Writer: Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jérôme Géronimi (screenplay), René Masson, Frédéric Grendel (collaboration), Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac (novel)
Cast: Vera Clouzot, Simone Signoret, Paul Meurisse
Running time: 117 mins
What’s the story: Christina (Clouzot), the frail owner of a large French school, lives in fear of her husband, school director M. Delassalle (Meurisse). Together with Delassalle’s mistress Nicole (Signoret), Christina plots her husband’s murder. But, killing him could be the beginning of more trouble…
What’s the verdict: One of cinema’s great shockers, after more than sixty years Les Diaboliques (aka The Fiends or The Devils depending on which print you’re watching) is yet to creak.
Its wet, clammy fingerprints can be found on nailbiters that came in its wake, from The Innocents to Suspiria, Psycho to The Shining. And although Les Diaboliques’ twists and turns may not have modern audiences reeling as did those back in 1955, this remains Swiss-watch precision filmmaking of the cruelest kind.
Famously, Hitchcock clamoured to purchase the book rights but was beaten by Clouzot. The British master of suspense then had to watch as the film was hailed a masterpiece of the genre and Clouzot named Hitchcock’s successor (something in which the French director had little interest pursuing).
Boileau and Narcejac, authors of the novel, did make it up to the rotund director by penning especially for him the book upon which 1958’s Vertigo was based. But, it would take years before Vertigo was recognised as a classic.
So, perhaps Clouzot’s unrecognized achievement is that Les Diaboliques likely inspired Hitchcock to make Psycho, his finest work. And although Psycho’s source novel contains the shower murder, you can’t help but think Hitch had Clouzot’s film front of mind when conducting the bathroom-based nastiness and subsequent shocks and revelations.
Screenwriters Clouzot and Géronimi (actually Clouzot’s brother Jean Clouzot) neatly bifurcate Les Diaboliques’ two-hour run time into build up to murder and mysterious, even supernatural, aftermath.
By the time the midway point arrives, you are ready to see Delassalle meet a watery demise in Nicole’s bathtub. Sadistic and abusive, he is truly monstrous, played with oily charm and cold-eyed cruelty by Meurisse.
What Clouzot crucially lands is that Delasalle’s wife Christina’s bond with his mistress due to their shared hatred of the miscreant (a risqué plot point for the time).
He does this by isolating the women from the men in the film. The other two masters at Christina’s school are uselessly aloof, while Nicole’s tenant in the flat above her is a doddery old fool glued to his radio.
Vera Clouzot was the director’s wife until her premature death of heart failure in 1960 aged 46. Petite and vulnerable, she is perfect as Christina, instantly earning audience sympathy before taking them on a memorably dark journey.
Signoret is a suitably fixed-face partner in murder, resilient and with a darkness that matches her trademark shades and belies her peroxide hair.
What most audiences remember keenest about Les Diaboliques is the second hour. To reveal too much is to spoil the film’s clever games (it closes with a title card imploring audiences to keep schtum on what they’ve just seen).
But, it gives nothing away to say Clouzot delights in keeping dread on the boil. Now staple suspense ingredients such as ghostly details in photographs and lights turning on in supposedly empty rooms are deployed to nerve-jangling effect, along with a climax boasting truly nightmarish imagery.
All achieved without recourse to music. Bar opening and closing credit score, Les Diaboliques eschews a score-for-scares approach to jangling the audience. For such a dark film, there is even a perversely ambiguous happy ending in the closing moments…
Clouzot directed good films after Les Diaboliques, but this and 1953’s The Wages of Fear were his only crossover successes. Other directors have tried their hand at this film’s story, including Jeremiah Chechik’s diabolical Sharon Stone-starring Diabolique in 1995.
Ignore the rest, thrill to the best.
DISC AND EXTRAS: The crisp black and white photography is given full justice in Criterion’s blu-ray transfer. The extras are modest in number, but effectively convey Clouzot’s achievement.
Chief amongst them is Kelley Conway’s scene-specific commentary. Running just under 45 minutes, the French film scholar divides the film into sections from build-up to climax, identifying Clouzot’s themes and shot choices, identifying details that may remain hidden even after multiple viewings of the film.
Serge Bromberg, co-director of the 2009 documentary Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, provides a 15-minute introduction to the film. Outlining Clouzot’s importance in French film making, Bromberg touches upon French cinema’s ambivalence to the director due to his time producing films under Nazi occupation.
All-round movie guru Kim Newman also has 15 minutes to discuss Les Diaboliques’ importance to horror and thriller cinema of the past sixty years. Focussing on Psycho and Hitchcock primarily, the infectiously enthusiastic Newman also provides a well-researched run down of the official Les Diaboliques remakes, including Chechik’s botched attempt.
A 20-page booklet and trailer that should be shown to all Hollywood studios as an example of how not to spoil a film’s surprises round out another great Criterion offering.
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