The opening scene in this 1965 J. Lee Thompson film sets the pace and the mood for this interesting thriller. We are on a passenger train; a young boy of about 10 is banging on a door in the compartment. His mother attempts to get him to stop by bribing him with chocolate. The door suddenly bolts open and the boy flies out the door falling off the train to his death. The other passengers in the compartment are all in shock except for Michele Wolf (Ingrid Thulin) whose face remains an emotional blank sheet. The camera then focuses on her arm revealing the tattooed numbers forever burned onto her skin.
Michele, a financially well off doctor before the war is returning to Paris, now that the war is over, under an assumed name (Madame Roberts) where she soon meets a former colleague, Dr. Charles Bovard (Herbert Lom), a plastic surgeon. At first he doesn’t recognize her because of the scars she endured during her years of interment at Dachau. She undergoes plastic surgery to help restore her looks.
Before the war, Michele, a widow with a young step-daughter, met Stanislaus Pilgrin (Maximilian Schell), a devilishly debonair fortune hunting, brilliant Polish chess master. Younger, good looking Stan charms his way into Michele’s life. She quickly falls for the young rogue. As the Nazi threat becomes more aggressive, Michele, who is Jewish is arrested despite the fact Stan, a non-Jew, and in a rare attempt at chivalry, married her. She taken away, sent to a concentration camp, and never heard from again. Stan assumes Michele is dead.
Several years later, after the war, with Michele now back in Paris with her newly constructed face and new name, Madam Roberts, she by chance, runs across Stan who still believes Michele to be dead. Stan notices the resemblance to his dead wife and becomes quickly intrigued. Meanwhile, during the time Michele was in the Nazi camp, Stan took up with Fabienne, aka Fabi, (Samantha Eggar), Michele’s step daughter, now a grown up and beautiful woman, as his lover. Fabi may be grown but she still retains an immature attitude and remains resentful of her dead mother for her neglect when she was a child.
Stan reveals to Madam Roberts that Fabi cannot claim her stepmother’s fortune because though she is dead, there never was a body identified and the law in France is Fabi would have to wait thirty years before she acclaim her inheritance. With her “resemblance” to the late wife, Fabi and Stan hatch a plan asking Madam Roberts to impersonate the supposedly dead wife in order to claim the dormant fortune. Michele agrees to go along with the plan but soon after slowly reveals to both that she is in fact the real Michele and takes back her position as wife and mother back.
Fabi, jealous of her mother taking “her place” in Stan’s bed hatches a plan to kill her stepmother. Stan though has a more ambitious idea going one step further. He kills Fabi in her bathtub making it look like a suicide and then proceeds with Fabi’s original plan himself to kill Michele.
The film is a bit convoluted and it gets even more so toward the end, yet this is the rare kind of film that provides a good mix of character study and suspense. True, it gets farfetched but the two main leads, Max Schell and Ingrid Thulin, are convincing in their roles. Additionally, Schell and Eggar prove the old adage that there is no honor among thieves.
Ingrid Thulin is one of Sweden’s great actresses who has worked with Bergman (Hour of the Wolf, Cries & Whisperers, Winter Light) as well as some other great European filmmakers like Luchino Visconti (The Damned) and Alan Resnais (La Guerre est Finie). Thulin is a stunning looking female. Not your kittenish, sexpot type but more the sophisticated, cool, stylish kind of woman who does not need to exploit her sexuality. It comes naturally. She’s perfect for this role.
The film opened to mixed reviews primarily due to the implausibility of the plot but don’t let that stop you from watching it. You will stay interested throughout the running time, and if for no other reason, there are the performances of Schell and Thulin.