A peculiar anniversary party kicks things off in 1967’s “Games,” the little-known but awesomely bonkers psychological thriller starring James Caan and Katharine Ross as young Manhattanites. A pair of dabbling eccentrics with far too much time and money on their hands, they have filled their multi-story townhouse with pop art, kitsch and antique carnival games.
The film comes to the Music Box for a one-night run 7 p.m. Wednesday (courtesy of the Northwest Chicago Film Society) and the groovy production design alone — magenta paisley wallpaper; Roy Lichtenstein prints; a tatty fur bedspread and tinkling mirrored windchimes — is reason enough to see this corker on the big screen.
Directed and co-written by Curtis Harrington, "Games" is at once campy and intensely serious about the twisted story at hand.
An avant-garde filmmaker who finagled his way into the studio system, Harrington died in 2007, leaving behind a mostly obscure body of work and a pointed, humorous, unpublished memoir he titled "Nice Guys Don't Work in Hollywood: The Adventures of an Aesthete in the Movie Business," which was recently unearthed by Chicago-based archivist Lisa Janssen, who obtained the rights and edited the work for the local imprint Drag City.
Despite his experimental background, "Harrington was enthralled with classic Hollywood and classic Hollywood divas," said Janssen (who will introduce the film and provide background on Harrington).
And yet his films were perhaps too specifically strange to make a wide impact at the box office. Roger Ebert called 1971's "What's the Matter with Helen?" a "macabre genre of the menopausal metaphysical mystery movie," starring Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters. Harrington's first effort, 1961's "Night Tide," stars Dennis Hopper as a sailor in love with a sideshow worker who may or may not be an actual mermaid.
Working with Hopper, it seems, made an impression. The married couple in "Games" is loosely based on Hopper and his then-wife Brooke Hayward. "Harrington was amused by his dramatics," said Janssen. "There's a story in the memoir about going to Joanne Woodward's birthday party and Dennis Hopper trying to recite poetry and crying because no one was listening to him. So there are definitely some tongue-in-cheek representations of Hopper in the movie."
Despite the late 60s setting, there are no real nods to recreational drug use or an interest in free love. The pursuits here are of the role-playing and straight-faced practical joke variety. The guest list at their anniversary party is a refutation of Jack Weinberg's famous "Don't trust anybody over 30" dictum, with a baroness front and center decked out in a pointy gold turban, looking as though she were about to make a guest appearance on "Star Trek."
All that faux edge, however, turns into something genuinely slippery and unnerving when a middle-aged woman peddling cosmetics (Oscar-winner Simone Signoret) inserts herself into their home the next morning bearing a deck of tarot cards, a haughty French accent and a knack for stirring up trouble.
A few things stand out. Caan (who was in his late 20s at the time) bears a startling resemblance to "Chicago Fire's" Taylor Kinney. "I had a couple of problems with James because he's an ex-football player or something and he's very feisty and prickly," Harrington said in a 2005 interview posted at terrortrap.com. The film is notable for capturing both Caan and Ross before their big breakout roles ("Brian's Song" and "The Godfather" for him; "The Graduate" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" for her). Their careers have diverged in the decades since. Caan, always a busy actor, currently co-stars on the Starz drama "Magic City." Ross' on-screen appearances have been few in recent years. (Married to Sam Elliot since 1984, she made news two years ago when she sought a restraining order against their adult daughter after a violent assault.)
For the role of the mysterious interloper, Harrington originally wanted Marlene Dietrich. Lew Wasserman, head of Universal at the time, felt otherwise. "I pleaded with him," Harrington said in the 2005 interview. "I remember he said to me, 'Nobody would be interested in seeing her.'"
"Harrington struggled in his career more and more as it went on," said Janssen, "with producers meddling into his work. He made a few more well-regarded films, but they kind of sunk without a trace. In order to make money, he started to direct TV episodes. And he ends up getting trapped there. In the 80s he's directing episodes of 'Charlie's Angels' and 'Dynasty' and his life's frustration was that he couldn't go back to film."
Harrington had a real knack for eye-popping imagery, though, which is fully on display in "Games." There is plenty here to suggest that Stanley Kubrick may have borrowed inspiration for the masked-and-deranged rituals that appear in 1999's "Eyes Wide Shut." And though "Games" predates "Rosemary's Baby" by one year, the thematic similarities are uncanny. Both films are obsessed with a young couple — particularly the comely female half — dangerously knocking around a large New York apartment in a semi-constant state of "What in the world is going on?"
"Games" screens 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Music Box with an introduction by Lisa Janssen, editor of Curtis Harrington's memoir "Nice Guys Don't Work in Hollywood." Go to musicboxtheatre.com or northwestchicagofilmsociety.org.
Summer Music Film Fest
WBEZ's "Sound Opinions" teams up with the Music Box for the Summer Music Film Festival, a series of music-related docs and concert films through Tuesday, beginning with "Ain't in it For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm" (the singer and drummer for the Band who died of throat cancer last year). "Sound Opinions" co-hosts Jim DeRogatis and Tribune rock critic Greg Kot will introduce the screening (7 p.m. Friday). Also on the schedule: The rise and fall of Napster is explored in "Downloaded" (Friday-Sunday) with an appearance by director Alex Winter (who played Bill to Keanu Reeves' Ted in 1989's "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure," which will screen as a double feature with the Napster doc). Go to summermusicfilmfestival.com.
My week with Andre
Theater director Andre Gregory is probably best known as the rollicking tablemate of Wallace Shawn in 1981's "My Dinner with Andre," which screens at the Siskel this week on a double bill with "Andre Gregory: Before and After Dinner," a documentary from Cindy Kleine (Gregory's wife) about the man's life and work — and, of course, the making of "My Dinner with Andre." Through Thursday. Go to siskelfilmcenter.org.
Mirren on stage, on screen
British prime ministers have traditionally had a private weekly audience with Queen Elizabeth II, and Peter Morgan's new play "The Audience" imagines what might have transpired during some of those meetings. The production, starring Helen Mirren as the queen, played on the West End in London this spring. The National Theatre broadcasts a filmed version 1:30 p.m. Sunday and again at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. Go to musicboxtheatre.com.