The late films of René Clément are even more neglected than the early and middle films of René Clément, which is to say, very neglected indeed. Falling somewhat between the generation of Jean Renoir and that of the nouvelle vague, he may have been seen as a dangerous professional rival, but he certainly was no friend to the emerging Cahiers du cinema cinephiles, declaring at the time of Fahrenheit 451's production that each Truffaut film was worse than the one before.
Almost effaced from film history apart from a couple of unavoidably impressive titles, Clément remains a stylish professional whose devotion to the thriller genre would have been considered admirable if he were American, but sits awkwardly with our expectations of French cinema: we have room for Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jean-Pierre Melville only.
Clément's last four films are all twisty thrillers, the kind of films that spend ages setting up their baroque plots while you wonder vaguely what the hell is going on, but admire the stylistic gloss. The Rider on the Rain (1970) and And Hope to Die (1972) are written by Sebastien Japrisot, master of the insanely involved narrative tangle, a man who ate coincidences for breakfast. But La maison sous les arbres, rather boringly titled The Deadly Trap in English, has an authorship as confused as one of Japrisot's mysteries. The source novel by Arthur Cavanaugh was adapted by blacklistee Sidney Buchman (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) and Eleanor Perry (Diary of a Mad Housewife), additional work by Daniel Boulanger and the director himself, and uncredited assistance from Ring Lardner Jr. (MASH).
The stars are Faye Dunaway and Frank Langella at their most gorgeous, and they've been transplanted to Paris with their fictional kids. Dunaway is experiencing troubling problems with her memory, and may be losing her marbles; Langella is being threatened and harassed by a shadowy organisation known as "The Organisation." Then their young son and daughter vanish. What is going on? It's all very Bunny Lake is Missing, but with a more paranoid edge.
Suave seventies stud Langella seems haunted, to modern eyes, by the dignified old gent he is to become: it's as if the elder statesman is lurking somewhere behind the callow youth's hooded eyes. We'll never know what Dunaway would have looked like old, since she's opted to transform herself into a kind of alien entity rather than yield to a single wrinkle. But both are undoubtedly stunning specimens here, and the anxiety-provoking yarn (Clément ruthlessly exploits child endangerment as a plot element) gives her plenty of motivation to deploy the sidelong nervous glances, the catch in the voice, which are her thespian trademarks.
All this is happening in a Paris barely recognisable, transmuted into either crumbling canalsides or denatured suburban cityblocks, a schizoid cityscape at Christmastime (though the season is never mentioned by anyone) shot through fog filters, starburst filters, broken up with sudden closeups of glittering water or spinning acrobats, disintegrated by abrupt rack focus shots, disrupted and deranged every which way by all the photographic tricks color cinematography had to offer in the early seventies.
There's also a certain amount of corniness, once we figure out the plot and get the climactic catharsis, but the intrigue is compelling, the jumble of genre tropes bold, even insolent, and the manipulation of our emotions and expectations never less than adroit. A wintry late work by a sharp-eyed master.