Monday, April 15, 2019

Retro Review: RIDER ON THE RAIN (1970) and COLD SWEAT (1970)

(France/Italy - 1970)

Directed by Rene Clement. Written by Sebastien Japrisot. Cast: Charles Bronson, Marlene Jobert, Annie Cordy, Corinne Marchand, Gabriele Tinti, Jill Ireland, Jean Gaven, Jean Piat, Marc Mazza, Ellen Bahl, Steve Eckhardt, Jean-Daniel Ehrman, Yves Massart. (PG, 114/118 mins)

When you think of Charles Bronson, the things that usually come to mind are the DEATH WISH films, his many sleazy Cannon actioners of the 1980s, the vengeful Harmonica in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, or his being a member of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, THE GREAT ESCAPE, and THE DIRTY DOZEN in the 1960s. But it's his European phase--lasting from roughly 1968 to 1973--that firmly established him as a global superstar, and it's that era that isn't referenced much today, though two new Blu-ray releases from Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead) are finally doing justice to this vital period of Bronson's career. Steadily employed in supporting roles on the big screen and in TV guest spots on shows like THE VIRGINIAN and THE FUGITIVE in the mid-to-late '60s but frustrated with the state of his career as he was approaching 50, Bronson decided to test the waters of the European film industry when he was offered a chance to team with French superstar Alain Delon in 1968's sweaty heist thriller FAREWELL, FRIEND (aka HONOR AMONG THIEVES). The film was a huge hit in Europe but wouldn't be released in the US until 1973. Following ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, Bronson starred in a series of French and Italian-made thrillers while maintaining a Hollywood profile in occasional American films like CHATO'S LAND, THE MECHANIC, and THE STONE KILLER. Nevertheless, it was his European films that were cementing his status as a pop culture icon everywhere in the world but the US. The major outlier here would be 1972's gangster biopic THE VALACHI PAPERS, an Italian-French co-production that became a major box-office hit in America in the wake of THE GODFATHER.

While Bronson's Euro sojourn began with FAREWELL, FRIEND, it was 1970's RIDER ON THE RAIN that was the key film in making him Europe's most popular movie star. Reteaming Bronson with his FAREWELL, FRIEND producer Serge Silberman and screenwriter and French mystery novelist Sebastien Japrisot, RIDER ON THE RAIN, directed by Rene Clement (PURPLE NOON), is a dreamily melancholy Hitchcockian psychological thriller with an appropriately-named heroine in Melancolie "Mellie" Mau (Marlene Jobert), who lives in a resort town in the south of France with her possessive flight navigator husband Tony (Gabriele Tinti), who's frequently away at work for several days at a time. Mellie spends most of her time at a bowling alley managed by her sardonic mother (Annie Cordy) and it's here on a gray and torrentially rainy afternoon that she spots a stranger (Marc Mazza) standing across the street after exiting from a bus, remarking "He must've ridden in on the rain." Stopping at a clothing shop run by her friend Nicole (Jill Ireland, Bronson's wife) to pick up a dress for a wedding she's attending the next day, she spots the stranger staring at her through the shop's window. Arriving home and discovering a delayed Tony won't be home until the next morning, Mellie is soon accosted by the stranger, who has somehow followed her home. He rapes her until she loses consciousness, and she awakens in the middle of the night to find he's still in the house. She blows him away with Tony's shotgun and proceeds to dispose of the body by throwing it over a cliff. Trying to hold it together and behave like nothing's happened, which eventually leads to insanely jealous Tony thinking she's having an affair, Mellie is confronted at the wedding by Harry Dobbs (Bronson), a smiling and vaguely sinister American mystery man who already seems to be completely up to speed on everything that's happened and keeps turning up wherever Mellie goes.

It's nearly 30 minutes into the film before Bronson even makes his first appearance, but once he does, he completely steals the film with a performance that's among his most loose and eccentric, at least until things take an even darker turn and he realizes the head games he's been playing to get a confession out of Mellie (who he glibly calls "Love-love") have sent her down a dangerous path with a different set of bad guys. Who was the stranger? Why is Dobbs after him? Do the stranger and/or Dobbs have business with Tony? More of a character study than an outright mystery/thriller, RIDER ON THE RAIN shows a much wider range for Bronson as an actor than those accustomed to his vigilante thrillers might expect. He's matched by the lovely Jobert, whose Mellie is a little flighty and odd (particularly in the way she doesn't like to swear and replaces expletives with "saxophone" when she's inclined to curse), but proves more resilient and determined than Dobbs anticipated, and you can see some of that intensity in Jobert's eyes was passed down to her actress daughter Eva Green, born in 1980. RIDER ON THE RAIN's denouement may frustrate first-time viewers (there's a reason there's a character named "Mac Guffin"), but it's an offbeat and unpredictable film (and you get to see Charles Bronson bowl!) that sticks with you long after it's over. It's very European in its style and structure, though it did OK business in the US when it was picked up by Avco Embassy. Kino's Blu-ray has both the English-language version at 114 minutes and the French-language version at 118 minutes. Beyond a simple dub or re-edit, Clement actually shot the film twice, once with the cast speaking English and the other with them speaking French, with Bronson saying his French dialogue phonetically and having it revoiced later on (the French-language version earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film). RIDER ON THE RAIN was one of five films Bronson made in a busy 1970--only one being American--closing out the year with another French thriller, COLD SWEAT.

(France/Italy - 1970; US release 1974)

Directed by Terence Young. Written by Shimon Wincelberg, Albert Simonin, Jo Eisinger and Dorothea Bennett. Cast: Charles Bronson, Liv Ullmann, James Mason, Jill Ireland, Michel Constantin, Jean Topart, Luigi Pistilli, Yannick de Lulle, Paul Bonifas, Sabine Sun, Roger Maille, Nathalie Varallo, Remo Moscani, Dominique Crosland. (PG, 93 mins)

Released in France in December 1970, COLD SWEAT had mostly spotty distribution in Europe over the next couple of years. It didn't turn up in America until the fall of 1974, courtesy of grindhouse bottom-feeders Emerson Film Enterprises, a company that spent most of the '60s distributing dubious drive-in fare like CREATION OF THE HUMANOIDS and MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE, and assorted pre-porn-era Times Square "nudies" like PUSSYCAT PUSSYCAT and WIFE SWAPPERS. After Bronson hit it big in the summer of 1974 with MR. MAJESTYK and the water-cooler, zeitgeist sensation DEATH WISH, Emerson saw some potentially easy money and vultured in on one of the actor's long-forgotten European efforts that fell through the cracks and still hadn't made it stateside. They managed to get COLD SWEAT into some theaters (it opened at a mall in my hometown of Toledo, OH on Christmas Day 1974), but it wasn't enough to keep the lights on, as Emerson finally folded after releasing the more typical FUGITIVE LOVERS in 1975. No one will ever mistake COLD SWEAT for Bronson's best movie, but it's a decent-enough thriller that deserved better than Emerson Film Enterprises who, from the looks of it, spent about five minutes working on that US poster art.

COLD SWEAT didn't generate much business in theaters, but it enjoyed a long life on television, airing on CBS in 1975 before going into regular rotation on late-night TV and on VHS in the early '80s. It became a public domain staple and was available on any number of low-quality DVD sets (usually with artwork showing shots of Bronson from other movies), but Kino's new Blu-ray release, taken from a restored French print (but in English) is easily the best it's ever looked. Bronson stars as Joe Martin, an American expat residing in the French Riviera, earning a living as a tour and fishing boat captain for wealthy tourists. He's married to Fabienne (the great Ingmar Bergman muse Liv Ullmann, who got some shit from highbrow critics for "slumming" in a Bronson movie) and is stepfather to her daughter Michele (Yannick de Lulle). Their quiet, happy life abruptly crashes and burns when Joe's past comes back to haunt him in the form of a team of criminals with whom he associated some 20 years earlier. Ross (James Mason, taking his Southern MANDINGO drawl for a test spin) was Joe's commanding officer during the Korean War, and they got reacquainted after being thrown in the stockade on a military base in Germany after the war, Joe for drunkenly punching a colonel and Ross for hijacking US Army trucks as the head of black market gunrunning operation. They escaped from the stockade, along with three other Ross cohorts--Katanga (Jean Topart), Fausto (Luigi Pistilli), and Vermont (Michel Constantin, dubbed by LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT star David Hess)--with Joe agreeing to be the getaway driver. But when Katanga impulsively killed a German cop who stumbled on the scene, Joe sped off, leaving Ross and his men behind and taking all of their money with him to start a new life in France. Ross and the others have just busted out of another German prison and tracked Joe down to "balance the books." They want their money and they want Joe to take them out on his boat to pick up a shipment of drugs from a Turkish cargo vessel.

What begins as a DESPERATE HOURS home invasion scenario (and it foreshadows A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, as they find Joe via a two-year-old newspaper article where he rescued a drowning tourist) soon changes locations to a cottage in the mountains, where they're eventually joined by Ross' much-younger hippie girlfriend Moira (Jill Ireland, by this point a standard part of the Bronson package deal). There's unexpected character development, as Ross just wants the money and isn't interested in killing Joe, even after Joe breaks Vermont's neck in self-defense. The real problem is the psychotic, trigger-happy dumbass Katanga, who constantly makes the situation worse. Paranoid that Joe will double-cross them, he just starts firing his gun and accidentally kills Fausto and shoots Ross in the stomach. With Ross in desperate need of medical attention, Joe agrees to take Moira to get a doctor while Katanga holds Fabienne and Michele at the house as COLD SWEAT becomes a race against the clock--complete with a nicely-done Remy Julienne car chase--to get Ross a transfusion before he bleeds out.

COLD SWEAT was based on Richard Matheson's 1959 novel Ride the Nightmare, which was also the basis of a 1962 episode of THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR with Hugh O'Brian, Gena Rowlands, and John Anderson in the respective Bronson, Ullmann, and Mason roles. The novel was adapted by a team of writers--exactly who depends on whether you see the French print, where German-born American TV writer Shimon Wincelberg (whose long career included credits on HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL, NAKED CITY, GUNSMOKE, LOST IN SPACE, STAR TREK, MANNIX, DYNASTY, and LAW & ORDER among countless others) and Albert Simonin are credited, or the US version, which credits Wincelberg, veteran Hollywood scribe Jo Eisinger (GILDA), and Dorothea Bennett, the wife of director Terence Young. Best known for directing three of the first four James Bond films (DR. NO, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, and THUNDERBALL) and the classic Audrey Hepburn nail-biter WAIT UNTIL DARK, Young was strictly in hired gun mode from the late '60s on. COLD SWEAT was the first of three European collaborations between Young and Bronson, followed in quick succession by the 1971 east-meets-western RED SUN and 1972's THE VALACHI PAPERS, though it would be the last to make it to US screens.

COLD SWEAT opening in Toledo, OH on 12/25/1974

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