 movies, is a two-time Oscar nominee for Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew [1967] and Il Postino [1996, aka The Postman], for which he won the Academy Award. And Enrico Sabbatini, doing double duty here as both production and costume designer, was Oscar nominated for his work on The Mission [1986] but has also worked on Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve [1971, aka Bay of Blood aka Carnage] and Radley Metzger’s The Lickerish Quartet [1970]. Compared to them, director Maurizio Lucidi has had a much more checkered career and the majority of his films never received U.S. distribution; the ones that have such as Heroes Never Die [1969, aka Probabilita zero] and Stateline Motel [1973] with Eli Wallach, Ursula Andress, and Fabio Testi, were less than successful with critics or at the boxoffice. But on the basis of THE DESIGNATED VICTIM, I think Lucidi deserves another look.

A few words about the German titled New Entertainment DVD of THE DESIGNATED VICTIM (aka Der Todesengel aka Slam Out aka Murder By Design). The widescreen print 16:9 (2.35:1) was remastered from various sources for this 95 minute version and it shows from time to time in abrupt switches of color, tone, contrast and general visual quality. Still, the movie works as eye candy most of the time with its outlandish art direction (Matteo and Luisa’s home is a designer’s nightmare of clashing contrasts), sexy women (Katia Christine bears some physical similarities to Charlize Theron) and percolating music score (the baroque folk rock theme song, complete with harpsichord, will haunt you – and is that Tomas Milian contributing a guest vocal?). The one aspect that surprises me the most is the excellent English dubbing, which is actually well synched and often quite literate, something you rarely expect in English dubbed movies.

Some of you are well aware that STRANGERS ON A TRAIN has inspired other remakes and imitations besides THE DESIGNATED VICTIM. In 1969, Robert Sparr (A Swingin’ Summer [1965], More Dead Than Alive [1969]) directed ONCE YOU KISS A STRANGER in which psychotic patient Carol Lynley “trades murders” with golf pro Paul Burke against the swanky backdrop of the southern California country club set. She offers to kill his rival on the green if he’ll kill her psychiatrist.    

I haven’t seen this, and from all reports it sounds bad enough to be unintentionally hilarious. Strangely enough, it may have inspired the 1996 TV remake of STRANGERS ON A TRAIN which was titled ONCE YOU MEET A STRANGER and replaced the two male protagonists of Highsmith’s novel with two women – one a former child star (Jacqueline Bisset) who wants to divorce her husband and the other a mental case (Theresa Russell) who wants to kill her mother. Directed by Tommy Lee Wallace (Halloween III: Season of the Witch [1982], Fright Night Part 2 [1988]), it also features Peter Haskell, Celeste Holm, Nick Mancuso and Richard Doyle in supporting roles. I suspect a train wreck but maybe it’s a shining moment in television history. Has anyone seen this thing?

Now I am starting to hear rumblings of a new Hollywood remake of STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. It would have to be damn good to beat Hitchcock’s 1951 version or even to be half as engaging as THE DESIGNATED VICTIM. By the way, if you are interested in investigating the Shameless Screen Entertainment DVD edition of the film, you should visit their web site at which also offers such tasty Eurotrash delights as THE FRIGHTENED WOMAN (aka Femina Ridens), OASIS OF FEAR starring Ornella Muti, Ray Lovelock and Irene Papas and Luigi Bazzoni’s FOOTPRINTS (aka Le Orme) with Florinda Bolkan and Klaus Kinski….which automatically goes to the top of my must-see list.

Other links you might enjoy:—starring-tomas-milian

4 Responses Strangers on a Gondola
Posted By Suzi : June 24, 2010 1:55 pm

I have never heard of this movie, but I like film adaptations of Highsmith’s work–not matter how far removed from the source material. I will try to check it out. I also think that remaking STRANGERS ON A TRAIN is a horrific idea.

Posted By Suzi : June 24, 2010 1:55 pm

I have never heard of this movie, but I like film adaptations of Highsmith’s work–not matter how far removed from the source material. I will try to check it out. I also think that remaking STRANGERS ON A TRAIN is a horrific idea.

Posted By atchfly : July 10, 2010 8:50 pm

Claude Chabrol’s version of ‘Cry of the Owl’ deserves mention as a worthy Highsmith adaptation.

Posted By atchfly : July 10, 2010 8:50 pm

Claude Chabrol’s version of ‘Cry of the Owl’ deserves mention as a worthy Highsmith adaptation.

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