“The Assassin” (1952)
by A.J. Hakari
(This review is part of CineSlice’s Noirvember tribute, wherein I’ll be taking on each of the films in Kino’s British Noir DVD collection throughout the month of
November May. For Noirvember reviews from other critics, check out the official community Facebook page or follow the #Noirvember hashtag on Twitter.)
Renzo Uccello is sure causing a lot of fuss for a dead fellow. It’s he whom private investigator Edward Mercer (Richard Todd) has flown all the way to Venice to seek, so that he may be rewarded for an act of heroism performed during World War II. Everyone that Mercer meets insists that Uccello perished in an air raid, but our man is inclined to disagree…especially since the first one to come to him with information on the guy ended up taking a beating from some goons. The gumshoe suspects some sort of cover-up afoot, one that involves an art restorer (Eva Bartok) and a string of bodies that conspicuously starts piling up after his snooping commences. However, the closer Mercer comes to finding out what business Uccello was involved with, the bigger a target he becomes not only for some shady underworld types but also for the police, who view his own dubious wartime past as reason enough to pin a number of heinous acts on his head.
The Assassin sort of plays out as a budget version of The Third Man, though that’s no condescending slam. As in Carol Reed’s masterwork, the specter of war is always lounging about the background of this picture, informing the premise of battle having seemingly turned an upstanding dude onto a life of crime. Our story is also set at a point when wounds between once-warring nations were still a touch fresh, giving the authorities some subtle motivation to keep a closer eye on Mercer while he tries to dig up some answers. Observant overtones like these are present throughout The Assassin, but the movie’s ultimate trouble lies with its refusal to accomplish anything of importance with them. The narrative swiftly falls into a repetitive “Where’s Renzo Uccello?” refrain, as if having the characters constantly question the mystery man’s whereabouts is enough to boost the viewer’s concern. Very little oomph has been integrated into the plot’s diversions, with the suspicion cast on Mercer’s checkered history coming off as a transparent attempt to throw us off the scent from the get-go. The film as a whole is simply neither dramatically-satisfying or particularly suspenseful, although the Venetian locations are quite nice, and Todd does a fine job as the exasperated private eye.
While the lion’s share of its frames might be doused in that inky blackness that sets every noir fan’s heart aflutter, The Assassin‘s journey down the corridors of man’s dark side is a bit of a snoozer. It spends a criminally-lengthy amount of time running in place, shirking one chance after another to make deeper connections with the story elements at hand, until the audience is too disinterested when some plot twists finally are dumped in their collective laps. The makings of a cracking continental thriller are here, but unfortunately, The Assassin ends up feeling about as generic as its title.