Wednesday, May 09, 2007

A Night of Fun and GAMES

Last night I decided to spend a little time with Curtis Harrington by refreshing my memory of his first major studio production, GAMES (1967). Though the film was a critical favorite and a commercial success in its day, Universal has never given the film a proper DVD release, and its two pan&scan VHS releases (the most recent released in 2000, after the advent of the new format) are by definition unsatisfactory considering that it was filmed in Techniscope.
Actually, revisiting the movie eased my mind on this issue somewhat, because cameraman William A. Fraker took care to compose the picture at once for scope framing and for television cropping, reserving the periphery of most shots for set decoration accents. I twice noticed an art nouveau bust that I remembered seeing in Curtis' home hovering on the edge of a composition, just out of sight. (The golden helmeted mask worn by Katharine Ross, seen on the VHS cover shown here, also went on to proud placement on the wall of Curtis' living room.) But there is relatively little cutting from one side of the screen to the other -- at least on my copy, which I recorded from a pay cable channel in the 1980s.

Some quick thoughts: I don't think any single movie better embodies the great divide between Old Hollywood and New Hollywood than GAMES. It has an Old Hollywood sense of elegance and décor, all consciously indebted to the influence of the great European filmmakers who brought style to Hollywood from overseas and the plot (with its not-too-subtle tips of the hat to DIABOLIQUE) distinctly European in tenor. Meanwhile, the mise en scène -- with its references to Lichtenstein and Segal and other pop and postmodern art, is well ahead of the 1967 Hollywood curve and the film's interests in role playing, practical jokes, black magic and murder casts it as a clear-cut progenitor of PERFORMANCE. I can't remember ever reading anything that connected GAMES and PERFORMANCE, and this is undoubtedly due to Universal's seeming disregard for the film, which Curtis himself long petitioned for a proper LaserDisc or DVD release. People don't know the movie, and those who do find it hard to look past its allusions to DIABOLIQUE... yet Curtis was a personal friend of Donald Cammell and they had several other friends in common, making the notion of influence a tantalizing possibility, especially for GAMES' sake. Some viewers feel that the second half of the film is weaker than the first, but I disagree. There's no question that we know that a game is afoot in the second half, but we don't know who is involved, what the circumstances are, or the goal of the proceedings -- so the movie engages the viewer, or should, on a different tier (shall we say) in its second part.

As fine as GAMES is on the level of performance, direction, cinematography, wardrobe and set decoration, I feel it was let down in terms of its score by Samuel Matlovsky, which is borderline fussy and overstressed during the masterfully constructed suspense sequences, which would have been better served by having their accompaniment pared down to well-orchestrated sound effects. (Matlovsky had previously conducted Gustavo Cesár Carreón's score for THE FOOL KILLER [1964] -- a pioneering work of dark Americana scored with orchestra and crudely overlaid electric guitar parts. Flawed but fascinating, and with a staggering performance by former WEREWOLF OF LONDON Henry Hull, THE FOOL KILLER is far less well-known today than GAMES.) Movie musicologists will be amused by a scene in GAMES wherein the three principals (Simone Signoret, James Caan, and Katharine Ross looking her personal best) are dressed in costume and pantomiming some strange sacrificial ritual with a 78rpm record spinning on a Victrola, playing organ music. The scene is shot with a lot of panache and it would have been very effective indeed... had Matlovsky not used for this cue Vic Mizzy's "organ loft" piece from THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN!
GAMES is currently out of print on VHS. If anyone within range of this blog has any pull with Universal, please put a bug in their ear about releasing GAMES on DVD. There are few people around today under the age of 55 who can claim to have seen it as it was intended, and it shouldn't be overlooked by audiences or by history. It's a genuine American suspense classic, and a sophisticated foreshadowing of things to come.

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