Review: End of the Game

[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]

“Corpse provided by Donald Sutherland.” That acknowledgment amid the end credits of End of the Game suggests that a certain spirit of playfulness informed the film’s making. Actor-turned-director Maximilian Schell cast actor-turned-director-turned-actor Martin Ritt in the crucial role of an aging, crotchety, dyspeptic, cigar-puffing police inspector with a 30-year-old injustice on his mind, and Ritt’s performance, albeit single-note and shamelessly coddled by Schell, is undeniably playful, and quite amusing most of the time. Then there’s writer-turned-actor Friedrich Duerrenmatt playing this old writer named Friedrich (“Friedrich … Friedrich … you know, Friedrich! What the hell’s his last name?” Ritt grouses, ploughing through the volumes on his bookshelf while the camera lovingly showcases his ship’s-keel ass), to whom younger police inspector Jon Voight is sent in quest of information that his superior might very well have supplied him; Friedrich playfully puts up his hands and says, “I didn’t do it! … OK, I did do it!”—a murder, that is—while playing chess against himself (“The other one always wins—checkmated by myself!”) and muttering about the necessity of playing the game with a sufficient sense of evil.

Playing, playing, playing; levels, levels, levels. Why isn’t it really playful? Why should all the levels add up to zero? Maximilian Schell really manifests no more sense of humor here than in, say, that well-meaning, claustrophobic raising of Nazi ghosts The Pedestrian. He works too hard to have fun. A police band oompahs their way through a funeral service and the mourners start sniffling and bobbing in martial rhythm: it is to wheeze. Pretentious non-characters lock gazes in sententious non-encounters, trade selfcontradictory cryptic messages: try and guess my motive—do I have a motive?—would I know a motive if it kicked me in the pants? It’s a game, it’s a puzzle, it’s an artistic exercise without, ultimately, much art to it. A crime in the past and a crime in the present cancel each other out; each generation produces its own style and degree of assassin; the playful inspector and connoisseur of poetic justice appreciates the figure in the ash-powdered carpet, knowing he has only another year to live anyway. I like the idea, but from moment to moment I had to make my own movie about it.

Even a dream has to develop and obey its own laws of causality, and Schell is both too intensely insistent (his camera insists always that we see one thing at a time, as he would have us see it) and essentially directionless to sustain a persuasive continuum. So it becomes a matter of that-was-a-good-scene, that-was-a-silly-scene, that-was-a-nice-touch, that-was-a-touch-in-search-of-a-contact. … Jon Voight keeps a manic smile on his face most of the way through (“The Odessa File and now this—I’ve got to get out of Germany!”) and, although the idea is supposed to be that he can’t play the game as well as Ritt and Robert Shaw, the old adversaries who wrote the book, his performance is really a reflection of his director’s desperation. Duerrenmatt’s master villain (Shaw) and rumpled angel of retribution (Ritt) both come in for comparisons to the Deity, and ultimately the problem of this film’s aesthetics is supposed to have some connection with the Problem of Evil. Schell seems to count on the invocation of Holy Names and the mystique of mise-en-scène to lend cohesion to his enterprise and validate his own role as a responsible creator. But God could hardly be blamed for turning His back on this shambles of a film-world, and mise-en-scène involves a good deal more than having one body sail off a bridge at the beginning and another sail off another bridge at the end. (Salacious footnote to narrative methodology: Perhaps in ill-advised takeoff on MPAA hair-splitting, End of the Game includes some of the most ludicrously circumspect peekabo nude scenes in living memory. Who’s kidding whom?)

RTJ

END OF THE GAME
Direction: Maximilian Schell. Screenplay: Schell and Friedrich Duerrenmatt, after the novel The Judge and the Hangman by Friedrich Duerrenmatt. Cinematography: Ennio Guarnieri et al. Music: Ennio Morricone.
The players: Martin Ritt, Jon Voight, Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Shaw, Gabriele Ferzetti, Friedrich Duerrenmatt, (“corpse provided by”) Donald Sutherland.

© 1976 Richard T. Jameson

A pdf of the original issue can be found here