Curtis Harrington’s thriller Games is one of those films that fascinate as much for what they fail to do as for what they achieve. Harrington, who started as an experimental filmmaker, was something like a Roger Corman, good at getting the most out of a meager budget, but also a little restricted by the expectations posed by the horror genre. Games, for example, is clearly meant to be a high style foray into the hip world of New York’s Upper East Side circa 1967. The look and feel are all, the story merely the excuse. Yet the story is obviously still there, with its own built-in expectations that sometimes work against Harrington’s glittering purpose.
I had seen Games once before, on broadcast television. I don’t remember how old I was, but certainly very young, and thus easily impressed with the film’s chic accoutrements. I remembered it as a slightly sinister puzzle movie. In fact, the puzzle is not especially puzzling, but my memory of the environment as a stylish spread was accurate. The visual style is obviously indebted to the European art film, with Simone Signoret’s accent presumably her greatest qualification for playing the part of the mysterious intruder, Lisa Schindler. The pair whose lives she disrupts (Katherine Ross and James Caan) aren’t particularly convincing as a couple, but they seem to have been selected for how well they fill out their wardrobes, not their abilities to move us.
It is the very effort expended on the look and feel of Games that points to why it disappoints slightly. It is one thing when a director has a budget large enough to make every square centimeter of the set conform to his conception. The results may be insufferable or magnificent according to taste, but they are certainly total. When a Harrington or a Corman take a similar approach, but do not have the resources to back it up, the story has to be compelling enough for us to appreciate the stylishness as a means of dressing it up, not as an end in itself. (That balance is what makes Hammer Films so consistently impressive.) Games starts promisingly, but when it becomes clear that we’re meant to enjoy the film for its surfaces without worrying about the fairly routine story, the inadequacies of the fashionable environment become more apparent for the scrutiny. (That the film doesn’t play quite fairly makes the flaws even more glaring.)
If Harrington’s lapidary mise-en-scène is not quite entrancing enough to overcome the script’s weaknesses, there are still moments of sleek chic that appeal for themselves. There’s a bit involving masks and the threat of human sacrifice that feels like a warm-up for Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, for example. Signoret’s penultimate moment (above) is about as perfect an evocation of refined evil as you’re likely to see anywhere. Games is, in other words, a creamy, smoothly executed genre piece which, as long you expect nothing more, is pleasantly diverting.