As Disney quietly disappears huge swathes of film history into its vaults, I've spent 2020 celebrating Twentieth Century Fox and the Fox Film Corporation's films, what one might call their output if only someone were putting it out. This is the final Forgotten By Fox entry.
"Have you ever seen any of your victims?" Robert Shaw is asked mid-way through End of the Game (1975), a line borrowed from The Third Man (1949). This I take to be author Friedrich Dürrenmatt's revenge, on behalf of his native Switzerland, for Orson Welles' celebrated crack about the cuckoo clock in Carol Reed's thriller, which appeared just before he wrote the book this film is based on.
End of the Game is adapted from Dürrenmatt's 1950 novel The Judge and His Hangman by the author himself and Maximilian Schell, who also directs, inventively if a little inconsistently. Some scenes have the correct tragic force underpinning the bitter irony: "No story is finished," claimed Dürrenmatt, "until it has reached its worst possible outcome." Others are ludic in a nervous, tricksy, or frustrating way. Half of the editing is like the TV show Dragnet (1951-59), shot/counter-shot cut on the lines; ends rather than on psychology or reaction, appropriate, since this is a kind of police procedural, even if the procedures in question are highly unorthodox. The other half of the cutting has the jittery quality of late Welles or, at the other end of the quality spectrum, Tinto Brass (lots of zooming, too). A consistent tone is said to be a hard thing to achieve, but few films seem to emerge as release prints with their mood swings as unreconciled as this.
Our nominal leading man is actually Jon Voight, young and unspoiled and in the midst of his unaccountable German phase (see also the previous year's The Odessa File), but actually the main character is played by Voight's director of two films previously, Martin Ritt (Conrack, 1974). Ritt, stout, old, and owl-like in his specs, makes a surprising, even startling lead, and brings a lot of force to his performance as a dying detective trying to put away a murderer (Shaw) who has eluded him his whole career. Maybe too much force, since he's meant to be a dying man? But Ritt was like that. To Richard Burton, whom he cordially detested, the moment Burton had finished his role in Ritt's The Spy who Came in from the Cold (1965): "I feel like I just had the last good fuck of an old whore."
Unfortunately, the English-language script of this movie seems like a literal translation from the German, and Ritt somehow hasn't noticed, but other than the odd tone which results in some wildly and not very productively discordant scenes, the film is a pleasure. Dürrenmatt, who crafted a taut, logical, and darkly witty policier, seems to have collaborated gleefully with Schell in mucking it up, turning it into this flakey, faux-Fellini phantasy, and cameos in it as a famous Swiss author called Friedrich, playing chess against himself, or spying on the action from behind a tree (the best position from which an author can observe his work being filmed).
Also on hand: Donald Sutherland as a corpse—he gets some dialogue, from beyond the grave on a tape deck; Schell performed this voice role himself for the German-language version; and we have Jacqueline Bisset, who's excellent in the snappy cross-examination style lovers' tiffs, and the aforementioned Shaw, giving his usual weird, clipped, rising-into-madness line readings; Lil Dagover, still recognizable from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), accompanied by a pet leopard, and testifying to Schell's keen interest in old German actresses: his documentary Marlene (1984) is today his best-known work as director.
Marlene Dietrich didn't trust Schell enough to grant him her last closeup, and I think perhaps she was right, but her refusal to appear on camera spurred Schell to heights of creativity as he was forced to compensate for her defining absence: some of the tricks he came up with are reminiscent of End of the Game's playful approach. I'm now interested to see more of his work behind the camera. One miniature set-piece, when a body is discovered sliding down the baggage carousel at an airport, thoughtfully tagged Swissair, is a delightful bit of Hitchcockian puckishness. A funeral where the mourners' sobs synchronize with the brass band is a less happy invention.
Dürrenmatt gave his dying detective a year to live and squeezed a sequel out of him, Suspicion, also in 1950, but Ritt didn't play the part again because Schell never made the film, Durrenmatt never adapted it, Ennio Morricone never wrote the music...