While most of Curtis Harrington’s films have been available since the early stage of the digital era; only recently one of his most obscure efforts, The killing kind, has been released to DVD. But one of his biggest achievements, Games, still has to hit stores’ shelves in US and in most of the international markets. A Universal release of 1967, with a strong cast of soon to be stars, Katherine Ross and James Caan, and the support of veteran French dame Simone Signoret who was Bafta award nominated (best actress in a supporting role) for this film. Games was a major production in every sense and a breakthrough for Harrington as a director moving his first steps out of the Corman’s factory. At that point of his career, Curtis had directed the critically acclaimed but little seen independent production of Night Tide an excellent eerie horror fairy tale starring Dennis Hopper. Plus the over the top Sci Fi extravaganza Queen of blood a nice little film put together Corman’s style in few days, recycling the spfx shots of a big Russian production Corman had acquired for US distribution.
With the decline of the digital market most of the major companies are skipping catalogue titles in favour of new productions. A lot of old films are relegated nowadays to the DVD on demand programs; but peculiar enough is the fact that in Spain some studios like Fox and in this case Universal are releasing low priced catalogue titles not available in their own native country.
As Games case is. While the disc is a no frills edition, with no extra materials and a horrible cover; the movie has been digitally transferred and mastered in its original Techniscope aspect ratio of 2.35:1.
The movie holds on pretty well in this digital incarnation, considering cinematographer William A. Fraker predilection for grainy images; as the original materials shows no sign of wear, dirts or specks.
Paul and Jennifer are an high class married couple. Paul likes to collect games and art, everything is on display in their beautiful house. One day an old woman of French origin, Lisa, rings at their doorbell. She pretends to know Jennifer’s relatives, but this is soon discovered to be a trick just to sell some cosmetics for which she’s an agent. Lisa is sick, she’s not well and she has to manage to make a living, walking all day trying to get some merchandise sold to get her provisions. Jennifer is moved by this flamboyant French, who speaks with a soft accent, telling peculiar stories of her peculiar life.
She offers Lisa a recover for a few days, until the woman will be strong enough to make it by herself.
Lisa is a games’ lover as well as Paul; but her games and jokes are provocative and at times dangerous. The couple soon succumbs to Lisa’s charm and the games will became more and more risky, plunging the two into a frantic research for the next joke.
Like all Harrington’s films Games is more a psychological study than a clockwork thriller. While specially the set up of the story has an intense premise (how far would you go in a game?), this is soon abandoned for a more conventional “who done it?” Approach. The pay off of such promising first act develops in a more traditional way, reducing the movie potential for greatness. One wonders what Harrington could have achieved exploiting more the inner desire that pushes gamers to have another round, or another bet. But even settling down with conventions, Harrington still delivers the goods, strongly helped by the female cast at its very best.
There are some moments of genuine fright here, and a good construction of the suspense specially in a scene involving an elevator. The tension is built up nicely mounting and mounting in a classic Hitchcock style.
What seems to interest more Harrington is people’s mind; like the movies he directed later on: Whoever slew auntie Roo?, What’s the matter with Helen? (my favourite), How awful about Allan and the mentioned The killing kind. All of them are studies of deranged psyches, of twisted minds; while operating from existing elements like Hitchcock movies (Psycho, Marnie and Frenzy above all), to Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales (Hansel and Gretel), Curtis made all these essentials his own, reworking them in an original and underrated way.
The third and final act of the film, it’s again satisfying like the first one. Even if the story at this point has became a little bit predictable, the ending leaves no room for celebrations, being bleak, dark with a funny, bitter black humour. While trying to defeat conventions and rules Harrington (who at the beginning of his career was a celebrated experimental filmmaker teaming with Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren) worked in a genre that at the time was not very much hyped by official film critic. His films, even if successful, were relegated in the Drive-In circuits and in second program movie houses, while one of his latest effort Ruby butchered by the producers failed miserably to find its audience. Harrington is really a director whose work is in need of an in depth examination and every new contribution would be more than welcome.
Film mass is ended you may go in peace