German actor Maximilian Schell took a swing at writing and directing during the late sixties and early seventies, and End of the Game, a German-Italian co-production, revealed his adeptness at crafting tight little criminal thrillers.
Some of the films’ grim humour may have stemmed from Friderech Dürrenmatt’s 1950 novel, The Judge and His Hangman, but Schell also had fun interpolating the cast with an extremely diverse international group of actors.
Director Martin Ritt (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) takes the lead role of Hans Baerlach, a burned-out detective living out his remaining days in a pretty corner of Switzerland. Diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer and slated for a last-ditch operation, he has maybe a year left before the disease, brought on by smoking and extravagant heavy cuisine, kill him, but his surgery is somewhat postponed by the sudden murder of an associate, Robert Schmied, who’s found dead in his Mercedes by a local cop.
Schmied was working on a criminal investigation of local thug Richard Gastmann (Robert Shaw), a former friend of Baerlach who became a nemesis when Gastmann may have stabbed to death a women both men loved – Nadine (Delirium’s Rita Calderoni) - in Istanbul, way back in 1948.
Woven into the Baerlach-Gastmann chess game is an eager detective named Walter Tschanz (Jon Voight), who knew both the dead Schmied and his supposed fiancée Anna Crawley (Jacqueline Bisset). Tschanz wants on the case to prove he too is game for the big leagues, but he also revels in trying to find the murderer before Baerlach, and both men aren’t exactly supportive of each other, nor of bringing justice to Schmied’s suspected killer.
Unlike Italian gialli, there really is a mystery and multiple conflicts at work in this solid (and coherent) krimi thriller, and part of the attraction are the mental duels among the characters, neither of whom seems wholly innocent of vengeful, selfish behaviour.
Tschanz, for example, eventually discovers more about his mentor’s relationship with local goon Gastmann, while Baerlach often plays dumb to hide his own awareness of who may be the guilty party, allowing others to make a casual slip.
Tethering these characters together is Anna, a sexual ‘free agent’ who had no qualms sleeping with Tschanz before and after Schmied’s murder, and eventually moves into Gastmann’s ‘guest room.’
On paper, the mish-mash of international talent shouldn’t have worked: Game has three cinematographers, three screenwriters (Schell, author Dürrenmatt, and Roberto De Loernardis), but most likely a fraction of the group were involved in the respective German and Italian versions. Most of the actors spoke their lines in English, and the dialogue was dubbed in post in that familiar creeping sync style where the emotions rather than exact words match the performances.
The battle of wits is enlivened by some spectacularly gloomy Swiss scenery (grim, cloudy, and always coated in fall dampness), beautifully fluid camerawork, sharp editing, and a sometimes baroque music score by Ennio Morricone, whose singular theme flips from a haunting Turkish elegy to a bizarre lounge schmaltz. (Most of Morricone’s score was sparsely used by Schell, and deservedly so.)
The cast seems very comfortable, and clearly had fun with roles with characters that aren’t morally black or white: Ritt is curmudgeonly, Voigt is perpetually in a state of morbid glee, Bisset is a reserved femme fatale, and Shaw relishes his odious, balding baddie.
In addition to a cameo by Donald Sutherland (playing the dead Schmied!), Schell performs Schmied’s voice (heard as a final taped message), violinist Pinchas Zukerman (!) appears in two scenes, author Dürrenmatt has a cameo explaining the complex Gastmann-Baerlach war to Tschanz during a solo chess game, Lil Dagover (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) appears as Gastmann’s mumsy, and one suspects the German voice of Voight sounds an awful lot like Bruno Ganz (though that’s likely fanciful musing here).
Schell’s directorial efforts include the TV movie Alles zum Guten (1967), First Love / Erste Liebe (1970), The Pedestrian / Der Fußgänger (1973), End of the Game / Der Richter und sein Henker (1975), Tales from the Vienna Woods / Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald (1979), the documentary Marlene (1984), the TV movie Candles in the Dark (1993), and the documentary My Sister Maria / Meine Schwester Maria (2002).
Perhaps Dürrenmatt’s best-known English film is Bernhard Wicki’s 1964 adaptation of The Visit, remade for German TV in 2008. End of the Game was previously filmed for Italian TV as Il giudice e il suo boi, starring Paolo Stoppa, in 1972.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan