Back when I was getting my bachelor’s degree, I took a film class with a really odd professor who I’m convinced picked films to lecture on by throwing darts at a board – Red Rock West is the LAST flick most people would think of when trying to learn basic art motifs. He kept bringing up Diabolique and how much he loved it, which prompted me to pick up the original Criterion DVD. Long story short, I brought up the film after class one day and it turned out he had never seen the original and was foaming at the mouth over the remake starring Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani; hell, he didn’t even know it was remake or that Henri-Georges Clouzot’s brilliant thriller existed. Being the generous soul that I am (and feeling a bit smug), I brought him my copy the next day and – to my surprise – he ended up hating it, saying it was “a bit stale and boring.”
Normally, I wouldn’t sit here and criticize someone’s taste but… the man is insane and dead wrong.
Coming off the success of 1953’s The Wages Of Fear, Clouzot returned to the murder mystery territory that gave his career a sort of resurgence years earlier with Diabolique. Based on a novel by popular French writers Boileau and Narcejac, the film tells the story of Christina (Vera Clouzot, the director’s wife), a kind-hearted teacher who owns a boarding school run by her awful husband, Michel (Paul Meurisse). In addition to being a tyrannical headmaster, he constantly steps out on his wife and flaunts his relationship with Nicole (Simone Signoret) in front of everyone. Surprisingly, the women have a good dynamic with one another, since they both hate Michel for being emotionally and physically abusive, and devise a murderous plan.
Drugged and drowned in a bathtub, the two conspirators drag his corpse to the school pool, where his body will float and make his death look accidental. It sinks like a stone, however, and when the pool is drained, it’s nowhere to be found. When a body is found off school grounds, Christina travels to the town’s morgue to discover that it’s not Michel’s, and piques the curiosity of private investigator Alfred Fichet (Charles Vanel), who comes out of retirement to look into the matter. Shortly after, Christina starts noticing strange things around the school, making her already weak heart even weaker.
When Diabolique was made, Clouzot was considered one of the greatest working directors, ranking alongside the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. There are a lot of interesting parallels between the two men’s work, and their reputations as directors of thrillers are still compared long after their deaths. Upon completion of The Wages Of Fear, Clouzot reportedly bought the rights to the novel Celle qui n’était plus mere hours before Hitchcock put in his bid. Upon Diabolique’s release in 1955, Hitchcock found himself a true rival and adapted the writing duo’s next novel, D’entre les morts – which is rumored to have been specifically written for him. The result was Vertigo, which, believe it or not, had a lukewarm reception at the time of its release but has since gone on to garner the reputation of being a classic.
The state of American cinema during the 50s was bigger equals better. Techniques like Cinemascope were being used to make everything seem larger than life, giving a sweeping, epic look to many studio films. Clouzot, being the renegade that he was, made Diabolique as an antithesis to these ideals, opting to make it as minimalistic as possible; one camera, one primary location and a small cast. Hell, it was even shot in 1.33:1. He uses this to advantage in a big way though, making it seem to the audience like he had placed the actors into a sandbox like a couple of ants, whipping out his magnifying glass whenever he saw fit. Frequent collaborator Armand Thirard piggybacks off this approach with his cinematography, starting the film off as an outsider looking into the school and slowly moving in until the finale, when the camera actually becomes Christina’s broken psyche.
While everyone puts in a great performance, Clouzot and Signoret carry the film as the two murderers. The conversations tend to seem off-the-cuff, giving their relationship a very natural feel. The minimal amount of music in the film adds to this, putting the audience directly into the reality of the situation. Unfortunately, life does imitate art sometimes, and Clouzot died five years later from the same thing that ailed her character: heart problems.
But, perhaps the most memorable thing about Diabolique is its legendary ending, which was mind-blowing at the time but has since been copied more times than anyone would care to count. As realistic as the entire film tries to be, Clouzot switched to low-key lighting for the finale, giving the school an almost ethereal appearance as Christina runs through its halls, trying to find out who or what is creeping around. What really sells it, however, is the slight of hand used on the audience. Up until this point, viewers think they’re watching a film about one thing when it’s really about something entirely different. And not in a Rashomon sort of way either, where there’s different point of views and only one person is telling the truth. No, Diabolique actually has AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT PLOT than what you’d been led to believe the whole time.
Interestingly enough, the ending was so shocking that less than a decade later, a bona fide horror classic that used similar misdirection and even the same room of the house for its most famous scene was released. The film was Psycho and the director was – you guessed it – Hitchcock. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and if there’s any truth to that, Diabolique will always be known as one of the most beautiful girls at the horror prom.
Preserving the original aspect ratio, Criterion’s 1080p transfer is impressive and a noticeable improvement over its first DVD release. The grayscale has been altered, adding more variety to the color scheme by giving greater depth to the blacks and making the whites stand out a bit more. The film looks soft during certain scenes but is very crisp, detailed and clean looking overall. The French LPCM 1.0 track is clear of any noticeable flaws that plague older films (hisses, pops, etc). The dialogue and sound effects are very clear sounding; same goes for the score. As always, Criterion has included a booklet featuring an overview of Clouzot’s career, entitled Murder Considered As One Of The Fine Arts, by Terrence Rafferty, as well as the original theatrical trailer and a bevy of special features.
Serge Bromberg Introduction (14:48) – Bromberg, who directed a documentary about Clouzot’s unfinished film Inferno, gives a fantastic frame of reference for Diabolique by discussing what came before it in Clouzot’s filmography, what the cinematic trends were at the time, and what techniques were used. He reminds me a lot of Tim Lucas when he talks, condensing a wealth of information into a fun and informative history lesson.
Selected-Scene Commentary (44:30) – Running the length of almost half the film, this commentary by French-film scholar Kelley Conway (author of Chanteuse in the City: The Realist Singer in 1930s French Film) is a bit on the dry side when compared to everyone else on the disc. In each of the three sections (Setup, Additional Clues, and The Finale), she gives a lot of scene-specific production info, along with just generally explaining the narrative in accordance with themes explored throughout the film.
Kim Newman (15:45) – Film critic Kim Newman talks – at great length – about his love for Diabolique and the impact it had on the film world. He mainly sticks to dissecting the finale and talking about how Clouzot put a fire under Hitchcock’s ass by giving him some real competition. I knew a good chunk of the information presented here prior to watching the interview, but Newman is a delight to watch and many of his observations are worth discussing at greater lengths. Out of all the special features on the disc, I really wish this one would have been longer. If you dig this interview, check out Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s, his criticism of horror films that recently came out in an updated edition.