When Curtis Harrington was eulogized in the New York Times in 2007, the newspaper described him as a "horror director". Although his resume included shockers with campy titles like Killer Bees (1974) and Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell (1978), it's not fair to close him up in that coffin. His vision had roots both in the avant-garde/art film tradition of other Los Angeles independent filmmakers like friends Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren, but also in the elegant, moody chiaroscuro dreamscapes of James Whale (Bride of Frankenstein, 1935) and Josef von Sternberg. Even when making commercial studio films like Games (1967), he knew that real horror meant mystery, not gore. "That's what I'm interested in," he told an interviewer. "The esoteric. What goes on beneath."
In Games, there's a lot going on beneath the marriage between young sophisticates Paul (James Caan) and Jennifer (Katharine Ross). They enjoy entertaining a Warholian crowd in the Manhattan brownstone they've packed with their eclectic art collection of highbrow Pop and Op art mixed with morbid pinball machines and carnival games. So when the mysterious Lisa (Simone Signoret) arrives, announcing she's a friend of a friend, Jennifer lets her in. Little does she know that's an invitation to leave behind pinball and play real "games": dirty, amusing tricks on people close to you that blur the line between civilized and uncivilized behavior.
Harrington, whose admiration for von Sternberg included writing a book about his films, originally wanted the director's muse Marlene Dietrich to play Lisa, but was dissuaded by Universal head Lew Wasserman (who reasoned, bizarrely, "Nobody would be interested in seeing her"). Harrington next asked Jeanne Moreau, who turned down the role, and then approached Simone Signoret, the French actress who had made her name as the icy murderess in Diabolique (1955).
Signoret was currently at a low professional ebb after coming off a disastrous run as Lady Macbeth in a stark, experimental staging at London's Royal Court Theater. The play had not been a success: after masochistically struggling with the play's formidable English, she soldiered through a six-week run she knew was not her best work. The critics knew it too (the Guardian savagely compared her to a creature from the science fiction TV series Doctor Who) and co-star Alec Guinness found her weeping in her dressing room on opening night.
Signoret had also aged considerably after being demoralized by her husband Yves Montand's brief affair with Marilyn Monroe. When Harrington approached her about Games, she declared "I warn you, Mr. Harrington...I am very fat!" Harrington was undissuaded, and later described Signoret as "just an absolutely marvelous, beautiful and wonderful human being. I felt very privileged to be working with her." (His sentiments did not extend to Caan, whom he described as "an ex-football player . . . feisty and prickly.")
The entire movie was shot on a Universal backlot, including the Manhattan brownstone exteriors. The interior of the art-strewn apartment, so key to the mod mood of Games, was (in secret defiance of union rules) actually designed by the costume designer Morton Haack (who would go on to Oscar® nominations for costume design of Planet of the Apes (1968) and Harrington's What's the Matter with Helen? (1971)).
Critical response to Games was mixed, with Vincent Canby describing the movie as a "richly decorated little exercise in the macabre" that was a "most diverting pastime", while Roger Ebert complained that "the basic gimmick (which I wouldn't dream of giving away) is a disappointment." The film's biggest legacy is its cast: Caan later joined the Zoetrope fold in Coppola's The Rain People (1969) and, after a star turn in Brian's Song (1971), went on to his iconic portrayal of Sonny Corleone in The Godfather (1972). Katherine Ross only had to wait three months between the release of Games and her big breakout role in The Graduate (1967), leading to bigger things in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Signoret also had triumphs to come, especially Madame Rosa (1977) and a nomination for a César in 1982.
Producer: George Edwards
Director: Curtis Harrington
Screenplay: Gene Kearney (screenplay); Curtis Harrington, George Edwards (story)
Cinematography: William A. Fraker
Art Direction: William D. DeCinces, Alexander Golitzen
Music: Samuel Matlovsky
Film Editing: Douglas Stewart
Cast: Simone Signoret (Lisa Schindler), James Caan (Paul Montgomery), Katharine Ross (Jennifer Montgomery), Don Stroud (Norman), Kent Smith (Harry Gordon), Estelle Winwood (Miss Beattie), Marjorie Bennett (Nora), Ian Wolfe (Dr. Edwards), Anthony Eustrel (Winthrop), Eloise Hardt (Celia).
by Violet LeVoit
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