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Retro Review: THE DEADLY TRAP (1971) and AND HOPE TO DIE (1972)


(France/Italy - 1971; US release 1972)

Directed by Rene Clement. Written by Sidney Buchman, Eleanor Perry, Daniel Boulanger and Rene Clement. Cast: Faye Dunaway, Frank Langella, Barbara Parkins, Maurice Ronet, Karen Blanguernon, Raymond Gerome, Michele Lourie, Patrick Vincent, Gerard Buhr, Massimo Farinelli, Robert Lussac, Franco Ressel. (PG, 97 mins)

French filmmaker Rene Clement (1913-1996) dabbled in various genres over his career, achieving notoriety for some WWII-themed films like 1952's Oscar-winning FORBIDDEN GAMES, 1963's THE WAY AND THE HOUR, and 1966's all-star epic IS PARIS BURNING? But beginning with 1960's PURPLE NOON--from the same Patricia Highsmith novel that was the basis for 1999's THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY--and especially with 1970's RIDER ON THE RAIN, he carved a niche for himself as a sort-of French Hitchcock. After RIDER, Clement would maintain that image by focusing exclusively on mystery and suspense thrillers for the remainder of his career until his retirement after 1975's WANTED: BABYSITTER, generally considered his worst film. After the worldwide success of RIDER ON THE RAIN, which was also the key film in establishing Charles Bronson as an international superstar (much like PURPLE RAIN did for Alain Delon), Clement followed in rapid succession with 1971's THE DEADLY TRAP, and 1972's AND HOPE DIE. Both films have just been released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, because physical media is dead.

Based on the 1966 Arthur Cavanaugh novel The Children Are Gone, THE DEADLY TRAP's script is credited to four writers, among them Clement, Eleanor Perry (who wrote several of her husband Frank Perry's films, including DAVID AND LISA, LAST SUMMER, and DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE), as well as a Hollywood old-timer in Sidney Buchman, whose long list of credits included 1939's MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, 1941's HERE COMES MR. JORDAN (which won him an Oscar), and 1963's CLEOPATRA. There was also an uncredited fifth writer, with contributions from then-recent M*A*S*H Oscar-winner Ring Lardner, Jr. With all of those cooks in the kitchen, it's little wonder THE DEADLY TRAP is a muddled and curiously uninvolving mess with disparate plot elements that never quite come together. Expat American couple Jill (Faye Dunaway) and Philip (Frank Langella, who had just co-starred in the Perrys' DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE) live in Paris with their two young children Cathy (Michele Lourie) and Patrick (Patrick Vincent). Jill seems preoccupied and has been plagued of late with memory lapses, which have been prevalent enough that it's beginning to cause a rift in their marriage (Jill, defending her recurring distractions and her wandering mind: "Have you done always done exactly what you're supposed to do?" Philip: "Yes. When you got pregnant, I married you. Isn't that what I was supposed to do?"). Philip works as an editor for a publisher of mathematics textbooks, and he's got his own distractions to worry about: he's been summoned by a sinister former employer (Maurice Ronet) to fulfill one final "contract" in his past life of corporate espionage. It was a shady and often dangerous business and it's hinted that it's the reason he and Jill fled to Paris. But the past has caught up with Philip, and they won't take no for answer, going so far as to follow Jill and the kids around. They even use an associate (Karen Blanguernon) posing as an employee from the couple's regular babysitting service to pull off the abduction during one of Jill's frequent easily-distracted moments on a busy street outside a crowded department store at Christmastime.

The cops suspect Jill of negligent parenting at best and outright murder at worst, with lead investigator Chameille (Raymond Gerome) straight-up accusing her of killing the children as a way to get her husband's attention, even interrogating her with humiliating questions like "You and your husband haven't had sexual relations in some time, yes? So, he has a mistress, then?" Jill has the support of her best friend, downstairs neighbor Cynthia (Barbara Parkins), who may or may not have a thing for Philip, while Philip knows that the kids have been kidnapped but can't say anything without divulging his own past as a corporate spy and putting them in even greater danger. THE DEADLY TRAP certainly has the makings of a solid thriller with some pieces that foreshadow the non-supernatural aspects of DON'T LOOK NOW, but its lugubriously slow pace (it's a good 45 minutes before the kids are even taken) and the meandering story are handled with little sense of urgency by Clement, who seems to be having somewhat of an off-day after RIDER ON THE RAIN. The story has two potentially interesting threads--Jill's almost Leonard Shelby-like memory issues and Philip and the kids being threatened by his previous employers--but doesn't follow either to a wholly satisfying conclusion. There's no suspense in the kidnapping angle, and the big reveal about one supporting character is something you'll see coming the moment they're introduced.

THE DEADLY TRAP opening in Toledo, OH on 11/15/1972

It's interesting to see the two stars in an early '70s Eurothriller, with the often-difficult Dunaway already in a post-BONNIE AND CLYDE/THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR slump from which she'd emerge after 1974's CHINATOWN (Langella recounted a story in his memoir about Dunaway wasting an entire day of shooting deciding which pair of shoes she wanted for a particular shot). THE DEADLY TRAP opened in Europe in June 1971 but didn't hit the US until October 1972, courtesy of then-struggling National General Pictures, which would be defunct by the beginning of 1974. It aired in prime-time on CBS in August of 1978 and occasionally ran on late-night TV into the 1980s, but aside from a 1988 VHS release, absurdly retitled DEATH SCREAM and shortened by several minutes--that same crummy DEATH SCREAM print is what's streaming on Amazon Prime--THE DEADLY TRAP has been tough to see in its proper form until now and is probably the least-remembered film from Dunaway's heyday (even 1969's notorious bomb THE EXTRAORDINARY SEAMAN turns up on TCM with some degree of regularity). Fans of Dunaway, Langella (in just his third film, maybe hoping Clement could do for him what he did for Delon and Bronson), and VALLEY OF THE DOLLS star Parkins will find completist curio value here, but given that roster of talent and with Clement coming off RIDER ON THE RAIN, this was regarded as a big disappointment then and the passage of time hasn't made it any better.

THE DEADLY TRAP airing in prime time on CBS on 8/15/1978

(France - 1972)

Directed by Rene Clement. Written by Sebastian Japrisot. Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Robert Ryan, Lea Massari, Aldo Ray, Jean Gaven, Tisa Farrow, Andre Lawrence, Nadine Nabakov, Daniel Breton, Louis Aubert, Beatrice Belthoise, Don Arres, Mario Verdon, Emmanuelle Beart. (PG, 141 mins)

After the middling THE DEADLY TRAP was greeted with shrugging indifference by critics and moviegoers, Rene Clement quickly returned with 1972's AND HOPE TO DIE, a loose adaptation of David Goodis' 1954 novel Black Friday that also reunited him with RIDER ON THE RAIN screenwriter Sebastian Japrisot. The end result is even more eccentric than RIDER, and one of the most unusual and offbeat European crime films of its day. Loaded with references to Lewis Carroll and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland  and Alice Through the Looking Glass from the opening shot of a mirror and a bookstore window adorned with the grinning visage of the Cheshire Cat, AND HOPE TO DIE is a fascinating, metaphorically oblique puzzle that's never quite solved, starting with a shy child being taunted by some other kids (including a very young Emmanuelle Beart, 15 years before MANON OF THE SPRING) and an onscreen quote "My love, we're simply overgrown children running around before we go to sleep." Clement cuts to a train arriving at a Montreal station in almost spaghetti western fashion, as three members of a gypsy clan are waiting for Antoine "Tony" Cardot (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a French fugitive who manages to get away, hitching a ride and hiding out in the abandoned American Pavilion (later turned into the Montreal Biosphere) at the Expo 67 World's Fair site. Tony's luck doesn't get any better, as he happens to stumble into a shootout where corrupt ex-cop Renner (Louis Aubert) is whacked by cohorts Rizzio (Jean Gaven) and Paul (Daniel Breton). Just before he dies, Renner hands Tony a wallet and an envelope with $15,000, but after stuffing the money down his pants, he's caught by Rizzio and Paul before he can get away. They handcuff him and take him by car (where he manages to push Paul out of the vehicle, causing a serious head injury), then by boat to a vacant inn being used as a hideout for their gang of criminals led by the fearsome Charley (Robert Ryan), with the gypsy mystery men following close behind and not letting Tony out of their sight.

It soon becomes apparent to Tony that he's traded in one deadly predicament for another. Charley wants the $15,000 that Rizzio and Paul were supposed to get--Tony initially claims he doesn't have it--and in addition to Charley's threats, he also has to deal with his brutish, hapless flunky Mattone (Aldo Ray). Derisively rechristened "Froggy" by Charley, Tony tells a story about how he's on the run because he killed a cop, which gets him enough cache to be kept alive for a while, but he remains on thin ice with Charley throughout, the situation growing even more volatile when he starts sleeping with Charley's free-spirited, open-relationship girlfriend Sugar (Lea Massari). Tony also unexpectedly bonds with Pepper (Tisa Farrow, Mia's younger sister and later the star of Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE), Paul's younger sister (they were "adopted" by Charley as kids, when their father--a member of Charley's crew--was killed on a job), who feels drawn to him even though she knows he's responsible when Paul eventually dies from his head injury. With Paul out of the picture and already down another man in dead traitor Renner, Charley decides to include Tony as an impromptu fill-in for a bizarre heist he's been commissioned to pull off by an incarcerated mobster (Mario Verdon).

The what and why of the heist ("Toboggan?") would be revealing too much, but it's perfectly in line with this remarkably unconventional crime thriller that's on Blu-ray in its original 141-minute French-language version. It's easy to see why US distributor 20th Century Fox didn't know what the hell to do with AND HOPE TO DIE, cutting it by 42 minutes (!) when it hit American theaters in November 1972 and puttered across the country well into the next year (it opened in Cleveland, OH as late as August 1973). The 99-minute, English-language US cut occasionally aired on late-night TV but was never released on home video and has since completely disappeared from circulation. It would've been an interesting bonus feature on the Blu, but one can assume the American version eliminates much of the character-building, the slow-burn tension, the Lewis Carroll allusions, and does what it can to offset the general sense of the strange, dreamy melancholy of the entire situation to instead focus on the more action-oriented heist and its aftermath. The reviews were predictably brutal (New York Times film critic Vincent Canby put it on his ten-worst list for 1972), but even European audiences experiencing Clement's intended vision may have been left baffled and scratching their heads. It's filled with nail-biting suspense, but it's not really interested in being a straightforward thriller (there's even some absurdist humor in the way Charley makes Tony sleep in a child's bed), and it's book-ended by scenes of children playing that may even indicate that it's all being imagined. You're never sure if a character is being truthful about their background, starting with Tony, whose reasons for being on the run--hinted at in almost William Friedkin-esque subliminal flash cuts--are eventually revealed to be quite different than what he's telling everyone. Even a whiny, dim-witted meathead like Mattone has layers to his character, and his weird and seemingly out-of-nowhere encounter with a psychic majorette (Nadine Nabokov) will have disastrous consequences later on. That's just one example of how everything that seems random and nonsensical in AND HOPE TO DIE is there for a reason, probably an important aspect of the film's construction that was likely lost on 20th Century Fox when they hacked it down and sold it as action-packed caper.

AND HOPE TO DIE is easily the most peculiarly idiosyncratic film of Clement's career. With its genuinely unpredictable story, character development and arcs, and some effective use of Montreal locations, it's a unique, forgotten gem and a buried treasure of a cult item that's been patiently waiting to be rediscovered, even if it takes a while to adjust to a dubbed-in-French Robert Ryan, who's absolutely terrific in one of his last films (he gets a great intro, putting a cigarette out in Tony's coffee, kicking off a running gag where they don't let him eat or drink). Already terminally ill with lung cancer, Ryan spent the final year of his life working nonstop (he made four more movies after this--LOLLY-MADONNA XXX, THE OUTFIT, EXECUTIVE ACTION, and THE ICEMAN COMETH, the last three being posthumously released in the months after his death in July 1973 at 64). He doesn't look well here, but he doesn't allow cancer to hinder him in the slightest (that would especially be the case with his brilliant final performance in THE ICEMAN COMETH), participating in a few action sequences and getting into rough scuffles with Trintignant and Ray throughout. Though they're revoiced in French (with the American cut seemingly lost and no clips of it on YouTube to verify--not even a US trailer--it's possible Clement shot two versions of the all dialogue scenes, one in French and one in English, like he did with RIDER ON THE RAIN), Americans Ryan and Farrow are phonetically speaking/mouthing the language, and Ray, who previously worked with Ryan in 1957's MEN OF WAR and 1958's GOD'S LITTLE ACRE, goes one step further by delivering his entire performance in French with his actual voice. Aldo Ray fluent in French? Who knew? It's a jarring sight and sound, and an unexpected level of commitment from a guy who was notoriously difficult in his prime, was a couple years away from slumming in Al Adamson movies, who would cap off the decade by appearing in a non-sexual co-starring role in the 1979 Carol Connors hardcore porn western SWEET SAVAGE, and would later have his SAG membership temporarily revoked in the mid '80s for taking quick cash in non-union projects. AND HOPE TO DIE has totally fallen off the radar in the decades since its release, but this new Blu-ray will hopefully be the start of a long-overdue resurrection and reappraisal. It's an often impenetrable, strangely haunting, one-of-a-kind film that stays with you for days after seeing it, and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as revered Clement essentials like FORBIDDEN GAMES, PURPLE NOON, and RIDER ON THE RAIN.

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