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Only Game in Town, The (Blu-ray Review)

1 Jul, 2013 By: Mike Clark

Available via
Twilight Time
Not rated.
Stars Elizabeth Taylor, Warren Beatty.

Going into it cold, one might well ease through George Stevens Sr.’s modest swan song in a state of oblivion over a lot of things, starting with the fact that it was that maker of A Place in the Sun, Shane and Giant who is directing this take on a flop Frank D. Gilroy play in the first place. Further surprises (or even astounders) might include the fact that this predominantly two-person indoor romance managed to chalk up a then prodigious production tab of $11 million — and that its Vegas backdrop had to be constructed from elaborate scratch (Liz Taylor wanted to be near Richard Burton’s nearby shoot of Stanley Donen’s Staircase), contributing to the budgetary overruns. All of these points sound pejorative — and, indeed, the film dropped a casino’s worth of dough after being dumped by Fox into the release-schedule ghetto called January. But this is actually a fairly enjoyable little movie (or as “little” as superstar leads can allow) that has mellowed some over the decades since I caught it in an abbreviated 5-day hometown run at the time.

Five years younger than his co-star, Warren Beatty never regretted tuning down Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when beckoned to replace Frank Sinatra after a scheduling conflict nixed the latter’s initial casting (the mind reels). This was the first, and still one of the few times, I have ever seen Beatty scrap the generally agreeable goofiness that has always been his stock in trade, and I still think this is one of the best performances of his career (having worked with James Dean in Giant, Stevens likely found Beatty to be comparably tamable). But whatever the calendar says, the age differential feels like a lot more than those five years, given that Taylor was by now well into the post-Butterfield 8 pudginess that plagued her in subsequent decades (Stevens almost ludicrously had to fudge the early scene that tries to palm her off as a Vegas showgirl). The movie could have made something of this older woman/younger guy dynamic, and that would have been interesting. But how much would you have liked to be the one who suggested it to Cleopatra? As it is, we have to take Taylor’s characterization on good faith, which isn’t all that hard to extend. Indelible in both Sun and Giant, she varies in quality here from scene to scene, but her best moments do seem to come when it counts.

Beatty plays a compulsive gambler/cocktail pianist who keeps blowing the nest egg that’s supposed to get him to New York, forcing him to become an unlikely roommate with a woman who has finally gotten a bit wary of waiting around for her more moneyed suitor to divorce his wife. At this point, it may be instructional to recall that before he began carrying the weight of the world around on his shoulders with prodigious projects starting in the ‘50s, Stevens directed one of the great “roomie” comedies of all time: The More the Merrier, with Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea and an Oscar-winning Charles Coburn. Launching his final project after a five-year layoff — and before that, breaking his back for nearly a decade on The Diary of Anne Frank and The Greatest Story Ever Told — Stevens probably thought he was opting for a relative breather.

Though it’s been run a lot on the slapdash Fox Movie Channel, Game has never gotten a DVD or even VHS release, which means most people haven’t been able to appreciate it as a film shot by Henri Decae, who merely did The 400 Blows and Purple Noon. Though there’s some grain here that’s probably representative of its 1970 appearance (this was my first viewing in 43 years), occasional scenes brandish old-school Hollywood glamour, including a pleasing final shot shared by two performers who apparently brought full conviction to the project (though Burton’s nearby presence likely kept Beatty on his best behavior). In some of her best Twilight Time liner notes to date, Julie Kirgo makes note of it — and adds an on-the-button suggestion that someone somewhere might want to conduct a study of all great directors’ “final shots.” To my amazement, the other example she mentions is to my mind maybe the greatest ever: Anne Bancroft’s powerful parting gesture in John Ford’s 7 Women. It amazed me because that I thought of 7 Women when I saw what Stevens did — before I read the Kirgo notes.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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