Directed by Anatole Litvak
Samantha Eggar, John McEnery, Oliver Reed, Stephane Audran, Billie Dixon, Bernard Fresson, Yves Pignot, Marcel Bozzuffi
Having previously looked at and been impressed by the French thriller The Sleeping Car Murder (1965), based on the novel of Sébastien Japrisot, it felt appropriate to take a closer look at The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun, another French thriller based on a Japrisot novel.
The lovely Samantha Eggar stars as Dany Lang, an attractive English secretary who works in an international ad agency in Paris. Being short-sighted, Dany always wears big, fashionable (and dark) 1960s-style glasses.
During a hectic work period, Dany's boss, Michael Caldwell (Oliver Reed), asks her if she'd mind working overnight at his home. Being the faithful employee, Dany agrees and accompanies Michael back to his house. There she also meets with Michael's attractive wife, Anita (Stephane Audran). As it turns out, Anita used to be friends with Dany a long time ago, although their friendship fizzled out as soon as Anita climbed up the social ladder by marrying Michael. The former friends' reunion is rather awkward as they barely exchange a few banal phrases, but the encounter triggers a flashback in Dany – showing how Anita was apparently prone to sleeping around a lot before she met Michael.
The next day, Michael, Anita and their little daughter are going away on a trip and ask Dany to drive them to the airport in their fancy, white convertible and then take the car back and park it at their house. Somewhat reluctant as she's never driven the car before, Dany nevertheless agrees and drops them off at the airport. But as she's about to drive back, Dany gets off in the wrong lane and finds herself heading south - towards the Riviera - instead. Figuring she might as well enjoy this fancy car while she has the chance, she impulsively drives on.
But soon strange things start to happen. Everywhere Dany goes, she is recognized by complete strangers who all claim to have met her there before. But Dany is certain that she has never been in the south of France before or met any of these people. It's as if she's retracing a route she has never taken. Things turn more sinister when Dany stops at a gas station to use the bathroom. Shortly afterwards, the gas station attendant hears Dany's screams coming from the bathroom. He rushes to find her lying hurt on the floor – claiming a stranger attacked her and viciously hurt her hand. Her hand has to be bandaged but the gas station employees all claim that Dany has recently been at the gas station before and that her hand was already bandaged then. Things start to turn stranger and stranger. What is actually going on? Is there a plot to drive Dany mad? Is she mad already? Or has she experienced some sort of trauma that has given her partial amnesia?
Sébastien Japrisot's plot is certainly intriguing enough and The Lady in the Car is off to a good start, with a promising set-up and a mystery that grabs one's attention. Unfortunately, the film fails to make good on its promise and start losing focus and running out of steam just one third into its running time. The mystery of why Dany is being recognized in places she's never been to before and the effective aura of strangeness that is present during the first half hour or so eventually takes a backseat when Dany encounters an obnoxious hitchhiker named Philippe (played by John McEnery) and for no good reason takes him along with her, lets him in on her story and goes to bed with him. This and several of Dany's subsequent actions come across as rather implausible, and, worse yet, she and Philippe have little to no discernible on-screen chemistry. The Philippe character is merely an annoyance factor that steals focus.
The film never really recovers from this, although it eventually gets its plot back on track and throws in a few interesting moments that help keep our interest up until all the elaborate details are revealed in the not quite successful denouement. To say that the final explanation requires a certain suspension of disbelief is a vast understatement but it works at least partially because Japrisot's intricate plot is fascinating, if somewhat unconvincing. The screenplay was written by Japrisot himself together with the director, Ukraine-born filmmaker Anatole Litvak, but somehow their joint efforts in transferring Japrisot's story to the film medium doesn't work all that well. The structuring of the story and a slow pacing is part of the problem - another one is Litvak's direction. Litvak was certainly no stranger to thrillers and had a successful Hollywood career, having churning out such well-received thrillers as Sorry, Wrong Number and The Snake Pit (both 1948), and gaining an Oscar nomination for best director with the latter. By the time he made The Lady in the Car, though, Litvak was 68 years old and it was to become his final film. It was hardly a good swansong for Litvak as he just doesn't manage to muster up the kind of thrills or enthusiasm that the story requires in order to work.
What Litvak does succeed in, however, is capturing that late 1960s/early 1970s flavor very well, with plenty of chic fashions, some Mario Bava-style lighting and a delightful Michel Legrand score, which includes the catchy song "On the Road", performed by Petula Clark.
It's also evident that the film is atmospheric and visually impressive even though the only English-language version that appears to be in circulation is a soft, fuzzy-looking print with an overly reddish image that does absolutely no justice to the film's color scheme. But even in this print, Claude Renoir's cinematography is striking and one can sense the remnants of a very colorful and stylishly shot film. No doubt, a pristine-looking print would make the film a far more aesthetically pleasing experience and probably help smooth over some of the flaws in the storytelling.
Shots such as these make one long for a good-looking print of the film
Another asset for the film is the beautiful British actress Samantha Eggar in her first brush with so-called Euro cult territory - she'd go on to more success with her subsequent Euro efforts, making Light at the Edge of the World (1971) in Spain and The Etruscan Kills Again (1972) in Italy. Eggar's performance here is quite impressive and she does a terrific and convincing job as the increasingly confused Dany. While some of Dany's motivations and actions seem rather illogical, this is the fault of the writing and not Eggar, who does the best she can with the material and makes sure we still believe in the character even when she's acting implausible.
None of the other cast members are given too much to do but the always welcome Oliver Reed, who would reunite with Eggar nine years later in David Cronenberg's The Brood (1979), does an impressive job with his limited screen time. So does the exquisite Stephane Audran (better remembered for her work in the thrillers of her husband Claude Chabrol) as Reed's wife. John McEnery on the other hand is extremely annoying as the hitchhiking Philippe and the film had been better off had his character been cut from the narrative altogether.
While far from a perfect film, The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun has its memorable moments and a strong leading performance by Samantha Eggar. Those wanting to see a really good thriller based on the writings of Sébastien Japrisot should start with The Sleeping Car Murder instead but this one is worth a look too. Now, if someone could just release a good-looking version of the film - I'm certain it would make the film far more enjoyable.
© 2008 Johan Melle
© 2008 Johan Melle
Samantha Eggar as Dany Lang