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While investigating a high-profile murder case, a savvy but unorthodox veteran police inspector has to cope with a bad conscience, bad health, an overzealous partner, a timid superior and interference from political interests. This is an existential whodunit, but a good one, and like any good whodunit, ends with a very surprising conclusion, which will be spoiled for you if you read much of anything at all about the movie. Written by
As close to the masterful novella as an adaptation gets
A countryside cop discovers the corpse sitting behind the wheel of a car, having been killed with a shot to the head and decides to cart the body off to the next village. It turns out the corpse (Sutherland) was policeman, Lt. Schmied, assistant of commissioner Baerlach (Ritt), a grizzled veteran, suffering from a stomach disease that will likely kill him within a year. Baerlach investigates and demands a new assistant: young, ambitious policeman Tschanz (Voight). They discover that Schmied had worked undercover, seemingly on in own account, and had investigated a certain Gastmann (Shaw), an ominous "businessman" who was connections with high-ranking politicians and officials. What ensues is a cat and mouse game, which involves not only the current case but a murder that took place decades ago, a bet between two friends, a self-appointed judge and his chosen hangman.
I have to admit that Friedrich Dürrenmatts novel "The Judge and his hangman" is among my personal favorites, which I have read countless times (and still enjoy occasionally in the form of an audio-book). As far as adaptations go, Maximilian Schell has it spot on however, I can understand how people who are not familiar with the novel will find the film awkward, sometimes strangely timed or even sketchy.
It is not that Schell is a bad director, but that he had decided to stay very close to the novel: Dürrenmatt (who had a small part as a quirky novelist) is an exceptional writer, who doesn't care much for genres or conventions. "The Judge and his hangman" is not just a mere crime-story but a crime-story that's also a moral play, a pitch-black comedy and a social commentary. In essence it's about the past (or fate, if you want) catching up on people, even if it may be at the end of their lives.
Ritt as disillusioned policeman with a past, often reminding off a Swiss Columbo, Shaw as nihilistic, cynic master-criminal and Voight playing his role (very close to the novel) as a man-child with cherub face that a grandmother would probably like to pinch but, like the rest of the characters, seems to have his own secret agenda; the cast is altogether excellent. Bisset, though very pleasant to behold, seems a little out of place (at least in the context of the novel, where her character plays a minor role at best) but Schell does a good job incorporating her into the story. Not to forget: Donald Sutherland must have had a field-day playing the most animated corpse since "Weekend at Bernie's". Story and performances are topped off by an excellent soundtrack of Ennio Morricone. "Once you've heard this music, it will never leave you completely", comments one of the figure on a marching band. I can only agree: I've had the haunting score creep up in my head ever so often for the past 30 years.
A final word of advice: I have only watched the original version once and find it rather irritating or unfitting to hear the characters talk in English. In the German synchronization the actors (with the exceptions of Shaw and Bisset) are given throaty Swiss accents, which are way more "authentic".
If you expect a run-of-the-mill who's dunnit, you might end up disappointed but as far as adaptations go, few have gotten as close to the source material as "End of the Game" (a title which is true, but I still prefer to call the film "The Judge and his hangman").
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