It’s a rare thing when a crime thriller departs from the usual formulaic expectations and rewards the viewer with a much more unpredictable and entertaining twist on a familiar genre. Such is the case with Les étrangers (aka The Strangers, 1969), which begins with a carefully planned diamond heist in a remote desert town that goes spectacularly awry before transitioning into a deadly game of cat and mouse between a fleeing fugitive and a couple that offer him temporary shelter. This is a superior B-movie that feels like an A-picture with its iconic international cast of actors from France (Michel Constantin), Austria (Senta Berger), Spain (Julián Mateos) and South Africa (Hans Meyer), a spaghetti western-flavored score by Michel Magne and Francoise de Roubaix, and atmospheric cinematography by Marcel Grignon, who received an Oscar nomination for Is Paris Burning? (1967) and filmed such cult favorites as Roger Vadim’s Vice and Virtue (1963) and Walerian Borowczyk’s The Beast (1975).
From start to finish, the eighty-six minute feature is well paced and tautly directed by Jean-Pierre Desagnat, who is little known outside of France. The bulk of his rather modest filmography has been for French television but he did manage to direct a handful of feature films such as OSS 117 – Double Agent (1968) and Vertigo for a Killer (1970, French title: Vertige pour un tueur). On the basis of Les étrangers, I’m curious to explore more of his work.
[Spoilers ahead] Set in New Mexico but filmed in Spain, Desagnat’s thriller utilizes the sun-scorched landscape and sweltering climate to add an additional layer of intensity to the pressure cooker situation that unfolds. Kaine (Mateos), the only surviving member from the bank heist, eludes the pursuing police by jumping into a river. He emerges later and hides the stolen diamonds in an abandoned mine, taking precautions to create a bobby-trap for anyone that tries to remove them. But exhaustion and lack of water takes its toll and Kaine is later found unconscious by Chamoun (Constantin) who carries him back to his remote ranch with the help of his donkey.
Once there, Kaine quickly recovers but is suspicious of Chamoun and his sexy companion May (Berger) and constantly tries to manipulate the situation to his advantage. One of the most compelling aspects of the film is the way it withholds information about this reclusive couple, preferring instead to offer up small details as the story progresses. One thing becomes obvious early on, Kaine is a ruthless sociopathic killer who can’t be trusted for a second but Chamoun and May seem to be on to him from the get-go and know more then they’re telling. Their friendly relationship with Blade (Meyer), the local police captain, is more than a little suspicious. Complicating matters is the arrival of a pair of hit men looking for Chamoun and their visit to Chamoun’s isolated ranch is one of the more surprising sequences in the film.
The zigzagging narrative builds to a brief but immensely satisfying final confrontation in which justice is violently served. Along the way are occasional moments of quirky comedy involving two none-too-observant local cops who work for Blade and Chamoun’s beer-drinking donkey who appears to have a telepathic connection with his master. There is also something curiously appealing and bizarre about Chamoun and May’s rustic desert hideaway. They keep their beer cold in the well and don’t have electricity except in their bedroom which inexplicably has a TV (we see them watching a Euro-crime film prior to a romantic fadeout – one of the few scenes of physical intimacy in the film). A major virtue is the impeccable casting and Mateos is alternatively charismatic and repulsive in the grandstanding role of the snake-like Kaine. He has a particularly memorable freakout scene with May in which he candidly reveals that he had a wretched childhood and that his mother was “the only person I ever loved.” He then hysterically refutes everything after overpowering May, yelling “I lied to you. I never had a mother…I never loved anybody. Women are all poison. You all hate me!”
Mateos is probably familiar to Western film fans for prominent roles in Return of the Seven (1966), Shalako (1968) and Catlow (1971) but I first encountered him in Jules Dassin’s 10:30 P.M. Summer (1966), an overly arty, romantic triangle melodrama in which he plays a murderer on the run who is sheltered by Melina Mercouri. Providing the perfect contrast to Mateos’ volatile madman in Les étrangers is Michel Constantin as the laconic but physically intimidating Chamoun who comes from the “less is more” school of acting practiced by such superstars as Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson. Like Bronson, Constantin has a similar kind of craggy, ugly-handsome appeal and though he was quite popular in European genre films, he never enjoyed the kind of international success Bronson claimed. A former factory worker, his first major role in Jacques Becker’s Le Trou (1960) as a resourceful prison inmate launched his career (he had previously appeared in an uncredited role in the Brigitte Bardot sex comedy Plucking the Daisy, 1956). After Le Trou, his tough guy persona, which has a quietly menacing side, was well showcased in such cult crime dramas as Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Deuxieme Souffle (1966, aka Second Breath), Alain Cavalier’s Mise à sac (1967, aka Pillaged) and Jacques Deray’s The Outside Man (1972).
Of the three leads, Senta Berger has the most impressive resume which includes over 140 film and TV credits and began in the early fifties in West German cinema. She easily made the transition to U.S. and international productions in the early sixties with appearances opposite Richard Widmark in The Secret Ways (1961), Kerwin Matthews in Walt Disney’s The Waltz King (1963) and Charlton Heston and Richard Harris, rivals for her affection, in Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (she later appeared in Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron, 1977 ). Unlike a lot of the gorgeous sex sirens who were popular during the sixties, Berger was also an accomplished actress and went on to work with such acclaimed directors as Michael Verhoeven (Wer I’m Glashaus liebt…, 1971), Volker Schlöndorff (Die Moral der Ruth Halbfass, 1972), Wim Wenders (The Scarlet Letter, 1973) and Mario Monicelli (Le due vite di Mattia Pascal, 1985). Berger is still working today but Les étrangers is representative of her peak years and she is alternately tough and alluring as the enigmatic May. If you’ve ever wanted to see Berger wielding a shotgun, beating a man with chains or threatening someone with a hot poker, this is your film.
At one time, Les étrangers was available from European Trash Cinema in a very good widescreen DVD-R print of the English language version. It might be out of print now and currently the film is not available in any format. Nor can you stream it on YouTube like so many obscure international films. With a little luck, some enterprising DVD/Blu-Ray distributor might bring this B-movie gem back to the fold.