Rider on the Rain - U.S. title
Le passager de la pluie - French Title (1970) dir. René Clément
Starring: Marlene Jobert, Charles Bronson, Annie Cordie, Gabriele Tinti and Marc Mazza
By Greg Klymkiw
Discovering movies you’ve never seen before is always fun – especially when you, like me, have seen over 30,000 feature films and think (wrongly, of course) that you’ve seen everything worth seeing. When those undiscovered titles are gems like “Rider on the Rain”, A.K.A. “Le passager de la pluie,” the rise of tantalizing gooseflesh is all the more deliciously palpable as it overtakes your body and soul.
This thoroughly entertaining and creepy Euro-trash thriller from the 70s has been kicking around for a long time in North America in a variety of downright awful English-language public domain transfers on both VHS and DVD.
Until recently, however, I had no idea how good it actually it was.
This was not for lack of trying. Alas, the public domain copies I saw were truly abysmal - the cropping distracting, the faded colours hard on the eyes and the English dubbing so sloppy that, on each attempt, I didn’t even made it to the rape scene which, of course means, that I never sat through it long enough to even see Charles Bronson make his first appearance.
I recently, however, came across a Russian DVD release of the exquisite Studio Canal re-mastering of the French-language version with English subtitles (and for those inclined, subtitles in Russian, Spanish, German, Hebrew and a variety of Asian languages). I can now say I have watched the rape scene, Charles Bronson’s entrance and then some.
Directing over thirty films from the late 30s to late 70s, René Clément was truly one of the great French directors, but in recent years especially, his remarkable canon seems to have been largely ignored in favour of those of the Nouvelle Vague ilk and some of the more recent works of Breillat, Noë, Cantet, etc. This is not to say that any of the above needs to be dismissed in favour of Clément, but I do think some sort of major re-assessment and appreciation of his fine output is in order.
That said, he still is deservedly acclaimed in many quarters for the heartbreaking tale of childhood and war “Forbidden Games” (“Jeux interdits”) and the magnificently amoral Patricia Highsmith adaptation “Purple Noon” (“Plein soleil”) which reveals Anthony Minghella’s watchable, 1999 version of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” as the uninspired wank it really is. In addition to the above, Clément delivered the tense, claustrophobia of “Les maudits” and his marvelous post-war crime drama with Jean Gabin “Le mura di Malapaga.”
In this and his other pulp suspense pictures, Clément’s respect and debt to Hitchcock is clear, but subtle - unlike, say, DePalma. Not that I’d ever crap on Brian DePalma, whose work I love dearly, but his approach to Hitchcockian-styled suspense is clearly and deliciously over-the-top, whereas Clément adds a dollop here and a dollop there of Hitch, while maintaining a sense of ambiguity that is all his own. Chabrol, too, is a fine French suspense director, but I tend to find his films more workmanlike than Clément’s and his voice is certainly not as rich and distinctive.
Clément, like Hitch, is fond of recurring visual motifs, but Clément is careful (as Hitch always was) to make sure they are thoroughly integral to the world of HIS narrative. They’re not thrown in willy-nilly.
For example, the references to date and time as well as the clock shots – especially those focusing upon a pendulum either locking in or not moving – are dazzlingly evocative, but they are always used to move the story forward. Also, Clément’s use of colour, light and composition reveals a great visual stylist and, like Hitch, he wields his palette like a master – a born filmmaker, his very DNA hardwired to the art and business of creating cinema.
With “Rider on the Rain”, Clément even uses a stunningly gorgeous ice goddess (albeit a truly Gallic version of a Hitchcockian leading lady) as the central femme fatale. Gamine, red headed, lightly freckled beauty Marlene Jobert appears as Mélancolie Mau (gotta love that name), the beleaguered wife of Tony (the suitably nasty Gabriele Tinti), a downright horrendously repugnant old world sexist pig who questions her every move and keeps her in an iron-clad grip – in spite of his seemingly endless jaunts all over the world as an airline pilot. Mélancolie’s mother, Juliette (a brilliant Annie Cordy) is a self-hating drunk who operates a bar/bowling alley and turns her self-loathing into a weapon against her own child.
These happy people all live in a seaside resort town. As the movie begins, it is the off-season and few souls wander the empty streets. A nasty torrential downpour brings a tall, creepy, bullet-headed stranger (Marc Mazza) to town on a bus that normally wouldn’t even stop at this time of year. The stranger, whose name is Mac Guffyn (get it?), wanders about the town with seeming aimlessness, but soon it’s obvious he’s targeting our heroine, following her everywhere with a steely gaze.
For her part, Mélancolie runs a few errands, including a dress shop visit to pick up a fashionably hot number to adorn her sultry frame for a wedding she’ll be attending the following day. Speaking of hot numbers, it’s not just the clothing that’s delectable – the ravishing Jill Ireland (Mrs. Charles Bronson) has a small role as the dress shop proprietress, primping and preening our gamine heroine whilst Mac Guffyn stares salaciously through the store window. Mrs. Chuck doesn’t see him, but Mélancolie does. She freezes in terror, but does not reveal to anyone that she sees him.
Well, before you can say “rape”, Mélancolie is back home and the oval-domed Mac Guffyn enters quietly, throws her to the bed and savagely forces himself upon her. She eventually passes out, wakes up alone, considers calling the police, but mysteriously doesn’t. Mac Guffyn shows up again. He’s merely been resting up for sloppy seconds. Mélancolie engages in a brutal physical fight with him, grabs a double-barreled shotgun from the basement, shoots him and finally, blood gushing from his chest, he still attempts to get up and our plucky gamine beauty bludgeons the creep to death. Again, for very mysterious reasons, she does not call the police, but instead, drives his body out to a remote cliff and dumps it into the sea.
The next day, as if nothing has happened, she and her sexist pig husband attend a wedding. During the ceremony, she spies the smirking, gorgeously mustachioed Charles Bronson, drilling holes into her with his intense Slavic eyes. At the reception, Bronson introduces himself as Harry Dobbs (Christ! Another great character name that you’ve just gotta love!), an American colonel of seeming disrepute and predatory intentions. For some reason, he knows she’s murdered Mac Guffyn.
For the rest of the movie, a strange cat and mouse game plays out where Dobbs relentlessly tries to get Mélancolie to admit to murder and she does everything in her power to deflect his accusations. There is, of course, more to all this than meets the eye – one layer of mystery lies on top of yet another and Mélancolie finds herself mixed up in something very creepy, dangerous and well beyond her comprehension. As for Dobbs, his intentions remain murky, but as the film progresses, it becomes obvious that both characters are becoming inextricably drawn towards one another.
While the picture is far more ambiguous than Hitchcock would ever tolerate, it’s still a terrifically suspenseful and entertaining mystery thriller. It’s even been suggested in some quarters that the film inspired Jim Morrison to write his evocative hit “Riders on the Storm” and given certain images and plot elements of the picture, it’s not entirely inconceivable. The opening lyrics that comprise the song's eerie refrain definitely mirror Mélancolie’s situation:
Into this house we’re born
Into this world we’re thrown
Like a dog without a bone…
The “sins” of Mélancolie’s mother have definitely rubbed off on her, though she’s tried her whole life to live with them and “like a dog without a bone”, she seems ill-equipped to deal with the cards dealt her way, but still manages to persevere – with, of course, a little help from a grinning Cheshire-cat-like Harry Dobbs.
Mac Guffyn, of course, is the literal “rider on the rain” of the English title – a serial killer/sexual deviant who is not unlike Morrison’s evocation of:
… a killer on the road/his brain is squirming like a toad…
And finally, in spite of Mélancolie and Dobbs falling for each other, it’s clearly going to remain unrequited – so much so that they each admit their love to themselves, but not each other and Mélancolie stays with her brutish husband and Harry goes off alone in his sports car. Again, one can imagine Morrison seeing the film and penning the lyrics:
Girl ya gotta love your man
Take him by the hand
Make him understand…
Gotta love your man, yeah!
Certainly even the opening shot of the film feels like it could have inspired Morrison and team – a huge body of water looking like a lake or river as rain drops plop violently on the surface of the water until the wheels of a bus splash into frame, revealing that we’re actually looking at a rain soaked highway through a wide angle lens. This is followed by a series of shots of the bus itself - seemingly bereft of passengers until it stops, then drives away to reveal the trench-coat-adorned Mac Guffyn, standing in the rain and clutching a small ref leather bag.
Furthermore, if there is any truth to Morrison being inspired by the picture, surely such inspiration extended to other members of The Doors. The song “Riders on the Storm” is endowed with one major similarity to Clément’s picture – it’s superbly scored by Francis Lai with a number of evocative themes – many of which feature the kind of varied and sophisticated instrumentations favoured by the band itself. This, by the way, is an original soundtrack album worth owning – rare, but not impossible to track down. It works, not only as film score but also as music that bears both close scrutiny as well as its simple ability to create background mood for just about any social situation one finds oneself in.
In spite of the theorizing about the film’s influence upon Jim Morrison, the point might be moot if centred solely on the title since the English title “Rider on the Rain", translates from the French title “Le passager de la pluie” more literally into “The Passenger of the Rain”. While this, in and of itself, might have also been influential, it’s probably less about the title but Clément’s images and themes that might have had a greater impact upon the late, great Lizard King.
Another interesting aspect of Clément’s film is that it opens with the following quotation from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”:
The pit was very deep, or she fell very slowly, because while she fell, she had time to look around and to wonder what was going to happen next.
This is an apt opening quotation for a number of reasons. Firstly, the movie is endowed with odd dream logic to its narrative structure. Secondly, Mélancolie does indeed experience a long, slow fall/descent. Thirdly, she wanders through the picture with a wide-eyed wonder of a naïf being led by a grinning Cheshire cat – none other than Harry Dobbs and Bronson’s charmingly sardonic visage and performance.
Bronson’s performance, by the way, will be a revelation to those ever who doubted his abilities as an actor. He’s always had considerable star power, but many have ignored the qualities he owned below the skin-deep tough guy exterior. His performance here is so compelling, one wishes he had more roles in his career like this one – roles that could have mined his myriad of thespian gifts.
Marlene Jobert as Mélancolie is also a revelation. In spite of her performance in this and Godard’s “Masculin feminin”, she never quite maintained the stardom of many of her contemporaries in France. Her Mélancolie is, however, nothing short of extraordinary. She takes a complex character and breathes the kind of life into it that makes both her and the role nothing less than unforgettable.
And what a role it is – so sexy and so mysterious, especially early on in the proceedings. For example, some of Mélancolie’s head-scratching moves at the beginning of the film (not calling the police and dumping Mac Guffyn's body – moves that set all the picture's wheels in motion – have often been mistakenly seen as either problematic storytelling and/or ambiguities.
I’d suggest they are neither.
This is, after all, the story of a woman who carries and tries to shed the sins of her mother and is locked in a marriage wherein she is constantly abused into submission and, by her very actions, her journey of self-discovery is responsible for finding what it was she loved in her man in the first place and she learns to work at mining those aspects rather than succumbing to his worst traits and/or running away from them. It’s a blossoming, a maturation process. She confronts everything head-on and takes us on a thrilling serpentine journey of sex, murder, mystery and suspense.
What more could one possibly ask for?
It’s a terrific picture!
This is a hard movie to get in the original French version. For my part, I wish to thank the Lord Jesus H. Christ for my obsessive frequenting of Russian video stores in North and West Toronto where I found the DVD. The release even appears legit, as I have seen it advertised on Amazon. The Studio Canal version is also available on Amazon. This is probably the best way to see the picture on this side of the Atlantic, especially since there appears no sign of a North American DVD or Blu-ray release of Studio Canal’s pressing.