Noir Film Fest Review: No-Win ‘Hra bez Pravidel’ (Game Without Rules)
In the opening scenes of the bleak 1967 Czech crime drama Hra bez pravidel (Game Without Rules), two thieves atop a Prague rooftop overlooking Wenceslas Square case a jewelry store while their getaway driver waits patiently below.
Things go wrong when shots are fired and two shopkeepers are hit in the robbery. But they get worse after the thieves stash the money in the Czech countryside and split up: getaway driver Burian (Zdeněk Kryzánek) is arrested, one of the robbers is killed when his car malfunctions, and the other (played by a young Jan Tříska!) is shot and killed by policeman Málek (Svatopluk Matyáš).
But this is only the very beginning of the methodical Hra bez pravidel, which primarily takes places year after the inciting incident, when no trace of the stolen jewels has been uncovered and the case long forgotten.
But not forgotten by Burian, now released from prison, who pays a visit to shopkeeper Litera (Jiří Adamíra): the inside man on the robbery who now claims not to have the jewels. And a chance meeting between Litera and Málek leads to renewed outside interest in the case.
Only hitch: while Málek always suspected Litera of involvement in the heist, he’s now a cab driver, having been fired from the force after killing the one of the robbers. Litera doesn’t know this, however, and fears a police sting - setting the events of the movie in motion.
Matyáš’s Málek makes for an intriguing hard-boiled antihero; he’s the primary protagonist here, but his motives for delving back into the robbery that got him fired are muddy. Is he trying to redeem himself and solve the case? Or does he just want the jewels for himself?
Caught amidst all the intrigue is Alena (Karla Chadimová), who assisted Litera after the robbery, but now wants to do the right thing. In this world, however, doing the right thing can only lead to the wrong consequences.
A waiter played by Vladimír Menšík also unwittingly inserts himself into the affairs of his boss Litera, with expected results.
A stark neo-noir that grabs our attention but doesn’t give us much to root for, Hra bez pravidel features a methodical depiction of a crime and its aftermath similar to the work of Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Cercle Rouge), but it’s more interested in the gritty thematic undercurrent. The kind of Kafkaesque no-win scenario shown here would later be memorably put to film in the Coen brothers’ debut Blood Simple.
Fitting with the themes of the movie, the grimy black & white photography by Rudolf Milič feels awash in a sea of grays. Bonus for Prague-watchers: there’s a lot of great location work from 1960s Prague, particularly that opening sequence on Wenceslas Square.
Hra bez pravidel (Game Without Rules) was directed by Jindřich Polák, best known for a pair of classic sci-fi features: the thoughtful space travel movie Ikarie XB-1, recently restored by the Czech National Film Archive and re-released, and Zítra vstanu a opařím se čajem (Tomorrow I'll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea), a comedy about an inept plot to travel back in time and help Hitler win WWII.
That makes Hra bez pravidel an unusual movie amidst Polák’s filmography (which also includes the beloved Pan Tau TV series), but it's an expertly-directed procedural that displays the range of this generally underappreciated director.
Hra bez pravidel was recently restored and released on a DVD with the support of the Noir Film Festival, which unveiled the new print of the film at this year’s fest in Křivoklát along with actress Hana Maciuchová, widow of star Adamíra, who passed away in 1993.
It’s a striking neo-noir truly worthy of rediscovery.