The End of the Game (1975)

In 1950 Swiss novelist and playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt published his existential crime classic The Judge and His Hangman, which I previously reviewed here and which I have also listed in my ongoing list of Top 100 Mystery Books. Twenty-five years later, it was turned into a supremely quirky film by actor-director Maximilian Schell from a screenplay he co-wrote with Dürrenmatt himself. It had already been adapted several times in other media including TV and radio, but this should be the easiest to track down – and yet … Released originally as Der Richter und sein Henker (the title of the original book), it was generally shown theatrically in English-speaking territories as End of the Game but it has also been released under a variety of other titles (especially on video), including ‘Deception’ and ‘Murder on the Bridge’, which is what it was known as for its initial engagements in New York in 1976. This hasn’t made it any easier to keep track of this movie, even though it features such major stars of its day as Jon Voight, Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Shaw (and even Donald Sutherland, albeit in a truly bizarre cameo as a murder victim).

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.

“Corpse provided by Donald Sutherland” - title from the closing credits

The film was an Italo-German co-production shot in English, with 20th Century Fox handling distribution in the US. It features a bewilderingly mixed international cast and crew, with Martin Ritt, the celebrated American director of such films as Hud (1963), Norma Rae (1979) and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), starring as Bärlach. He had just directed Voight in Conrack, while Schell had just appeared opposite Voight in The Odessa File (both 1974); and Bisset was due to make St Ives (1976) with Schell shortly afterwards. If this tends to suggest that this was a film made as a bit of a lark, or at least more for reasons of friendship than career-improvement, well that is certainly borne out by viewing the finished movie.

“I have to continue to commit crimes before your eyes.” - Gastman

It follows the plot of the novel extremely closely, though it initially makes a break from its structure with its opening section set in 1948 Istanbul, creating a prologue to the rest of the narrative. It introduces, obliquely, the three main protagonists: Bärlach, his life-long enemy whose real name we never discover (here only seen from behind, but later played by Shaw) and an occasionally glimpsed third party, an observer sporting oversized spectacles who is symbolically meant to represent us the viewers and who played in fact by Dürrenmatt, who appears basically as himself playing a character named ‘Friedrich’, popping up a few times before an extended sequence in which he explains Bärlach’s methods and motivation to Voight’s character while playing a game of chess (against himself, of course), which is fair enough I supposes (Paul Bowles serves a similar function in Bertolucci’s version of The Sheltering Sky). This opening section is quite jarring in its jangled editing rhythm, with crucial plot information handled in a cursory fashion as voice-overs are added to make sense of seemingly quite disjointed images as we follow two young men and a beautiful woman (played by Italian actress Rita Calderoni) walking along the Bosphorus. The seeming idyll is shattered when one of the men punches the woman in the face while she sits carefree on a bridge, and so sends her into the water and to her death while the other man tries to rescue her.

While in the novel this incident took quite a while for emerge, here we start the film with a dramatic flourish and set up the main revenge narrative – Bärlach as a young man had foolishly accepted a bet made by a friend (later known as Gastman) that he would be able to commit a murder and get away with it. The killing of the young woman, who it turns out was pregnant and whom they both loved, symbolizes the monstrous egotism of Bärlach’s nemesis and the death of innocence in a corrupt society.

We now cut to thirty tears later and the discovery of a dead body inside a car on a foggy country lane in Switzerland – fog, both literal and metaphorical, will shroud most of the film, either through the liberal use of smoke or by applying filters on the lens, providing a dreamlike atmosphere well in keeping with the increasingly anti-naturalistic style. Once again Dürrenmatt’s observer can be spied lurking behind a nearby tree. What follows is a blackly comic sequence in which the beat cop who finds the body decides to drive the car away for the sake of decorum – which sees him heading into town with an uncooperative corpse (Sutherland) lolling in the seat next to him, causing many a  double take from passers-by. In many ways this sets up the tone of the film, which has a kind of odd jocularity in its blackly comic depiction of Switzerland as a place in which claims of propriety and ‘the greater good’ are used to mask acts of supreme venality. The novel was set in the immediate post-war, a difficult time for Switzerland as it had to come to terms with what remaining ‘neutral’ during the Second World War had really meant. Twenty-five years later and the emphasis is now more reflective of the sense of estrangement from traditional politics as the Establishment on the Continent found itself challenged by acts of terrorism and civil disobedience almost on a daily basis during the so-called ‘Years of Lead’.

The dead man was working undercover for Bärlach to infiltrate the inner circle of his boss’ old enemy – a powerful industrialist calling himself Gastman’s. His replacement is a detective played by Jon Voight, who seems as eager to take his place as to get into bed with his ex colleague’s girlfriend Anna (the beautiful Bisset). One of the major alterations to the book for the film is in the expansion of Anna’s role, who here becomes Gastman’s mistress as well, a sort of substitute for the young woman he murdered in his youth. This of course makes the role more suitable for a star like Bisset to play (she appears only on a few pages in the book) but also helps connect the various parts of the plot – in my view it’s a major improvement on an already formidable work. Bisset plays the role pretty much straight, while Voight, using his vaguely Germanic ‘foreign’ accent from The Odessa File, gives a decidedly mannered performance, seemingly finding it necessary to underline every single piece of punctuation in the script. Given the equivocal nature of the characters, none of whom are being entirely honest, his can be seen as quite a brave approach by the time the film has finished, but none the less it is often irksome to see him grinning or angry for no apparent reason  and the style also clashes badly with the naturalism of Ritt’s old detective and Bisset’s shady Irish dame, with whom he shares most of his scenes.

On the other hand, the expansion of Gastman’s role, as befits Shaw’s standing as the other major co-star, while full of truly eccentric details (including, at one point, an apparently severed head on a platter at one of his parties as well as a roaming cheetah), is also more traditionally villainous. Once again, what this tends to do is underline the more conventional aspects of the crime story with the often outrageous treatment, such as in the policeman’s funeral sequence in which seemingly the wrong wreaths are delivered and the chief’s attempt at a noble speech are undercut by a ridiculous brass band and very inclement weather. Shaw’s basically down-to-earth approach is probably most noticeable in an added airport sequence, in which he decides to dispose of one of his own henchmen and does it in full view of the police. It could be from any thrillers from the 70 and 80 really – you can see what I mean as it is available to view on YouTube:

The story does hold one’s attention and there is always something of interest going on, even if the emphasis in direction and performance does seem frequently arbitrary with the focus certainly devoted often to items of seeming secondary importance. Technically the film is fairly proficient, with a languid style very typical on 1970s Continental cinema, and featuring a score is by Italian maestro Ennio Morricone in one of his more relaxed moods. One wishes perhaps that Ritt, a more precise if less deliberate filmmaker, had directed the film and Schell had taken his role sometimes because overall the film, while always interesting, ultimately leaves one with more of a sense of bemusement than anything else. Its overt black humour often cancels out the undoubted seriousness of intent behind a film that clearly has something meaningful to say about the collapse of Swiss society. Oddly, the scenes featuring the bureaucrats (symbolised by an underused Gabriele Ferzetti as the Chief of Police) are curtailed compared with the book and that element seems to sputter out unconvincingly, though this may have something to do with the shorter running time of the Blu-ray I was viewing when compared with the official theatrical release length.

Either way, although faithful to the original source in terms of storyline and intelligent in the amplification of its female lead, this adaptation of the novel probably fails to really convince. Somewhat swamped by an over-emphasis of the absurdist elements in the book and which are much more pronounced in the author’s theatre work, the film disappoints ultimately because it is neither fish nor fowl – unwilling to really embrace the mystery genre conventions it adopts, it none the less can’t bring itself to leave them behind either and in fact adds several cliches of its own. On the other hand, while the scenes between the two aging antagonists played by Ritt and Shaw suffer from some overuse of cliches, their scenes together do work, while those with Voight (who even plays one nude) tend to feel forced and fail to convince on their own terms. In the end we really do need to care about some of the characters, even if there are secrets to be uncovered. It’s a shame that despite many fine elements, this overly theatrical enterprise doesn’t really do the book complete justice. But it is worth seeing – and the book is a classic that definitely deserves reading and re-reading.

There is a recent review of the film over at Peter Hanson’s fascinating Every 70s Movie blog (which is also where I got the yellow movie poster image from). Since starting his site in October 2010, Mr Hanson has been extraordinarily industrious (he posts a new review every day and sometimes more) and it is really worth a look, though it is assumed that readers will have seen the movie in question beforehand – so beware of spoilers!

DVD Availability: It is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray in Germany in a region-free edition with English and German language options. However, it only runs a little over 91 minutes – when screened in the US the official running time was 15 minutes longer but I have no information about the reason for the discrepancy. When screened in the UK in 1977, as The End of the Game, it had an official running time of 103 minutes, which was submitted to the British Board of Film Censorship. The version on the Blu-ray I have has a new copyright date from 1978 so I suspect that this was a revised edition. If anyone out there can explain the differences I would love to know the reason why and what they amount to. Nothing seems to be obviously missing when compared with the novel.

***** (2 fedora tips out of 5)

About these ads
This entry was posted in Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Police procedural, Switzerland, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to The End of the Game (1975)

  1. Randy Johnson says:

    Still and all, it looks like something I might enjoy watching. Maybe I’ll track it down.

    Oh and Bisset was a woman this young man back during that era couldn’t get enough of and on seeing her on a recent series episode, she’s aged quite well.

    • Thanks Randy, and I hope I wasn’t too hard on it. Viewers that have not read the book may have a completely different reaction to it, especially given the big twist at the end. But it is typical of the slightly perverse edge to this film that in the bedroom scene, it is Voight that we see naked and not Bisset (who, I agree, at near 70, is still a very glamorous leading lady). Obviously expressing a personal preference here, but it certainly went against the grain – even in 1975! Still, she did go an make that wet t-shirt contest of a movie, The Deep (with Shaw), very soon afterwards, so that’s something I guess …

  2. Colin says:

    This sounds like a very curious piece of work. Never seen it, or even heard of it, to be perfectly honest. I may get round to it at some point though as anything which involves Shaw or Ritt interests me.

    • Hi Colin – it’s certainly a film of its era, and very gloomy. It’s a lot like the kind of films the late, great Claude Chabrol was making around then – it certainly comparable to some of his slightly looser productions from around that time like Dirty Hands (from the novel by Richard Neely) or even the Ed McBain translation (starring Donald Sutherland), Blood Relatives.

  3. I missed this one. I love Chabrol so the comparison makes it interesting.

  4. Pietro says:

    Dal libro che citi fu tratto anche uno sceneggiato per la televisione italiana, RAI, nel 1972. Con Ugo Pagliai, Franco Volpi, Paolo Stoppa, Glauco Mauri (= From the book you mention was made also a screenplay for Italian television, RAI, in 1972. With Ugo Pagliai, Franco Volpi, Paolo Stoppa, Glauco Mauri.

    Pietro

    • Grazie Pietro – e Buona Psqua! Friedrich Dürrenmatt ha avuto un successo straordinario per quel che riguarda varie riduzione delle sue opera per il cinema e la tele – Questa version con Stoppa e’ reperibile?

      [Thanks very much Pietro - Friedrich Dürrenmatt did have an extraordinary success when it came to adaptations of his books and plays for the cinema and television - I've never seen this version though - is it available at all?]

  5. Pietro says:

    Sei tu, Sergio, Cavershamragu ? Ti avevo trovato in alcuni siti, ce n’è uno simile che si era affacciato sul Blog Mondadori dove intervengo spesso e pubblico articoli (eri tu?).
    La versione con Stoppa era reperibile due anni fa. Ci fu una iniziativa editoriale della Fratelli Fabbri Editore che presentò per la prima volta una serie molto estesa di sceneggiati polizieschi e del mistero della RAI.
    Tutti questi sceneggiati, tra cui quello di cui parlavo, sono indisponibili e non esistono altre edizioni che li contemplino. Non vorrei però che tra qualche tempo, come spesso accade, la cosa venisse ricominciata o ripresa.
    (= Are you, Sergio, Cavershamragu? I found him in some sites, there was a nickname like this, that participated at the Mondadori Blog (where I speak often and I publish articles) to discussions (were you?).
    The version with Stoppa was found two years ago. There was a publishing venture by Fratelli Fabbri Editore, that presented for the first time an extensive series of detective drama and mystery of the RAI.
    All these dramas, including the one I mentioned, are unavailable and there are not other issues that they contemplate. I would not, however, that some time, as often happens, it would be restarted or resumed).

    • Ciao Pietro, Cavershamragu sono sempre io (almeno credo!) – sto continuando ad avere un sacco di problemi con l’internet e in parte ho dovuto ricomnciare da capo per quel che riguardo il mio blog etc.- pazienza!

      Grazie per le informazioni – il romanzo e’ davvero un classico ed e’ facile capire perche e’ stato usato per TV e cinema cosi tante volte.

      [Thanks for the info about this version - it's a fascinating book and it's easy to see why people were so keen to adapt it.]

  6. Pietro says:

    Però.. :-)
    Ti dico qualcosa per email. Ti avevo anche inviato gli auguri di pasqua con una anumazione ad effetto.. (= But .. :-)
    I tell you something by email. You’d also sent Easter greetings with an animation effect ..)

    Pietro

  7. Todd Mason says:

    Would that there had been anything but Bisset in a t-shirt in THE DEEP. Such as her out of the t-shirt and all, or a story worth paying attention to around her…BULLITT might remain my favorite of her films.

    • I think I understand where you’re going with this Todd! Well, there was a terrific John Barry score too … but yes, one is grasping, isn’t one? As for la Bisset, Bullitt is chic and all that, but above all else she’ll always be the star of Truffaut’s wonderful movie-in-a-movie,Day for Night (La nuit américaine) for me. Just one of the best films ever made, and not just about filmmaking.

      • Todd Mason says:

        Indeed. I’ve seen BULLITT half a dozen times, and DAY FOR NIGHT (almost sad that the English language title is so much better than the French) only once, but DFN is certainly at least a match. I’d say BULLITT is more than chic, and has some heavy subtext and just remarkable deftness in nearly everything it attempts, but DFN is also fully realized, as I remember it. Grasping and Bisset…one would hope only if given tacit or explicit permission…

        • You really cracked me up there – Bisset will be a joy forever – fact! However, I clearly need to watch Bullitt again because, while beautifully made, I think that its deeper significance may have eluded me. Plus, I just could never get the plot straight in my head no matter what language I watched it in (but then I haven’t read the original novel, which I definitely have knocking around here somewhere). I’ll definitely give it another go and try not to get too dazzled by all the beautiful people, the wonderful Schifrin jazz, the amazing Pablo Ferro title design, Peter Yates’ superior direction, that great, great car chase etc. (definitely going to be difficult getting the stars out of my eyes).

  8. John says:

    I saw this when it was first in theaters when I was barely old enough to understand the very adult story. To a 15 year-old mind the movie was a big snooze. I know at the time much of the story went over my head. My brother and I left the theater saying, “Well, that was a boring and talky.” The only thing that impressed and scared us was the horrible murder when the woman is punched in the face while sitting on the edge of the wall on the bridge and off she goes in the water. We both gasped and jumped out of our seats. It’s so jarring and a terriyfing image to a kid. To anyone I should hope! I think it gave me nightmares for a while. That’s all I recall about this movie. After reading this review, however, I doubt I’ll bother re-viewing it through my middle-aged eyes.

    • Hi John – wow, someone who actually saw it at the cinema! Even as a teen you were clearly a man of refined taste! It’s really interesting that you mention the murder on the bridge because it is really shocking, in its brutality and in its callous disregard for human feeling. That’s the point of course – perhaps the film suffers from not really being able to get past this arresting opening sequence, though having just watched it I do feel like Schell, even in this prologue, just didn’t have the confidence to let the film speak for itself as the deliberate attempts to undercut what might be perceived as melodrama ultimately disengage you from any empathy you might feel. But that is very 70s of course. But it’s a great story, a great book and if you haven’t read it don’t let this adaptation put you off.

  9. Hi Sergio! I have only known Maximilian Schell as a fine actor in some of his films I’ve seen that are too well known to mention here. I didn’t know he was a director too which obviously means I haven’t seen END OF THE GAME. It appears to have a complex plot but so long as there is a good dose of suspense, as this one does, I wouldn’t mind seeing it. The film certainly has an impressive cast, particularly the redoubtable John Voight who I think did a lot better in his career early on than he has in recent times. I remember Bisset, somewhat vaguely, in THE DEEP and in THE GREEK TYCOON, that I saw in the eighties.

    • Hi Prashant, thanks for the comments. I am a huge fan of the original book so I wish I had liked the overall film better though it has lots of good points. It does tend to sabotage its suspense element a lot of the time since it is trying very hard to be an arthouse movie rather than a plain thriller – be fascinating to know what you make of it if you ever see it – I have no idea how easy or difficult it is to get hold of a copy outside of Germany! And as for Bisset (which, apparently, she pronounces ‘Biss-it’), the films you mention one can only recall dimly, but she of course is unforgettable – just wanted to make that clear …

  10. idawson says:

    Your review has me intrigued – the cast alone seems interesting enough even if the end product may not be what one expects.

  11. Glenn says:

    I saw this at the theatre, and have not been able to find a DVD in spite of looking. This is definitely worth having in your movie library. The interplay between the protagonists is great. Casting was inspired.

    • Hello Glenn, thanks for that. It’s a peculiar movie but certainly a memorable one. If you can play DVDs from Europe, that this title is easy to obtain from Amazon in Germany od DVD and Blu-ray. Just follow this link.

  12. Bill Goodman says:

    Waking in pain at 4AM I turn to FMC and find this flick, am quickly amazed at the cast then find this blog. Very helpful as I only caught the last 30 minutes. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s