Welcome to Retro Television Reviews, a feature where we review some of our favorite and least favorite shows of the past! On Sundays, I will be reviewing the made-for-television movies that used to be a primetime mainstay. Today’s film is 1971’s A Little Game. It can be viewed on YouTube!
Twelve year-old Robert Mueller (played by 13 year-old Mark Gruner, who would later go on to play one of Chief Brody’s kids in Jaws) just hasn’t been the same since his father died. Robert idolized his father, who was an architect who built bridges and reportedly pushed his workers to take a lot of dangerous risks to get the job done. Perhaps that explains why Robert is not getting along with his new stepfather, Paul Hamilton (Ed Nelson). Robert’s mother, Elaine (Diane Baker), is convinced that Robert will eventually come to accept Paul but Paul isn’t so sure.
Robert is a student at a private military academy. When he comes home for the holidays, he brings his “best friend” with him. Stu Parker (Christopher Shea) is friendly and polite but he’s also easily led and has a difficult time standing up for himself. Paul immediately sees that Robert is bullying Stu. Elaine, however, thinks that Paul is being too critical. That’s just the way boys are!
In his diary, Robert has written that he killed someone and that he’s sure that he got away with it. When Paul comes across the entry, he worries that Robert might be telling the truth. Paul goes as far as to hire a private detective (Howard Duff) to investigate whether there’s been any mysterious deaths at Robert’s school. Stu, meanwhile, explains that he and Robert sometimes play “a little game” where they imagine that best way to murder someone and get away with it. But Stu assures Paul that it’s just a game. They don’t actually kill anyone.
Is Stu telling the truth or is Robert just as dangerous as his deceased father, a man who Paul claims was a psychopath? Or is Paul himself the one who has become delusional with jealousy of his stepson?
The answer to those questions is pretty obvious from the minute that Robert and Stu show up at the house. In fact, it’s so obvious that it kind of leaves the viewer wondering how everyone else in the film could be so clueless. On the one hand, it’s understandable that Elaine would not want to admit that there is something seriously wrong with her son. On the other hand, how many times can anyone close their eyes to a very obvious truth? From the minute that Robert shows up, wearing his uniform and curtly ordering around the family’s maid (played by High Noon‘s Katy Jurado, who deserved a better role), he might as well have psychopath tattooed on his forehead.
That said, evil children movies are always somewhat effective, even the ones that are a bit too obvious in their approach. Psychologically, we’ve been conditioned to always associate children with innocence, optimism, and hope. Children are the future, so the saying goes. As such, it does carry some impact when they’re portrayed as being a force of danger. As I watched this film, I did find myself wondering if there was any hope for Robert. With all that he had done, could someone still reach him and turn him around? Or was he destined to go from being an evil child to an evil adult? It really does get to the question of whether evil is a real, almost supernatural force or if it’s something that’s created by a combination of environment and social taboos. Was Robert born evil or did he become evil? A Little Game doesn’t answer that question but I doubt that anyone could. Some questions are destined to be forever unanswered.