The odds were stacked against The Only Game in Town from the very beginning. One of those hot properties that got cold fast, Frank D. Gilroy's play sold for a record $550,000 before it even opened, 20th Century Fox throwing in an additional $150,000 for him to write the screenplay: just as well, since the critics slaughtered it and it closed in a couple of weeks. Not that that stopped the studio going ahead with their plans to film it even after Frank Sinatra dropped out of the male lead, banking on Elizabeth Taylor's fading star power in a role that had Shirley MacLaine's name, address and phone number written all over it. It didn't help that Sinatra's replacement, a still youthful looking Warren Beatty, only emphasised that Taylor was getting on a bit to play a disillusioned chorus girl who finds a convenient no-strings arrangement with a gambling addicted piano player turning into love. Hiring a perfectionist director notorious for going over budget wasn't the best move either, but the icing on the cake was Taylor's insistence on shooting the Las Vegas-based film in Paris so she could be near Richard Burton while he was filming Staircase, which saw the budget for what is essentially a two-hander set almost entirely in two locations balloon to an incredible $11m. returning barely 10% of the investment at the box-office. Coming off two hugely expensive flops (The Diary of Anne Frank and The Greatest Story Ever told), it proved the last straw for director George Stevens' career, remembered, if at all, as another of those lousy swansongs so common for many major directors. Amazingly, the film got sort of remade to similar lack of success by Curtis Hanson as the almost equally unlucky Lucky You.
The film's reputation never recovered from the ill-conceived folly of its casting, production and massive losses, but it's really not that bad at all. Despite being billed as a romantic comedy it's more of a bittersweet drama - Beatty may crack wise, but the only big laughs come from two early close-ups of Taylor bobbing her head in a forlorn effort to try to sell her as part of the chorus in a big Vegas production number. For the most part it's a drama about two losers who drift together, united as much by their inability to break out of their bad habits and losing streaks to grab a chance for happiness as by any growing affection. Indeed, their bond seems to become stronger the more they start to grate on each other's nerves and threaten to go their separate ways. Both stars are on good form, Taylor toning it effectively down despite a script that occasionally throws in reminders that this sort of thing is not what she's really famous for (Liz Taylor playing a gal who gives back a diamond ring?), Beatty cast much more to type in a role that allows him fragile charm and the odd darker moment of self-disgust alike. The only other player who gets any chance to make an impression is Broadway musical performer Charles Braswell as Taylor's married lover, who's good enough to make you wonder why he only made two films and had barely a handful of TV credits to his name.
At heart it's a little film, Stevens adopting an almost continental approach to the character piece at times. It's overly dependent on the writing, which is problematic at times: there's a good opening, and a couple of particularly strong scenes in the middle and end of the film but the inbetweens get a bit flabby and at times feel like treading water in a script that could certainly have been a bit tighter. Henri Decae's cinematography is typically impressive, especially when the film gets out of the apartment and briefly onto the streets of Vegas or onto the impressive casino sets, and gets a good showcase on Twilight Time's remastered Blu-ray release that restores it to its original lustre (the disc also gives Maurice Jarre's jazzy lounge-style score an isolated track as well as including a booklet and the original trailer). It's certainly no lost classic, but at its best it's still a more interesting film that it gets credit for.