Despite being a long time admirer of world cinema, my knowledge of french film extends no further than genre fare, such as the new wave of extreme french horror and the parkour infused District 13 action flicks. There was perhaps an unfortunate assumption on my part that I would find french cinema to be a little pretentious, despite having enjoyed the likes of Inside and Sheitan immensely and French horror masterpiece Martyrs being amongst my top five movies of all time. So I approached And Hope to Die with cautious optimism, hoping it might perhaps alter any preconceived notions I might have had about french cinema.
The first few minutes of And Hope to Die immediately give me cause for concern. A dialogue free opening sees a young boy, carrying a large bag of marbles, making his way through the streets of Marseilles, the other children glaring and seemingly hostile. The boy makes it to a set of steps where another boy approaches him, smiling insidiously before opening a pocket knife and cutting open the bag of marbles, which cascade down the steps to the strain of the (admittedly excellent) melancholy score. At this point it occurs to me that there are over two hours left to go and, frankly, my bloody heart sinks.
I needn’t have been so rash, as And Hope to Die then instantly shows itself to be a very different beast entirely, a good old fashioned genre flick. In homage to the opening scene of classic Sergio Leone western Once Upon a Time in the West (including flute playing), we find three nefarious looking types awaiting the arrival of a train passenger named Tony (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Almost immediately, Tony escapes (in a terrific scene directed with real energy and verve) and, in perhaps the worst bit of luck in cinematic history, is then witness to an entirely unrelated murder, and taken hostage by two men searching for a wad of cash the victim handed to Tony moments before his death. Taken to their criminal hideout to meet with the gang’s charismatic leader Charley (Robert Ryan), Tony spies an opportunity. Refusing to give up the cash, Tony slowly ingratiates himself into the gang, thus allowing him to avoid his pursuers and use their upcoming heist (a bizarre plot to kidnap and ransom an already dead woman) to secure a new life.
It’s here that And Hope to Die is at its most successful, the interplay between Tony and this merry band of miscreants is a joy to watch, the key to its success is the wonderful supporting cast. Aldo Ray impresses as childish bully and former boxer Mattone. Lea Massari is delightful as the gang’s matriarch Sugar, whom Tony immediately (and understandably) falls for. Jean Gaven is endlessly likeable and relatable as the more relaxed and mature member of the gang, Rizzio. They all play their parts extremely well, each one vital. The heavy lifting in terms of the story and dynamics though, comes down to the two leads. Trintignant’s Tony is sneaky and seemingly untrustworthy, but he’s also whip smart and fascinating, showing himself to be a true survivor. In one of his final roles before succumbing to cancer, Holywood veteran Robert Ryan lends Charley both gravitas and humanity (if not his voice, which required dubbing over when he failed to grasp the French screenplay to director René Clément’s satisfaction).
Unfortunately, this more interesting portion of the movie must eventually give way to the heist itself, which rather disappoints. While Clement shows real flair in directing the action scenes earlier in the movie, here it rather sags, having somewhat lost momentum. It’s a shame as there is still an inventive touch on display, it just fails to match up to what has come before. The one commonality that this latter portion of the movie does share with the previous two acts is the gorgeous soundtrack by Francis Lai, which serves the mood and story incredibly well throughout, the score in itself is reason enough to warrant a viewing.
Overall, And Hope to Die is an enormously enjoyable ensemble piece, packed with great performances and characters, it’s just a shame that when it should have really taken flight, it instead runs out of steam in its final third.
Director: René Clément
Stars: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Robert Ryan, Lea Massari
Runtime: 99 min