Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Few Diabolical Games

Through the years the late director Curtis Harrington served as host of salon-like parties at his home in the Hollywood Hills, where writer, actors, artists and other interesting people got the chance to meet one another. A social occasion serving as an outlet for interesting people is touched upon in Harrington’s 1967 suspense classic GAMES, which was recently shown at the American Cinematheque as a special memorial screening for the director who died in May. While he has achieved cult status for such films as NIGHT TIDE, QUEEN OF BLOOD and THE KILLING KIND, in addition to a great amount of work for TV, GAMES was one of his few successes for a major studio, in this case Universal. The film is unfortunately little-known today in spite of the fact that it features James Caan in a starring role. A DVD release has yet to happen so a chance to see it in full Techniscope is certainly rare.

Paul and Jennifer (James Caan and Katharine Ross) are a stylish Manhattan couple who revel in throwing parties for interesting people where they show off unusual artifacts and games they have acquired. An older French woman named Lisa (DIABOLIQUE’S Simone Signoret) talks her way into their townhouse one day and even though it is revealed that she is a makeup saleswoman, works her way into their lives and gets involved in some of the rather unusual games they play. But everything changes when one of those games has an unexpected result. To say anything more about the plot would reveal more than I should. There are elements that could have come from an Alfred Hitchcock Presents-type storyline, but it’s very clear that much of this is really inspired by DIABOLIQUE and, while being very conscious of this fact, especially in the casting of Signoret, it maintains its own originality.

The opening sections of GAMES feel slow and slightly awkward but once the plot gears begin clicking it takes on a genuine level of paranoia. I was also put into mind of various “rich people in villas terrorizing each other” made over in Europe around this time--of course, those were probably inspired by DIABOLIQUE as well, but GAMES ultimately doesn’t feel like any of those movies, maintaining it’s own icy feel to the end. Like the same year’s WAIT UNTIL DARK, much of it is set in a single New York residence but unlike that film it doesn’t share any theater origins and is very much a movie, one that couldn’t be set on stage without serious revisions.

Filmed on the Universal lot, GAMES does have the feel of other productions from that studio around the same time—that telephone ring is probably the one heard at the beginning of every ROCKFORD FILES, but no matter. The gradual build of true madness which overtakes the storyline allows its flaws to diminish. Even the final sting in the tail, which by the time you get there isn’t that unexpected, couldn’t have been done better and ultimately has a great deal of thematic resonance.

Simone Signoret looks considerably older and heavier than she did in DIABOLIQUE, made only twelve years before, but the eerie power of her presence as a sort of walking reference point lends the film more depth than it would probably have otherwise. James Caan and Katharine Ross feel more problematic to me and I say this with some hesitation, partly because I’m afraid James Caan would kick my ass. Caan had already made his two films for Howard Hawks by this point but here seems uneasy in front of the camera much of the time. His loosest moments come near the very end, making me wonder if it was shot in sequence and he was relaxing because he knew the end was near. Ross, likewise, doesn’t seem to have an ounce of eccentricity in her. I’ve known stylish couples like this before, who seem joined at the hip and maybe involved in their own bizarre little worlds, but these two just don’t resemble that type at all. I’ll have stuff thrown at me for saying this, but a remake of GAMES set in the hills of Silverlake would actually have some potential.

The flaws that exist in GAMES are ultimately minor and the movie, which I’ve only seen before on video, is already gaining in stature in my memory. Curtis Harrington may be a figure known to only a select audience but he did leave a mark and GAMES is a film which deserves to be seen by more people. Hopefully that DVD will come along one of these days.

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