The Name of the Game is Kill on DVD!

The Name of the Game is KillIf I remember correctly I first heard about THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL (1968) in Michael J. Weldon’s The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, where Mike tagged it as “a weird one.” (He said more, but spoilers abound.) There was a beguiling accompanying photograph of star Susan Strasberg adoring a severed doll’s head, which seemed to be suspended by its hair, and so as you might well imagine, knowing me as you do by this point, I was sold. That was 1982. The movie was by that point 14 years old and I finally saw it today, which means that there was a 31 year gap between the point at which I first heard of the movie and the actual seeing o’it. 31 years. I’ve made the point here before and I’m going to do it again because … will anyone ever again wait 31 years to see a movie? Will anyone have to wait 31 years to see a movie? All but lost for all this time, THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL was never transferred to VHS in this country (it did run on late night TV for a spell under the alternate title THE FEMALE TRAP) and it has only just come to the digital realm under the auspices of VCI Entertainment and thanks to the efforts of a handful of genuinely twisted individuals, some of whom I have the honor to call personal friends, and all of whom live to make just this sort of thing happen. Leave it to the major studios (none of whom had anything to do with THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL, it bears mentioning — this joint is 100% American independent, a claim that not even David Lynch has been able to make since 1976) and we’d have nothing but frosting, pap, pablum for the lowest common denominator. The suits don’t care about the back catalog or how many people want to see some old thing — if they can’t cross-market it five ways from payday they really aren’t interested, which is why it take a lunatic or lunatics to see this sort of thing to fruition, it takes compulsion, it takes vision, it takes people who are willing to go without food, without sleep, to put their money on the table, to drain themselves dry so that those of us who appreciate the unusual, the offbeat, the obscure, the grotesque and arabesque can have that itch scratched. When I saw that THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL had been put out on DVD, and not just dumped onto DVD but curated, presented, and packaged with a wealth of supplemental materials, including a full-on making-of documentary, I was reminded that, in this cold, uncaring, acquisitive world, someone was looking out for me. And if this is the kind of thing that appeals to you too then know that those twisted individuals are looking out for you as well. Kiss a lunatic today. They do God’s work.

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THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL began with a stage play written by a young man named Gary Crutcher, who had played a role in Richard Cunha’s D-grade revived-conquistador-on-the-loose-in-Big-Bear movie GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN (1958) and wanted to stay on in Hollywood. Renting a $10-a-week room in a flophouse on Hollywood Boulevard, he banged out a piece based on personal experiences, telling the tale of a young man taken into a strange house run by a mother and her three odd daughters, and which came to be called Young Man Among Women. Over the years, the property attracted some surprisingly major Hollywood players, among them Curtis Harrington (who helped Crutcher adapt the tale to screenplay form and lined up George Hamilton to play the young man, Gloria Swanson for the mother, and Tuesday Weld to play the comeliest of the daughters), Rock Hudson (who planned to produce until his acting career becalmed after SECONDS and he needed to return to the tried and true) and Roman Polanski. As the script passed from hand to hand, the title changed, to EDGE OF NOWHERE and INSANITY but nothing came of it until the thing went back where it had started, with nobodies. Start-up producers Robert Poore and Richard Todd next bought an option on the screenplay, retitled LOVERS IN LIMBO. Hollywood agent Craig Rumar (who later repped Sylvester Stallone) also got involved, obtaining the talents of stage and film actress Susan Strasberg (who had headlined Hammer Studios’ PSYCHO ripoff SCREAM OF FEAR),  TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD‘s Collin Wilcox, director Gunnar Hellstrom, director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond, and for a leading man, Jack Lord. Pushing 50 at the time, Lord was several years out from playing Felix Leiter to Sean Connery’s James Bond in DR. NO (1962) and a shot as his own weekly series with the short-lived STONEY BURKE (1962-1963). Holding out for more money, Lord had lost a recurring role in the Bond franchise and was paying his rent as a jobbing actor on network television when he agreed to do THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL, which would be his last feature film. Of course, in the year of the film’s release, Lord was cast as Detective Steve McGarrett on CBS’ HAWAII FIVE-O, which brought him fame, fortune, and pop culture immortality. But at the time of principal photography on THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL, he was headed nowhere in particular, which proved to be oddly fitting.

NAME02The movies love a drifter — especially a cute one. From Charlie Chaplin in THE TRAMP (1915) to Joel McCrea in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (1941), John Garfield in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946), Alan Ladd in SHANE (1953), and William Holden in PICNIC (1955), vagrants took up permanent residence in Hollywood films. By the mid-60s, however, the romance of the road began to pall and more disturbing journeys were dreamed up for the rootless. In some ways, THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL seems prophetic, paving the way for Georges Lautner’s ROAD TO SALINA (1970), Don Siegel’s THE BEGUILED (1971), Juan Antonio Bardem’s THE CORRUPTION OF CHRIS MILLER (1973), and Carlos Aured’s BLUE EYES OF THE BROKEN DOLL (1974), which was retitled HOUSE OF PSYCHOTIC WOMEN for American audiences and starred Paul Naschy as an enigmatic drifter who plays three weird sisters against one another and pays dearly for his caprices. THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL (a title cooked up by distributor Joe Solomon, who provided finishing funds) feels primary in its Chaucerian setup, dropping Lord’s peregrinating Hungarian refugee into the lap of the Terry family, whose three sisters (Tisha Sterling rounds out the company) can barely be contained by their long-suffering mother T.C. Jones (playing Shelley Winters before Shelley Winters had a whack at this kind of material). More of a slow cooker than most films touched by PSYCHO (1960), THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL takes its sweet time and proves a bit tight-fisted with the stage blood, using its running time to allow Lord to float from sister to sister as he attempts to divine exactly what happened to their father that terrible night many years ago.

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There’s a big twist to THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL, one utilized in the original ad campaign back in 1968 and copied for the purposes of the VCI DVD. I’m going to go out on a limb and say right now that you will figure out the twist well before your 83 minutes are up and if you can’t then you’ve been texting or Jiffy Popping or something. But I’m going to inch further out onto that limb to suggest that figuring out the twist is not the point of the film. I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone eager to catch up with this obscure title, as I was, so I’ll just say that THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL is concerned with the past, with tragedies that have been swallowed by the survivors, with people who have made some kind of bargain with reality and have forged a new life for themselves that is probably at least 40% fiction. In that context, the film’s big reveal and the psychology supporting it feel less archaic, less unsophisticated than a contemporary set of eyes might adjudge, and are perhaps more crazily honest about what it takes to carry on, to find new purpose in living, and about the risks undertaken by those who, out of love or just foolhardiness, attempt to get their loved ones to admit the truth than might be apparent on first pass.

NAME04Though image quality of the 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is a bit rough, VCI’s commemorative THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL disc is tricked out with a wealth of enticing supplements, not the least of these is a 45-minute making-of documentary directed by Daniel Griffith of Ballyhoo Motion Pictures. DP Vilmos Zsigmond, writer Gary Crutcher, composer Stu Phillips, and such interested parties as filmmaker Jeff Burr, Video Watchdog editor/publisher Tim Lucas, and Joe Dante (who provided the positive print used for VCI’s DVD) provide analysis of the film and/or fill in production anecdotes, such as Gunnar Hellstrom’s firing of Zsigmond three weeks into shooting (a threatened crew walk-out put paid to that chess move) and Susan Strasberg’s marriage troubles to actor Christopher Jones, resulting in Jones’ abducting their child from the Arizona location and making a desperate (and failed) run for the border. Temple of Schlock proprietor and exploitation filmmaker Chris Poggiali offers fascinating production notes and Gary Crutcher contributes his own first person experiences of the film’s genesis, production, and tumble into obscurity. (Poggiali and Crutcher also provide an audio commentary, moderated by Griffith.) TV spots, a gallery of promotional material, a short subject devoted to the Electric Prunes (who provided the film’s title track, “Shadows,” without knowing precisely what the hell they were getting into), and a 45 minute compilation of trailers for Joe Solomon films (THE LOSERS, SIMON KING OF THE WITCHES, VIOLATED, THE GAY DECEIVERS) round out the bonus features, making this an intensely pleasurable release (I really don’t mean that to sound dirty) for the weird of mind and an educational one to boot.

18 Responses The Name of the Game is Kill on DVD!
Posted By morlockjeff : May 4, 2013 12:29 pm

Oh man, I have wanted to see this for years. Glad it’s finally available.

Posted By morlockjeff : May 4, 2013 12:29 pm

Oh man, I have wanted to see this for years. Glad it’s finally available.

Posted By Gene : May 4, 2013 12:33 pm

You’ve definitely done a great pitch on this film. I’m sold. The back story of the screenplay alone makes a great tale in and of itself. Hollywood Soap Opera, the rise and fall of a movie’s fate. Thank God for Indies and the world wide web. And thank you for bringing obscure movies to light.

Posted By Gene : May 4, 2013 12:33 pm

You’ve definitely done a great pitch on this film. I’m sold. The back story of the screenplay alone makes a great tale in and of itself. Hollywood Soap Opera, the rise and fall of a movie’s fate. Thank God for Indies and the world wide web. And thank you for bringing obscure movies to light.

Posted By Giles : May 4, 2013 12:45 pm

What a great review (particular kudos for using the adjective ‘comeliest’ – not utilised nearly enough these days).

This movie sounds fabulous. Will order soon.

Posted By Giles : May 4, 2013 12:45 pm

What a great review (particular kudos for using the adjective ‘comeliest’ – not utilised nearly enough these days).

This movie sounds fabulous. Will order soon.

Posted By Richard Brandt : May 4, 2013 6:36 pm

Caught this on TV when I was at university (man, did we have some great stations in the Dallas/Fort Worth area), but don’t worry, my lips are sealed. Would love to get this DVD for the extras alone.

Posted By Richard Brandt : May 4, 2013 6:36 pm

Caught this on TV when I was at university (man, did we have some great stations in the Dallas/Fort Worth area), but don’t worry, my lips are sealed. Would love to get this DVD for the extras alone.

Posted By swac44 : May 5, 2013 10:47 am

I almost put this in my shopping cart when picking up the new Gorgo blu-ray directly from VCI, but I didn’t (I opted for a Carry On double feature and one of their Hammer Film Noir collections instead). Then I read this piece and now I’m kicking myself, I shoulda known it was worth getting just by the fact that Jack Lord was in it. Time to place another order…

Posted By swac44 : May 5, 2013 10:47 am

I almost put this in my shopping cart when picking up the new Gorgo blu-ray directly from VCI, but I didn’t (I opted for a Carry On double feature and one of their Hammer Film Noir collections instead). Then I read this piece and now I’m kicking myself, I shoulda known it was worth getting just by the fact that Jack Lord was in it. Time to place another order…

Posted By Mike Doran : May 6, 2013 1:38 pm

May I take it that the “surprise shock ending” of this film is not given away by your by-name identification of one of the supporting actors appearing herein?
(Assuming that those of us who grew up watching The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and The Wild Wild West haven’t already spotted that?)
Just asking – I intend to get this one at the first opportunity …

Posted By Mike Doran : May 6, 2013 1:38 pm

May I take it that the “surprise shock ending” of this film is not given away by your by-name identification of one of the supporting actors appearing herein?
(Assuming that those of us who grew up watching The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and The Wild Wild West haven’t already spotted that?)
Just asking – I intend to get this one at the first opportunity …

Posted By robbushblog : May 9, 2013 12:22 pm

Jack didn’t seem that old at that time. It’s hard to believe he was just shy of 60 when Hawaii 5-0 went off the air.

Posted By robbushblog : May 9, 2013 12:22 pm

Jack didn’t seem that old at that time. It’s hard to believe he was just shy of 60 when Hawaii 5-0 went off the air.

Posted By sakara : June 27, 2013 5:06 pm

i saw this on tv, in 1970s, when it had the much better title of THE FEMALE TRAP. I finally ordered it off amazon—will be the first time for me to see this movie since around 1978.

tisha sterling should have been in lots! more movies. I always thought she was jan sterling’s daughter; jan sterling was great in the cynical classic, ACE IN THE HOLE. Turns out tisha sterling the daughter of 1930s actress, Ann Southern.

A certain actor in this movie appears in HEAD, the monkees/jack nicholson movie, in which the “surprise” is repeated.

Posted By sakara : June 27, 2013 5:06 pm

i saw this on tv, in 1970s, when it had the much better title of THE FEMALE TRAP. I finally ordered it off amazon—will be the first time for me to see this movie since around 1978.

tisha sterling should have been in lots! more movies. I always thought she was jan sterling’s daughter; jan sterling was great in the cynical classic, ACE IN THE HOLE. Turns out tisha sterling the daughter of 1930s actress, Ann Southern.

A certain actor in this movie appears in HEAD, the monkees/jack nicholson movie, in which the “surprise” is repeated.

Posted By sakara : June 27, 2013 5:16 pm

p.s.
the title was probably changed to THE FEMALE TRAP for tv cause there was a 1968 tv show called THE NAME OF THE GAME, period.

Gene Barry, Robert Stack, and notoriously nasty actor, Tony Franciosca, starred. And that show was taken from a ’66 tv movie called FAME IS THE NAME OF THE GAME.

Posted By sakara : June 27, 2013 5:16 pm

p.s.
the title was probably changed to THE FEMALE TRAP for tv cause there was a 1968 tv show called THE NAME OF THE GAME, period.

Gene Barry, Robert Stack, and notoriously nasty actor, Tony Franciosca, starred. And that show was taken from a ’66 tv movie called FAME IS THE NAME OF THE GAME.

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