WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD!
A GAME OF CRIME marks the birth of the second variation of the Poisoned Past narrative. This variation can be defined as follows: the story of a man or woman whose personal safety is put in jeopardy due to the present actions of someone they are involved with romantically. This variation tends to produce the weakest films for several reasons, all of which are found in this film. To properly explain, I'm going to have to go into details so turn away now if you were ever planning on tracking down this giallo rarity.
A GAME OF CRIME begins with a man named Paolo being followed, chased and eventually beaten up by a couple of thugs. Turns out Paolo has a gambling problem and is in serious debt. When his nightclub performer girlfriend Christina can't bail him out of it, Paolo goes for Plan B. He steals a million lire from his employer, David. Naturally, David doesn't appreciate this, but the person most shocked by Paolo's actions is David's wife, Anna. She and Paolo have been having an affair, something David knows all about. So to punish both the crook and his cheating wife, David plans on calling the cops, only to fall ill when his heart condition flares up.
Bedridden and tended to by his doctor friend, Bowen, David tosses and turns, clearly in pain. And he isn't the only one. In an upstairs room of the house resides David's brother, Carlo, a man reduced to an incoherent mass of scar tissue after an automobile accident a few years back. Carlo is looked after by a live-in nurse named Elizabeth, mostly because Anna cannot tolerate Carlo's incessant, agonized wailing. When David's heart condition suddenly worsens, everyone rushes to his aid, including Paolo, who has been hiding in David and Anna's house for the past couple of days. Bowen asks him to retrieve David's heart medication from the bathroom and Paolo, slime that he is, suddenly finds a way out of this mess. He purposefully gives David the wrong medicine, killing him.
Only days after, Paolo and Anna are a couple. Christina has been pushed to the side by Paolo. He's angry that she won't abort their unborn child but she, for some indiscernible reason, still loves him. Anna love him too, even though Paolo doesn't treat her any better than her abusive, now-dead husband. But no matter. Paolo wants to live the good life, spending the money Anna received from David's life insurance policy on a brand new car. Carlo still resides in the upstairs bedroom, his ongoing care a condition placed upon Anna in the insurance agreement. Even Carlo's screams can't dampen Anna's mood.
But the police sure can. They've received an anonymous letter claiming that David's death was not a natural one. And so begins the long and torturous central narrative of A GAME OF CRIME.
The problems should be obvious. For starters, we have two main characters, one of whom is a greedy, good-for-nothing killer. The other is a widow fully aware of the circumstances of her husband's death. Or at least I think she is. The film never bothers to explicitly state how much Anna knows. In one scene, she's paranoid about the cops arresting her. In another, she's more or less just worried about the ramifications of being accused. Regardless, Anna is a weak, borderline pathetic character for the film to hang its hat on and Paolo is little more than a petulant, arrogant brat. Am I really supposed to care if they're arrested?
Dancing around the periphery of the film are two far more interesting and sympathetic characters, Elizabeth and Christina. Elizabeth is first presented to us as quiet and devoted to her work, but as the film goes on, her character is given sudden depth which goes completely unexplored. She's the one that sent the letter to the police and is later revealed to be not only Paolo's sister but David's lover as well. This provides the film with ample opportunities to explore a character torn between past greed and present moral torment over her actions. But because she presents a possible problem for everyone involved, it becomes imperative for her character to be killed off. And killed off she is, leaving us with the far less interesting cast of characters.
Then there's Christina. While completely removed from the central narrative, Christina is the only other character with any semblance of inner motivation for her actions. It's rare to see a film from 1964 deal with abortion as something integral to a character arc, but A GAME OF CRIME plays that card rather well. She is the only character I felt any sympathy for in the whole film. Unfortunately, she really is just a side character, only kept around for the sake of a misguided happy ending.
Gialli are not known for being strongly ordered, logical affairs, but the ending of A GAME OF CRIME rises to such a staggering degree of stupidity that I feel it's worth discussing. It is revealed late in the film that David did not die. With the help of Bowen, David faked his death. He killed his suffering brother, put on a custom-made Carlo mask and has been sitting upstairs in his brother's bedroom the entire time. How he pulled this off is beyond me. We're told by the police that David's autopsy came back clean. Someone would have had to put a body in a coffin for the burial and I'm fairly certain that no one would have confused the clean-cut David with his burnt-to-a-crisp brother. And what reason did David have to pull this all off? For money, of course. HIS money.
Let me repeat that. A wealthy man fakes his own death so he can steal his own money. Wow.
My guess is that I wasn't supposed to think about the twist ending logically. I was supposed to be blown away by it, shocked by it, confounded by it. Truth be told, I was, but it had the nasty side effect of completely jettisoning me out of a film I was barely orbiting in the first place. A GAME OF CRIME is a film about unlikable people doing unlikable things. BLOOD AND BLACK LACE did this same sort of thing, even giving us a late game murderess whose motivations we understood and sympathized with. But here all we have is Paolo, a brat, Anna, a cheating wife and accomplice, Elizabeth, reduced to a petty, duplicitous backstabber and David, a total prick. There is no place to hang your hat on here and that is what makes the ending so remarkably aggravating.
Because after this is all said and done, and David has been eaten alive by rats beneath the house, we are treated to a scene of the police having a drink with Paolo, Christina and Anna. It's like watching a group of friends discuss their day, laughing and making light of everything that just transpired. Paolo decides to stay with Christina and raise their child. Anna flirts with the police inspector. And me? I was screaming “you do remember that two of these people are guilty of attempted murder, right?!” at the top of my lungs. Normally, there would be some kind of comeuppance, some kind of emotional closure for the audience. Not here though. What we have here is a demonstration that the people who made the film have no real grasp on poetic justice or irony. They sacrificed all of that in favor of a cheap twist.
A GAME OF CRIME
(Crimine a due)
Director: Romano Ferrara Writers: Marcello Coscia, Romano Ferrara
Starring: John Drew Barrymore, Lusia Rivelli, Lisa Gastoni, Jean Claudio
Italy; Eco Films
1964, 89 minutes
Narrative Variety: Poisoned Past, Var. 2
Murderer(s) Role: Husband
Murderer(s) Motive: Greed
Victims: 1 Female (shot), 1 Male (dies offscreen, cause undetermined)
Murderer(s) Death: Eaten by rats