Great Western and action star.. Rider on the Rain headlines Bronson, yet it’s not really his character’s story
Now released on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber are two Charles Bronson movies from 1970, looking better than they have in pretty much forever. Rider on the Rain and Cold Sweat, which both cast Jill Ireland (Bronson’s wife) in supporting roles, belong to a Golden Age of internationally co-produced Euro-thrillers of the late ’60s and early ’70s that combine pulp storytelling with stylistic elegance and intense emotion, and which were largely dismissed as trash by contemporary critics. As “trash”, however, they proved sophisticated enough that we could use more of their like today.
Rider on the Rain
Rider on the Rain kicked off a final string of four terrific thrillers from director René Clément. This excellent craftsman is best known, at least in the US, for the humanist war film Forbidden Games (1952) and for one of actor Alain Delon’s two early breakthroughs, Purple Noon (1960), the first film version of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955).
In the ’60s, Clément turned to co-productions that threw together stars of various nationalities and aimed mainly at the English-language market, such as the superb cat-and-mouse thriller Joy House (1964) with Delon, Jane Fonda and Lola Albright. That one needs a Blu-ray, and so do the films that followed Rider on the Rain: The Deadly Trap (1971) with Faye Dunaway and Frank Langella, And Hope to Die (1972) with Jean-Louis Trintignant and Robert Ryan, and Wanted: Babysitter (1975) with Maria Schneider. But before we get too far afield, let’s concentrate on his Bronson picture.
Rider on the Rain headlines Bronson, yet it’s not really his character’s story. The audience’s point of view aligns with its heroine, Mellie Mau (Marlène Jobert). In a beautifully timed revelation, we learn that her name is really Mélancolie, and it fits. She’s not only sad but frightened and childlike or doll-like, which is one reason the film opens with an epigraph from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the passage in which Alice falls so slowly down the rabbit hole that she has plenty of time to look about her.
Mellie’s personality has something to do with being raised by a bitter mother (Annie Cordy) who runs a bowling alley and tells her all men are pigs or bastards (depending on which language she’s speaking), and whose husband split because of her infidelity when Mellie was a child. Mom has a point. As Mellie navigates the world, literally every man she meets or knows is some kind of threatening bully who patronizes or infantilizes her or worse. That includes her handsome Italian husband Tony (Gabriele Tinti), an airline navigator who’s full of Old World prejudices inherited from his father.
We don’t know any of this at the beginning. We pick it up as we travel deeper into Mélancolie and she gradually finds the strength to confront the men around her and to face her fears. To a great extent, this film expresses her journey through a frightening wonderland into a new maturity, which includes recognition and rapprochement from her mother. That maternal relationship is reminiscent of the one in Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), only much better. One street name is the Avenue de l’Arrogante; everyone in the film is arrogant, and Mellie will finally learn to stop pretending and come into her own mastery so that she can stop relating to others through lies.
he film opens with Mélancolie’s world, where it’s raining while Francis Lai’s understated, melancholy music scores the beautiful image of drops hitting the wet road as a bus passes in the lowering gloom. One difference between the English and slightly longer French version of this film, which are both on this disc, is that the color grading on the English is greener and gloomier here, while the French beginning feels vibrant in a way that seems tonally off. Andréas Winding’s photography feels more poetic and beautiful in the English version.
Dressed in her standard snow white, Mellie looks through the wet window of mom’s bowling alley and notices a tall, bald, wolf-like man (Marc Mazza) get off the bus. He will haunt her through the opening reel like a fairy tale figure; his eventually revealed name, Mac Guffin, is symbolic of his nature as a plot device. When he attacks Mellie in a terrifying and disturbing scene, she’s launched into a painful, paranoid odyssey whose next step is triggered (literally) by her response to his assault. Let’s use the “R” word: he’s a rapist.
The horrific nature of the sequence, including its stunning catharsis, lingers like a miasma or fever as Mellie pushes forward into her strange new world and discovers untapped resources within herself. The film makes the point that her efforts are never easy but may be necessary, for if these traumatic events had never happened, she’d have remained trapped in the bourgeois helplessness into which she’d voluntarily retreated and suffocated slowly, like her mother.
Soon thereafter Bronson enters the picture as the enigmatic D
obbs, another almost supernatural figure of menace and mercurial emotion. He calls himself a hunter while she calls him the Cheshire Cat. His first line: “Why did you kill him?” He’s an almost demonic force of power, knowledge and manipulation who hijacks Mellie’s life, demanding a McGuffin whose form and meaning keeps shifting. There’s much talismanic business between them of picking up and transferring coins, buttons and even walnuts that have some numinous meaning beyond their plot mechanics.
Dobbs functions as a mysterious doppelgänger of both Mellie’s attacker and her husband. Is he more one than the other? He’s a dominating presence whose motives feel unreadable and whose methods are rightly questioned by his associates, and these qualities connect to a subtext of his status as an authoritarian American in Europe. If we want to push the national allegories, then he’s America, she’s France, the husband is Italy, the house is NATO, and the McGuffin is what they’re all afraid of, but that’s a less satisfying reading.
Dobbs, who shares a name with Humphrey Bogart’s ruffian hero in John Huston’s The African Queen (1951), goes on the film’s secondary journey as he confronts the results of his own bulldozer tactics and finally admits out loud that he made a mistake. The ending implies that he may have made more than one.
Before the rupture introduced in the first reel, Mellie’s status quo involved pleasing her husband as a Victorian child-wife. As they lounge or prance in silk pajamas after sex, he hands her money in accordance with the request she wrote on her mirror (narcissism) in lipstick (feminine appeal): “I’m flat broke” (in the French version: “Je n’ai plus de SOUS“). This is how they communicate and negotiate, and of course the looking-glass is one of Alice’s vehicles. Later, our heroine identifies with a figurative double (Ellen Bahl) and tracks down the woman’s home, only to realize it’s a bright red brothel run by a kind of Red Queen (Corinne Marchand).
This fascinating, labyrinthine film pulls off the rare trick of maintaining its heroine’s POV for the first 90-minutes. We see, hear and know only what Mellie sees, hears and knows, and we feel as she feels. Our identification with her situation is total, and it’s why the film is so disorienting, sometimes perverse. We not only observe what she does and listen to how she lies, but we even seem able to watch her thinking. She claims to be good at math so she can figure things out, and one of the film’s narrative pleasures is watching her prove it even amid her stumbles and false starts.
She’s definitely in over her head, yet she plunges through by instinct and calculation as the script throws new curves at her. She learns to come forward into the world, best symbolized by Paris and the dizzying Eiffel Tower, rather than hide from it. If the initiating event feels brutal to viewers (as it is), the movie adopts a harsh French attitude that there’s no liberation or self-discovery without pain. That’s not only true for the heroine. When she briefly, accidentally points a shotgun barrel into the camera, the locus of a presumably male gaze, it’s more than Clément’s idle gesture.
Although Mellie’s no virgin, her all-white fashions suggest a form of innocence that’s been doing her no good. The same is true of her habit of avoiding “bad words”. Noticing a change in Mellie, her mother reflects that it’s about time, and she’s speaking for the movie’s function as a parable of the era’s rising feminist consciousness. The diminutive girl’s adult “Mélancolie” can finally be recognized, as her true name now becomes her.