Tony (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a man on the run since he was cleared in a court case of manslaughter, not a verdict which satisfied the aggrieved gypsy community who have been chasing after him these past few days since his release. After travelling through French Canada by train he ends up in the middle of nowhere, yet somehow his pursuers have a near-preternatural ability to follow him and are waiting for him the moment he steps off the train, warning him the wound he received outside the courthouse will now be made more fatal. Tony manages to give them the slip once again...
And where should he end up but in an isolated house by the river in the Canadian wilderness, which hinges on a big coincidence to get him there in the first place, still with the gypsies biding their time outside? Tony isn't a criminal, but it's as if their obsession with seeing him that way warps the reality around him and by the end of the film he is a gun-toting gangster, not something he could ever have envisaged becoming when he started. And Hope to Die, the English language title for La course du lièvre à travers les champs, an adaptation of a David Goodis crime novel, was a curious beast indeed, as it didn't even begin with Tony making his escape.
Nope, what it actually began with was a sequence of great symbolism, where a young boy is told to make friends by his mother and after one failed attempt approaches a group of kids (including a cake-munching Emmanuelle Béart in her debut) only to have their leader cut open his proffered bag of marbles which spill down the steps, an image repeated near the end with the adult cast. Quite who these children are is never explained, and to add to the mystery we see brief clips of them and others whenever any of the characters has a crisis, which could bring up the very real possibility that director René Clément was being terribly pretentious, but such was the quizzical reaction it elicited you tended to forgive him.
Precisely what he was getting at was not impossible to work out, but for a basic thriller to turn into a far too stretched out drama that nonetheless kept you watching because "intriguing" was a word coined for such movies as this, you probably spent more time ruminating over what the underlying message Clément was threading through the plot might have been. It appeared to be something like we were all guilty of something or other, which was obvious enough when the criminals were onscreen and acting illegally, but when the cops finally show up they're not much better, and there's always those gypsies hanging around to contend with. About the only person here who is truly inscrutable, so you don't know her morals or otherwise, is a psychic majorette (Nadine Nabokov) who manages to get some of the gang caught and others free.
Then again, there's the other point that everyone is living with the shadow of death hanging over them, and none more so than Tony and the gang he joins, at first reluctantly then more willingly when he sees the big heist they are planning could offer him a way out of his predicament. But you don't escape your demise that easily, the film observed, which was all too apt for one of the stars, Robert Ryan, playing ringleader Charley and dying of terminal cancer around the time And Hope To Die was being made. Happily, or bittersweetly perhaps, he offered one of his best performances even if he wasn't fluent in French, and his air of mystery coupled with some degree of amusement rendered him one of the most interesting characters in the film, even more than our ostensible hero Tony. Another imported star in Aldo Ray was a member too, as was Tisa Farrow as the sister of the man Tony inadvertently kills first, though the best female performance came from Lea Massari as the cordon bleu chef turned moll. A strange film with bursts of excellent action, and a lingering melancholy. Music by Francis Lai (with flute).