Symcha Lipa (Jack Lord) is a Hungarian drifter in Arizona, walking along beside the highway in an out of the way stretch of desert when he pauses to rest his feet as he sits by the road and a jeep pulls up. It is being driven by a young woman, Mickey Terry (Susan Strasberg), who asks him if he wants a lift, which he gratefully accepts, and they head off chatting with each other until she stops some way down the journey at an abandoned hotel because the vehicle's engine is overheating and they need water for the radiator. Sym finds some, but has to go looking for Mickey, who has gone exploring - or is there something on her mind?
The memorably-titled The Name of the Game is Kill! was one of those psychothrillers which very much arrived in the wake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, with the sort of plot relying largely on a twist ending for its maximum impact; such was the influence of that classic 1960 horror that there were a plethora of similar, only usually not as good, shockers with the big revelation at the climax which quickly became a cliché. Nevertheless, if the script in question managed to be outrageous enough then quite often the moviemakers might have a modest hit on their hands, especially if they asked the audience not to reveal the ending.
Hitch had done that, to great effect, and the notion that there was some big secret about the films which followed his lead was a pretty decent selling point. In the case of this little item, it wasn't a big enough work to make much of an impact, being an indie opening the day after Robert Kennedy was assassinated and whose main star draw was Susan Strasberg, whose profile was already slipping after the high hopes of her earlier career what with her being the daughter of a legendary acting coach; Jack Lord only took the leading role in long-running cop show Hawaii 5-0 later in the year this indie was made, so wasn't the celebrity he would become at the time. Though he had been in a James Bond movie, so he wasn't utterly low key.
Still, even the association with police procedurals wasn't going to shine light on his efforts here, and this languished in obscurity with only a few having remembered it and its strange, off-kilter mood, not to mention that surprise for the finale. What happens is that Mickey takes Sym home to meet her family, who in true Southern Gothic style appear to be harbouring some hidden dark past which has affected them in various ways. Mickey has two sisters, the older Diz (Collin Wilcox Patton) who acts aggressively towards the visitor, and Nan (Tisha Sterling) who behaves in a childlike fashion as if the trauma has stunted her mental development. Then there's their doting, matronly mother, Mrs Terry (T.C. Jones), who seems ordinary enough.
But what is really ordinary here? This was the type of story where endeavours to present a veneer of normality were certain to be scuppered before the plot was all wrapped up. There were plenty of these in this decade as questions began to be introduced as to the validity of what society has taken for granted, though many took the form of thrillers where a more drastic conclusion could be reached about quite how bad things were going to get. A repeated sequence in The Name of the Game is Kill! with alterations is one where Sym will be sat down by one of the Terry family and told a version of what has occurred to place them in such isolation out there in the desert, selling pet tarantulas and snakes, and each time the tale will be different. Will he ever get to the truth about what happened with the parents? Or will he meet a sorry end, as he almost does when someone knocks him off a bridge in their car or is nearly bitten by a rattlesnake left in wait for him? While most of this has a weird, muffled tone, the relish it sets about its twist(s) makes up for it. Music by Stu Phillips; listen for the Electric Prunes.