In a sleepy seaside resort along the South of France, a young woman named Mellie (Marlène Jobert) is stalked and then raped by a mysterious masked assailant. She shoots him dead and dumps his corpse into the sea. When the body is recovered, an enigmatic American named Dobbs (Charles Bronson) accuses Mellie of murder - and of stealing the U.S. Army money that the rapist was carrying with him…
The late, great Charles Bronson once lamented he made some of his finest films in Europe but hardly anyone in America ever saw them. One of the movies Bronson rated was Rider on the Rain wherein the star worked with René Clément, the celebrated auteur behind such classic French films as Forbidden Games (1952) and Plein Soleil (1960). At this point Clément’s career was commonly thought to be in decline, although Rider in the Rain won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. So clearly somebody must have seen it. The film opens with a quotation from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Indeed a heavy Carrollian influence is apparent throughout the strangely dreamlike story, with its deliberately quixotic dialogue, Mellie’s reference to Dobbs’ “Cheshire cat smile”, references to mathematics, the cracked logic that only makes sense when viewed from an inside perspective, and the line: “Curiouser and curiouser…”
Mellie is our Alice, an oddly childlike heroine seemingly at the mercy of a world full of bullying, belligerent grownups who won’t take her suffering seriously. She is stuck in a dead-end town with an grumpy, alcoholic mother (Annie Cordy) and a macho Italian husband (Gabriele Tinti, later a regular face in Italian exploitation) who keeps her on a short leash. No surprise that Mellie’s name is an abbreviation of “melancholy”. She has a fair amount to be unhappy about, being so repressed and riddled with flashbacks to her traumatic childhood witnessing her mother’s infidelity she is comically unable to swear, and mutters the word “saxophone”, instead. Then Dobbs arrives out of nowhere and immediately seems to know everything about Mellie and the crime she committed.
European filmmakers often took Bronson’s stone-faced killer persona into more ambiguous territory. Dobbs starts out as suave, even jolly at first then slowly turns more menacing and brutal. He hovers on the verge of an inescapable nightmare before Clément intriguingly unmasks him as an altogether more benevolent figure, almost the personification of Mellie’s subconscious desire to escape her claustrophobic existence. Even as Dobbs holds her prisoner, he becomes her confidante and psychoanalyst. A strange kind of kinship develops between the two.
In truth, Clément’s oblique approach is a bit hit-and-miss. While the film has an eerily dreamlike atmosphere, enhanced by Francis Lai’s gorgeous score, it is also guilty of moments of insufferable pretension and cloaks some plot inconsistencies beneath a veil of mysteriousness. Nevertheless, Clément was a proven master of the psychological thriller and wrings a few drops of suspense from the offbeat scenario. Eventually Mellie’s attempt to clear an innocent woman of the murder charge, and return the stolen money, unearths an array of malevolent characters. Whereupon it falls to Bronson to revert to classic tough guy mode and redress the moral balance. Mrs. Bronson a.k.a. Jill Ireland appears in a small role as a sexy shopgirl who has been sleeping with Mellie’s husband.
Despite Clément’s attempts to fashion the mystery as a cinematic jigsaw puzzle, the plot almost boils down to a big screen French reworking of Columbo, only with stone-faced Bronson instead of wonky-eyed Peter Falk. However, the closing implication that Mellie has emerged from her ordeal a stronger person, does appeal and the film pays off with Bronson partaking in a rather sweet and witty sight gag.