Thursday, January 31, 2013

GAMES 1967

Sometimes being a movie star just means having enough “brand name recognition” to bring to each movie a kind of distinct, firmly established name-association (a personality cachet, if you will) fully-formed and locked in place from a previous film. 
For example: to a large segment of the population Mia Farrow was and always will be Rosemary Woodhouse of Rosemary’s Baby. The films See No Evil (1971), The Haunting of Julia (1977) and the 2006 remake of The Omen all banked on the public associating Farrow with the macabre and horrific. None perhaps so blatantly or swiftly as Joseph Losey’s difficult-to-market 1968 psychological thriller Secret Ceremony, which was released only four months after Rosemary’s Baby opened. Although the film starred Hollywood heavyweights Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Mitchum in their only screen pairing, ads emphasized what was then the film’s one sure-fire property: Mia  Farrow - “More haunted than in Rosemary’s Baby!” the posters screamed.  
Satan Place
 Occult rituals are just one of many perverse diversions in Games

After the success of Halloween (1978) critics began hailing director John Carpenter as a worthy successor to Alfred Hitchcock. Hoping to further encourage such comparisons, Carpenter cast perennially Hitchcock-associated actress Janet Leigh in a thoroughly arbitrary role in his 1980 film The Fog. Janet Leigh, who should be commended for not having turned the entirety of her latter years into one long series of stunt-casting parts cashing in on her iconic Psycho role, did allow her image to be exploited just one more time - in the 1998 Halloween sequel, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (check out IMDB’s Trivia section for details) although it must be said these nothing roles at least afforded her the opportunity to appear onscreen with real-life daughter Jamie Lee Curtis.
A well-appointed game room features violent Roy Lichtenstein pop-art and a pinball machine that awards points for driving fatalities

In 1968, if American audiences knew much about French film star Simone Signoret at all (and they didn't) it was on the strength of three films: her Oscar- winning role in Room at the Top (1959); her Oscar-nominated turn in Stanley Kramer’s prestige flop, Ship of Fools; and… most popularly and most likely, the highly acclaimed and influential thriller Diabolique (1955). Internet sources maintain that the starring role of Lisa Schindler, the mysterious visitor in Games, was originally written for Marlene Dietrich, and when producers balked, the role was offered to Jeanne Moreau, who also declined. All of which may well be true. But after looking at this clever thriller full of twists and mysterious turns, the overwhelming evidence leans towards my belief that Games was conceived and written expressly to capitalize on and exploit the American public’s familiarity with Signoret’s starring role in Clouzot’s bloodcurdling French chiller.
Simone Signoret as Lisa Schindler
Katharine Ross as Jennifer Montgomery
James Caan as Paul Montgomery
Like most good thrillers, the premise of Games is marvelously simple. A well-to-do but eccentric young couple  who like to engage in elaborate games and practical jokes (Caan and Ross) meets their match when a mysterious French stranger (guess who) enters their lives. The couple, both blasé dilettantes dabbling in chic nihilism, prove no match for the genuine article.
Brando-ish 70's TV stalwart, Don Stroud (who five years later would appear as a nude centerfold in Playgirl magazine) plays Norman, the oversexed box boy. Another player in Games 

Compensating perhaps for all those years of hyperactivity in my youth, I’ve discovered of late that I’m remarkably adroit at being sedentary. It's a revelation to me that in my dotage I find I no longer go in search of thrills, but prefer instead for my thrills come to me. Ill-disposed as I am to amusement park rides, fast cars, or any activity calling for the deployment of adrenaline, I have become a huge fan of armchair adventure. I love mysteries, suspense thrillers, horror films (horror as in dread, not gore) and movie plotting that stays one step ahead of me. Even when a film has plot twists which can be figured out if one really puts their mind to it (as some claim to be the case with Games), I so enjoy the big “reveal” in these kinds of movies that I've learned over the years how not to spoil my own fun. I employ a subtle form of self-hypnosis, allow the plot to unfold before me and just let myself surrender to the director’s pace, trying not to put the pieces of the puzzle together unless the film leads me there first.
Identity and Illusion
Games is almost theatrical in its construct, as it’s sparsely populated (four principal characters) and takes place primarily in a single location (the tony townhouse of Paul and Jennifer Montgomery). Tension is derived from the uneasiness of having a cast of characters, none of whom we’re told very much about but all overtly fond of playing mind-games, interacting in both real and contrived situations. As it becomes increasingly difficult to ascertain whether a game has begun, ended, or is underway, it soon dawns that the film itself is but another of the games. One that we in the audience (like several of the characters in the movie) weren't aware we were playing.

Regrettably, for all the fun to be had in watching Games (like the 1972 film adaptation of Anthony Schaeffer’s Sleuth, its pleasures don’t diminish even after its surprises are revealed) I can’t say it’s a film one is likely to remember for the performances. In just a few short years the producers of Games probably wouldn't have been able to afford either Katharine Ross or James Caan, but at this point in their young careers the future superstars are shown visibly trying to find their footing in this stylish thriller. Though falling short of making me really feel for the plight of the caracters, I've no real complaint with the beautiful Katharine Ross who is always an appealingly natural presence and is, I think,  actually better here than she is in The Graduate. She definitely comes off much better than Caan, who seems a tad stiff trying to play an urbane sophisticate who's still a little rough around the edges. 
Simone Signoret claimed responsibility for bringing Katharine Ross to the attention of director Mike Nichols when he was casting The Graduate
The ever-watchable Simone Signoret has had many finer moments on the screen and has certainly been photographed to better advantage than she is here, but for me, she is a dynamic screen presence and gives the film the garvitas it most certainly needs. Acting-wise, little is demanded of her save to appear mysterious and give off an air of European ambiguity in the face of Yankee frankness; but she's one of those less-is-more actressess who don't require showy display. She's fine as she is merely exuding style and a kind of debauched regalness.
Something Wicked This Way Comes?
Oddly unsettling artwork (Roy Lichtenstein?) dominates this shot and adds a sense of apprehension and danger to the scene

Paul and Jennifer Montgomery are the idle wealthy. A little too much money and too much time on their hands extends to their eccentric collection of modern art. The pieces, whimsical and absurd works displayed throughout their spacious New York townhouse, create the effect that we are watching events play out on an oversized game board or inside a pinball machine.

The first time I saw Games was when it aired on NBC-TV back in the early '70s. I recall I'd found it to be very much the unsettling suspenser, keeping me on the edge of my seat as the swift turns of plot not only taking me by surprise but scaring the hell out of me. No longer a kid and revisiting it on DVD some 30 years later, I was prepared for it to be a nice, tame nostalgia trip with maybe the distraction of camp taking the place of the suspense.
Not the case. The years may have shaved a little of the originality off its plot, but the effectiveness of the film itself - the sustaining of mood, the building of suspense, the unforeseen twists - it all worked for me just as persuasively as when I first saw it in my youth. In fact, much of the film played better in some instances; particularly in my taking note of all the foreshadowing in events, and the allusions made to the articficiality and contrivance of pop-culture,  pop-art,and pop-amorality.
Although the term hipster didn't exist in 1967 in the context it's used today, James Caan and Katharine Ross play a 60s version of just the kind of obnoxiously trendy urban couple you might find yourself rooting for something bad to happen to.

Games is no classic, and to some it will look a great deal like a well-made '70s TV movie. But as suspense thrillers go (and when was the last time a good one of those appeared on the horizon?), I have to say, flaws and all, Games comes out looking like a winner.
Copyright © Ken Anderson


  1. Looks like fun. What do you think of Deathtrap?

    Don Stroud with hair! He looks rather like Stephen Dorff. I remember him mainly from "Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer".

    1. Hi Allen
      Yes, I find "Games" to be a lot of fun (I your putting it that way is spot-on). It's not very heavy, but it's a good suspenser, well-told.
      I kind of forget that Stroud was rather think-haired for the lions share of his career. You're right, he almost doesn't look like himself here. I do really that he seemed to be everywhere on TV when I was growing up.

      I saw the movie "Deathtrap" when it first came out and I haven't seen it since. I recall liking the surprises and twists, but feeling let down that it lacked a certain style in the telling. Oddly, it never stuck with me as a favorite, but I do remember enjoying it.
      Thanks so much for commenting!

  2. Only one comment here…?!?! That's such a shame…! I PLOTZED when I saw Games in TCM's Halloween 2012 line up..! I was equally thrilled when I was reading your post on What's the Matter With Helen? and saw Games link-highlighted..! It's great to read your take on it.

    Games may be the first movie I remember with an unhappy ending. SPOILER ALERT. Even as a kid, I couldn't imagine anybody throwing Katherine Ross over for money..! At least he got his, too, but, to have Signoret's character get away with it all…..that was just too much to take..! Still..the movie is so damned stylish and for the most part handsome, that it's a shame it's not better known.

    I LOVE your line above: The first time I saw Games was when it aired on NBC-TV back in the 70s. At the time it kept me on the edge of my seat and the unexpected turns of plot not only took me by surprise but scared the hell out of me.
    I've mentioned this to you before, Ken, seeing movies on NBC's ____night at the Movies. Good memories.

    Thanks, Ken..!…meant to mention on my Helen post….lol…the title reminds me of something John Waters says about film titles: he 'levitates' in theaters when the actual title is spoken by someone in the film…!

    1. Yes, this film is hardly known at all among my friends. It's a shame too, because it does have its pleasures.
      I know what you mean about how unsettling it is to see your first film with an unhappy ending. The 60s and 70s were awash in them, but I think for young people seeing these films (especially if they are suspense or horror films) they can feel fairly traumatic. The young hang on to a sense of "fairness" until life wrenches from their hands, it seems.
      I think that's one reason "Rosemary's Baby" was such a mind-blower to me as a kid...Rosemary never deserved her fate.

      I'm glad you have a memory of those NBC movies, too. Now commercials with movies bother me, but back in the day, these often heavily-edited broadcasts were the only way to see movies denied us at the theaters.
      Love that this is a film you recall fondly. We DO share similar tastes!
      Thanks, Jeff!

    2. Always a pleasure, Ken..!

  3. Hi Ken. Loved you terrific piece on "Games" which I'd not heard of before despite my familiarity with the cast members from other films quite a few of which you and I have seen. Must definitely seek it out on DVD. Also if you're looking for a terrific suspense film of more recent times may I suggest you get your hands on a copy of what I consider to David Fincher's crowning achievement "Zodiac"(The 2 disc director's cut) which once seen cannot be easily erased from one's memory so easily. Once seen one will not be able to listen to Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" in quite the same way again. Repeat viewings of the film have not diminished it's ability to chill me. Thanks.

    1. Hi Michael
      Thanks very much! I hope you do seek out "Games," I liked it from the first time I saw it (but then I hadn't seen "Diabolique" at that point).
      I saw "Zodiac" back in 2007, but I've never seen the director's cut. As a kid who grew up in the bay area and remember how terrifying that whole Zodiac era was. I was always surprised the film didn't develop the word of mouth i thought it would. I have to seek out the 2-disc set now. Good to hear from you again!

  4. Hey Ken !

    I was browsing through your site to get some interesting movies to watch during Christmas holidays, and I stumbled upon this one. I have to say the Joh Carpenter and Sleuth references, Katharine Ross and a young James Caan are reasons enough to find it ! :) Thanks for not spoiling anything. Talking about Simone Signoret I have yet to watch her Oscar winning role...

    1. Hi Ivar
      Great idea to use the holidays to catch up on films you've never seen but are perhaps curious about. Hope you enjoy this one. And I really haven't seen many Simone Signoret films myself, only seeing "Room at the Top" for the first time myself rather recently. Enjoy your holiday!