This is not the Charles Bronson you think you know, the mean, truculent, monosyllabic persona who turned into a box office powerhouse later in the decade. It took the French to recognize the leading man qualities Hollywood determinedly ignored. God forbid, he is actually pretty charming, although his methods for squeezing information out of a suspect are, well, suspect. And he turns up pretty late in the picture, just when you think the focus is going to be on the suspect, Mellie (Marlene Jobert) and it’s going to be one of those pictures where an innocent woman is suspected of a crime and the man has to clear her name.
Except Mellie isn’t innocent. She’s killed a rapist who broke into her house and then dumped his body over the cliff. And she isn’t, officially at least, a suspect, local cop Inspector Toussaint (Jean Gaven) more interested in getting a loan from her husband, pilot Tony (Gabriele Tinti), to pay off gambling debts. Needless to say, any time the cop does knock on her door, she jumps out of her skin.
And she would have got away with the murder, except for the arrival of Dobbs (Charles Bronson). He turns up at a wedding, ensures she gets to see a newspaper headline of the murder, insinuates his way into her life, not too difficult once her husband heads off on another flight. She runs a bowling alley with her mother Juliette (Annie Cordy) who scarcely has a maternal bone in her body.
Rather than helping the cops solve the case, Dobbs is more interested in the red bag the rapist was carrying. But when she hands over the bag, it doesn’t contain the $60,000 Dobbs wants. We never see what Dobbs gets up to when he’s not with Mellie. But we hear it. His investigations may be carried out off screen but he’s tailing her – knows she bought a ton of newspapers – and tells her what he’s found out by speaking to cops and neighbors. Even though she’s replaced the cartridges in the shotgun she used to kill the rapist, he knows the gun has been fired. When she claims she was aiming at rats in the cellar, he points to the marks on the wall, too high for even the most acrobatic rat.
Mellie is trapped in a claustrophobic world, assailed by her own guilt and a jealous husband with too much unexplained loose cash (drug smuggling is the implication), turns against her best friend, boutique owner Nicole (Jill) who had an affair with her husband, and against her mother whom as a child she caught in bed with another man, causing her father to dump the mother.
Most of the tension is self-inflicted but Dobbs has thing about nuts and soon is whizzing shells across rooms, some trick where they break on impact with a window, but the noise is like a shot, too close to the blast of the shotgun.
Every twist ratchets up the tension. And by concentrating on the suspect the police are ignoring and making Dobbs, by default, the chief investigator, and nobody to turn to, Mellie is turned inside out by his mere presence, never mind, when exasperated, he employs his own interrogation method, akin to waterboarding, except the liquid is alcohol, forced down her throat until her lungs are full to bursting.
The last act is a bit murky, as the locale shifts to Paris, involving a brothel owner and a set of gangsters who are even more intent on humiliating Mellie. With echoes of Charade (1963) and Moment to Moment (1966), it’s superbly directed by Rene Clement (Is Paris Burning? 1965), who doles out clues and twists like he’s playing a hand at cards.
In spite of the concentration on tension, he takes the time to build up his characters. A series of emotional flashbacks show the fault-lines in Mellie’s character, no matter that she initially appears confident with fashionable short hairstyle and white outfits bound to attract attention. Dobbs’ obsession with suddenly chucking nut shells around maintains the tension and his cavalier tone, especially his jocular use of a nickname, suggests an interesting personality behind the tough guy pose.
Like his script for The Sleeping Car Murder (1965), screenwriter Sebastian Japrisot is as concerned with ordinary life as with the thriller elements.
Charles Bronson (Farewell, Friend / Adieu L’Ami, 1968) delivers the best performance of his entire career, tough guy with a charming underbelly, kind of Cary Grant with muscle. Marlene Jobert (Catch Me a Spy, 1971) is excellent as the victim turned suspect, and even Jill Ireland, for whom a part was always found in husband Charlie’s movies, shows a different side to her screen persona.
A riveting watch.