After the optimism and uproar of the Sixties came the Seventies with a different mood. The writer Francis Wheen has called the decade ‘the golden days of paranoia’. René Clément’s 1971 thriller The Deadly Trap (La Maison sous les Arbres) tries to express some of this jittery turmoil, not entirely successfully.
Despite being set in Paris and directed by a Frenchman, The Deadly Trap stars two Americans who speak English to all the French throughout the film who obligingly respond in kind. Fay Dunaway (her star on the rise after having starred in Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 and The Thomas Crown Affair in 1968) is Jill who is apparently suffering from anxiety problems. She has two young children with her husband Philip, played by Frank Langella (the New York stage actor best known over here for playing the Tricky Dicky in Frost/Nixon).
Philip is supposed to be some a physicist or scientist of some sort. At least he always seems to be poring over pages of equations and what not. More uncannily, his large brown eyes, dark floppy hair that makes him look the spit of the TV physicist Brian Cox. Philip is overly serious and controlling, Jill keeps on forgetting things to the point where she thinks she’s losing her mind, and their marriage seems to be hitting the rocks.
Some have written that the film doesn’t even manage to make the City of Light look very good, but this is unfair. Much of The Deadly Trap occurs in the couple’s boho Paris flat, and no one every criticised Rosemary’s Baby for making New York look bad despite the fact that most of the film occurs in The Dakota building. When the characters do venture out, the city looks sepulchral and sinister, rather than ugly.
Clément creates a relatively realistic world centred around this young family, and a palpable sense of tension as Jill apparently begins to lose her mind. However, the mounting atmosphere of paranoia and desperation reach a crescendo that is tied up at the end with an explanation that is either not entirely plausible, or possibly just too rushed and too little related to the first three quarters of the plot.
It won’t be spoiling too much to say that it’s not paranoia if they really are after you. But once we realise ‘they’ (here called ‘the organisation’) are real, for truly sickening fear we should then feel that they have a vast reach from which escape is impossible. The organisation are nowhere near as ruthless or cunning as the Parallax Corporation for instance.
For Hitchcock, the master of suspense himself, “there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” American critic Rex Reed wrote of The Deadly Trap that “René Clément, the French Alfred Hitchcock, has sculptured a masterwork of suspense and human emotions that put sweat on my palms and kept it there.” Well, Clément is just one among many French directors who have been called ‘the French Hitchcock’ including Claude Chabrol, Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jacques Deray. But more importantly, Reed is right that he does manage to build the suspense, it’s just that there isn’t enough terror after the bang.
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