Welcome to The Prime Sublime, a weekly column dedicated to the underseen and underloved films buried beneath page after page of far more popular fare on Amazon’s Prime Video collection. We’re not just cherry-picking obscure titles, though, as these are movies that we find beautiful in their own, often unique ways. You might even say we think they’re sublime… and this week we’re rewinding to the late 60s for a cautionary tale about bad Samaritans called The Name of the Game Is Kill!
“Sublime /səˈblīm/: of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe”
The moral of far too many thrillers seems to be that strangers can’t be trusted, especially when they appear to be acting out of kindness. Don’t take rides from passing strangers, don’t accept invitations to spend the night with them, don’t hook up with more than one sister… you know, the usual themes and cautionary tales about stranger danger. This week’s Prime Sublime pick fits that bill, but it does it with a slightly atypical conclusion. It’s enough to make it stand out from the pack despite no one having seen it in decades…
What is ‘The Name of the Game Is Kill’ about?
Symcha Lipa (Jack Lord) is a Hungarian man wandering the dry roads of the American West when a kind woman named Mickey (Susan Strasberg) stops to offer him a ride. He accepts, but her end destination is a town that’s no more than a speck on the map. With no other options, he accepts her extended kindness and offer for a place to spend the night. She lives with her two sisters, Diz (Collin Wilcox) and Nan (Tisha Sterling), and their mother (TC Jones), and while they’re leery of the European, he’s the one who should probably be worried.
Another man who recently spent some time with the family was murdered, Diz is lying about it, Nan is a bit too affectionate towards her pet rattlesnake and tarantula, and mom? Well she has a secret of her own. Of course, Symcha is no angel as he’s very insistent while coming on to Mickey. Next thing he knows, the poisonous snake is loosed in his bedroom and a car runs him off the road and over the side of a bridge. Someone’s playing a game, and the name of the game is… murder.
What makes ‘The Name of the Game Is Kill’ sublime?
Director Gunnar Hellström (The Powers of Matthew Star, 1982) and writer Gary Crutcher (Stanley, 1972) deliver a straightforward B-movie with The Name of the Game Is Kill. The stakes are made clear right up front — the opening scene sees some poor schlep getting beaned with a small Venus de Milo statue — but the decision to make Symcha sketchy in his own right makes for an unusual blend of antagonists. Crutcher originally wrote the film as a play at the age of nineteen before seeing it catch the eyes of Hollywood producers, and its journey to the screen teases a “what if?” scenario with some far bigger and better known talents.
Roman Polanski was briefly attached to direct, and Rock Hudson was set to be his leading man. When that fell apart, Curtis Harrington came on board to direct with George Hamilton ready to play Symcha alongside Tuesday Weld as Mickey and Gloria Swanson as the women’s mother. That last bit is most interesting to anyone who’s seen the movie as Swanson couldn’t have pulled off the reveal in the film’s third act which suggests it wasn’t always a part of the narrative.
Crutcher’s script has plenty more darkness and questionable behaviors to offer, though, and they find footing well beyond the expected “crazy family” dynamic. “You’re the first girl who ever invited me to rape her,” says Symcha, when he returns to the women’s home and confronts Mickey — after being run over and told by the local sheriff that they just might be murderers — and it’s made immediately clear that none of these people are exactly innocents. Who do you root for when the characters are all bananas in their own ways?
Unlike something like All the Kind Strangers (1974) which sees a Good Samaritan fall into a deadly trap, here we’re embedded with a bad man and four women suffering varying degrees of delusion. Each member of the family tells Symcha a different version of what happened to their father ranging from suicide to murder to abandonment and self defense. Nan’s tale of how her dad left the family was reportedly built around Sterling’s own personal trauma — her father, actor Robert Serling (Show Boat, 1951), abandoned the family when she was still a child.
Each of them acts out of madness now and then, and it works to shape the mystery as to whom among them — or is it all of them? — are responsible for the murders both completed and attempted. The end reveal is pretty interesting, and depending on what you think you know about the mom throughout the film, the conclusion challenges preconceived notions and expectations framed by years of thrillers (including a few Alfred Hitchcock movies). Is it progressive? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s definitely a different kind of dark, downer finale.
And in conclusion…
The Name of the Game Is Kill is a B-movie through and through. There’s a top tier version of the film that never was, but the movie we got still entertains with its characters, thrills, and over the top ending. The journey there is low-key more often than not, but the growing mystery finds some highlights in the form of murder and groovy dance scenes.