During the thirties and forties, George Stevens was a steady if not fairly prolific director working within the Hollywood system, making comedies, dramas, and assorted literary adaptations. Having paid his dues in giving people what the studios felt was wanted, in the fifties Stevens shifted to films which seemed either epic in length, timely in their subject matter, or mythic. The results were the youth class tragedy A Place in the Sun (1951), the super-mythic western Shane (1953), and the epic class struggle and screeching melodrama of Giant (1956), but the increasing scope and budgetary bulk of these bonafide classics also meant more time would pass between film productions.
The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) was a potent and long-delayed acknowledgement by American filmmakers on the Holocaust without showing any brutal violence. Human intolerance and ugliness were inferred by the fears of a family hiding in an attic and their gradual awareness that anything could alert the Nazis of their presence, and the success of the film seemed to push Stevens towards tackling a dream project, if not what he hoped would be the grandest statement on humanity: The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).
The all-consuming nature of this Biblical epic – the production trials, its post-production challenges, and the eventual critical derision – probably made Stevens take not only a career time out, but reassess exactly where he stood within Hollywood’s elite directors as his contemporaries also wound down their output, and either retired (as did William Wyler), found it tougher to find a property that would keep studios and fickle audiences happy (Alfred Hitchcock), or were quietly put out to pasture by the now-fractured studio system (Howard Hawks) as younger directors delivered edgier material which clicked with the now-influential youth market.
Around the same time, veteran screenwriter Frank D. Gilroy had enjoyed critical and commercial success with the film version of his play The Subject Was Roses (1965), so it seemed logical Fox would gamble $500,000 on the film rights to his next play, but what emerged was a wildly uneven film with spotty dialogue that must have seemed dated, if not dull, in 1970.
When Frank Sinatra bowed out after Elizabeth Taylor’s illness delayed the production’s start date, almost fudging the singer's upcoming concert dates, Warren Beatty, fresh from Bonnie and Clyde (1967), moved into the role of the small-time piano player / gambling addict who woos and strikes up a peculiar liaison with a Vegas showgirl living a tired but rather stoic life of mediocrity.
The toughest act to accept in Game is Taylor as an active showgirl instead of an aging dancer slowly being pushed beyond the margins, and from her average performance, the actress seemed only half interested in the role of Fran Walker in spite of Stevens having extracted decent performances from Taylor in both Giant and Place in the Sun decades earlier.
Beatty’s underplaying makes gambler Joe Grady a quiet yet interesting self-loathing addict with a decent heart, but Gilroy’s scenario doesn’t really offer much for Beatty and Taylor to do once he’s blown his savings and is stuck for at least another year in Vegas. Rather than have the characters show how the city and their middling careers have made them complacent, the focus shifts to average scenes sketching their emerging (if not reluctant) love.
Their romantic curve is interrupted when a wealthy suitor, Lockwood (Charles Braswell), finally makes good on his promise to wed Fran, and whisk her to the high life in Europe, but their scenes lack any freshness, and regardless of Fran’s decision inthe final act, she’s just not a very interesting person; whichever man she chooses doesn’t offer any shock or satisfaction.
The real attraction in Stevens’ film is Beatty’s scenes: his gambling binges, filled with an intensifying fever, are great, and the finale is well-played, especially the ‘confession’ scene with Fran which is the script’s best-written and performed scene (which unfortunately comes too late in the film).
Henri Dacae’s cinematography is very lovely – dreamy, yet capturing the neon Vegas colours without any vulgarity – as are the sets which were built in France to replicate Vegas because Taylor reportedly wanted to be closer to husband Richard Burton, busy filming Staircase [M] with co-star Rex Harrison and director Stanley Donen. The location transplant adversely affected the film’s budget, reportedly a hefty $11 million.
Stevens’ direction is interesting to watch not because he’s trying to give the film a ‘younger man’s’ tone, but for how his predilection for filming and stitching together multiple angles had to be toned down for what’s obviously a stage-bound tale. To avoid being too cutty, Stevens has his actors frequently getting up, sitting down, repositioning themselves, leaving over, getting a drink, walking to a chair, and so on; and perhaps this ploy to create movement was his instinctive reaction against Gilroy's often adequate dialogue. The romance, with soft, self-deprecating moments of comedy, is believable, but it isn’t very interesting, either.
Maurice Jarre’s score is initially appropriate in its jazzy design, but it quickly becomes distracting when orchestrations of his repetitive theme start to go against a scene’s intended tone; it’s as though Jarre either misread the subtext in several scenes, or Stevens wanted a lighter, more wistful tone when the actors are trying to realize the frequently awkward interactions between their lonely characters. (The score, though, does feature nice solos by Ernie Watts on alto sax, and Bobby Bryant on flugel horn.)
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray offers a subtle stereo music & effects mix of Jarre’s previously unreleased score (with occasional sound effects) and a trailer. Julie Kirgo’s liner notes don’t reassess the film as some maligned masterpiece, but as a non-disaster that was kicked too hard by critics, and forgotten until the Medved brothers spotlighted the film as a ‘classic Liz Taylor dud’ in their puckish (if not slightly mean-spirited) The Hollywood Hall of Shame (1984) tome of big budget disasters.
The transfer is very nice and will please fans of the great French cinematographer who filmed Le cercle rouge (1970), Le samourai (1967), and Joy House (1964), but there are odd, low-grade shots for which Stevens chose to settle. The appropriately grainy look of Fran and Joe smoking cigarettes after sex matches the texture of the actor's performances, but there's a glaring continuity error in a reverse angle that has different lighting, colour density, and no grain. The sudden cut is also symptomatic of Stevens wanting to break up what seems like visual monotony, but it’s actually a fine scene that could’ve played in one long and wholly engaging take.
In the film's prologue, there’s also zero continuity between two close-ups of Taylor performing a Vegas show, and the leggy dancers in wide shots. (Taylor also looks a little different in the close-up, and one suspects some optical stretching was done.)
Fans of Taylor and Beatty should be pleased the film is finally available in a proper home video release, and Stevens’ last film (as well the final production before a self-imposed retirement reveals not an ineptly directed mess, but an interesting misfire with occasional moments of energy and compelling drama.
The Only Game in Town was also the final film produced by Fred Kohlmar (Pal Joey [M], Picnic [M], The Ghost and Mrs. Muir), who passed away before its release.
© 2013 Mark R. Hasan