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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Diabolique is the kind of film that one should never see more than once, and no film maker should ever try to make it again. My first viewing in the mid 1950s was a great movie experience. I was drawn to the wonderful suspenseful picture that M. Clouzot had made and was blow away by the ending. That should have been the end. Last night after more than 50 years I watched it again. Poor me. I was doomed to watch a great suspense film but I knew how it ended. There's something punishing in that. So all I could do was to be impressed with the acting, the photography, the film sets, and criticize some of its implausibility (What well- off French family would send a kid to this school? Who wouldn't want the two woman to kill off "The Head" someone without any redeeming human values? Why was the ending made so abrupt when it was the key to the picture and needed some digestion?) I must say that Mdm Clouzot's death portrayal was worth seeing again. It's better than anything James Cagney ever did. And the retired police commish could have been good for a series of about four more mysteries.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This 1955 French film stars Simone Signoret, Vera Clouzot, and Paul
Meurisse. It is set in a boarding school which is being run into the
ground by Headmaster Michel Delassalle (Meurisse). Delasalle is married
(his wife, Christina, is played by Clouzot) and has a mistress (Nicole
Horner, played by Signoret) who also teaches at the school. The two
other teachers at the school, the doorkeeper, the students, and sundry
others can't stand the cad. Delassalle refuses to spend money on
maintenance, decent food, and - horror of horrors for the French - good
Delassalle is a despicable lout, and his wife and mistress decide to murder him. Signoret takes the lead and comes up with a credible plan giving them an alibi, and it goes off with those little hitches that keep you on the edge of your seat as you wait for various interlopers to discover the secret in the large wicker basket.
Once they've successfully carried out their plan, things go horribly wrong. The body disappears. The two murderers can't figure out where it went. Then Delassalle's suit is delivered by the dry cleaners. The two women get hints and clues, but they can't figure out who is out to blackmail them. The tension is really well done, subtly played by the actors and realistic. Signoret would have been perfect in a Hitchcock movie as the cold blooded "ice blonde" that Hitch preferred. As the tension builds, the two conspirators begin to fall to pieces and their relationship frays, then breaks. Everything that can go wrong does: a body is discovered in the Seine, but it's not Delasalle's. When Christina goes to the morgue, a detective sees her and offers to solve the missing husband case for her - and he won't take no for an answer.
The three actors were excellent. Meurisse captures the cruel coldness of Delasalle with fleeting expressions across his face that told more than dialogue. Clouzot was small and weak, well-cast as the invalid wife of the headmaster. But Signoret took center stage. While Christina was mousy and dark-haired, Nicole was man-sized and blonde, had plans, and executed them. As the tension mounts and they begin bickering, their relationship takes on overtones of a married couple.
The pacing of the film is decidedly Fifties, but bear with it. It soon picks up, and the relationship and tension between to two women is very well done.
The plot was based on a novel, and it was later made into 1996's "Diabolique," with Sharon Stone, Isabelle Adjani, and Chazz Palminteri. I haven't seen that version. Instead, I'd recommend "Mademoiselle" with Jeanne Moreau if you like "Les diaboliques." Another teacher at a school in a small town runs amok.
There were two different reasons that led me to Les Diaboliques. One, it was made by the film-maker who was called the French Hitchcock, and two, he had also made the brilliant Wages of Fear. If he was indeed their Hitchcock, this is his Vertigo. A cruel man doesn't foresee trouble coming from both his demure wife and a sultry mistress. The wife and the mistress don't foresee trouble coming from somewhere else. Like good thrillers, much of the film works on the tension that gets created in our minds. We guess every next move by the characters and invariably are left surprised by the actual outcome. For a film that is quite scary when it wants to be, not a drop of blood is spilt. An amazingly tight script keeps you missing a beat every once in a while. This is an extraordinary achievement, and even 50+ years post its release, still is a must-see.
Henri-Georges Clouzot's "Diabolique" is a suspense film based on a
novel by collaborators Boileau-Narcejac, best known for writing the
novel which formed the basis for Hitchcock's "Vertigo". According to
film legend, Hitchcock nearly got his hands on this property too but
Clouzot beat him to it. While it's interesting to ponder how the film
would have turned out in Hitch's hands there's no denying that Clouzot
made the most of his material.
The film revolves around a pair of women who plot to kill the man who holds a domineering influence over both of them (Paul Meurisse). The fragile wife (Véra Clouzot) doesn't have the nerve but is pressured into co-operating by the strong-willed mistress (Simone Signoret). The murder goes as planned but when the body disappears it introduces an unexpected element into the proceedings.
Both actresses turn in standout performances and Meurisse makes for a fine antagonist. The supporting cast is also good but the film's main claim to fame is its twist ending. While the ending's impact has been dulled somewhat by subsequent imitations the film nevertheless maintains a high degree of suspense throughout. Clouzot's mastery of suspense rivals Hitchcock and you probably won't even realize that he's working without the benefit of a mood-enhancing score.
In the end, "Diabolique" emerges as a top-notch suspense film. Even if Hitchcock had gotten his hands on the rights I don't know if he could have done any better. It's unfortunate that the big twist has lost some of its sheen over the years but the film remains thoroughly engaging even today.
***SPOILER ALERT** Suffering for both psychical as well as mental abuse
form her tyrannical husband Michael Deassalle, Paul Meurisse, his
sensitive and very fragile, from a serious heart condition, wife
Christina, Vera Clouzot, who owns that boarding school that Michael is
the principal of had just about reached her breaking point. That
happened when her cheap skate husband forced the students and herself
to gulp down the school's lunch menu of spoiled and rotten fish that he
got, who else would want it, free of charge from the local fish market.
It just happened that Christina's friend Nicole Horner, Simone
Signoret, a teacher at the boarding school, and Michael's former
mistress, has also reached her limit in putting up with Michael's
abuse. The night before Michael in one of his rare moments when he
isn't drunk-and can zero in on his target-let her have it with a
straight left to he head and ended up giving Nicole a king-or
queen-size shiner! Nicole comes up with a plan to finally put the
abusive and somewhat unstable Michael out of her-and Christina- as well
as his life.
Tricking Michael to come to Nicole's place in Niort, some 50 miles away from the boarding school, both Nicole and a very reluctant Christina plan to get him good and drunk on a combination of cheap wine and barbiturates and then drown him in Nicole's bathtub. It's then that the two plan to drive, with Michael's corpse, back to the Delassalle Boarding School and dump him into the school's swimming pool making it look like Mchael got himself smashed and then, being too drunk to see where he's going, fell into it and drowned himself! Everything went perfectly with Michael drowned in Nicole's bathtub and then disposed off, in the school swimming pool, but the next morning Michael's dead body that was supposed to float to the surface is nowhere to be found!
Not knowing what to do in Michael being a no-show at his own murder site, the school swimming pool, both Nicole and Christina panic feeling that the very dead Michael has suddenly come back to life to exact holy revenge on them! Or in fact could it be that Michael wasn't killed at all despite being held under water for at least ten minutes by his two murderers! Still this doesn't explain how Michael could have possibly survived being at the bottom of the swimming pool for, what turned out, five whole days! It's when the pool was finally drained and Michael was nowhere to be found that the shock caused his wife Christina to suffer a massive heart-attack that laid her up in bed for almost the entire movie!
***MAJOR SPOILERS*** With the former town police commissioner Alfred Fichet, Charles Vanel, showing up at the scene and offering his services to Christina free of charge, if he doesn't get results, to find her missing husband is when things really started popping in the movie. Acting like a French version, some twenty years earlier, of the famed 1970's TV detective Francis, yes that's really his first name, Columbo Fichet had a lot more on the ball then what he lead Christina as well as Nicoel on too. As it turned out the plot to murder Michael was just a cover for something far bigger and more sinister then even Christina and Nichole could have ever imagined! In both its execution and then its backfiring on those who so cleverly concocted it!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Paul Meurisse runs a boarding school for boys in 1950s Paris. He's
sarcastic and mean. His wife, Vera Clouzot, teaches at the school. (He
beats her and rapes her.) His mistress, Simone Signoret, also teaches
there, but she hates her lover. Signoret is strong willed, while
Clouzot is weak, but they nevertheless join forces to dispose of their
mutual tormentor, Meurisse.
The two women arrange to be at Signoret's apartment in Noirt, a town hours from Paris, and taunt Meurisse into making an angry, impromptu visit. The conspirators drug him, then drown him in the bath tub. They manage to pack him into a large wicker trunk, haul him down to their car, drive back to the school, dump his corpse into the school's murky swimming pool, and show up on time for their classes.
Then the problems begin. A day or two passes and -- no corpse rises to the surface. The women are forced to drain the pool on a pretext and -- nothing but leaves, algae, and mud.
Strange incidents keep cropping up. The suit Paul wore is delivered from the dry cleaners but the lead is a dead end. A private investigator shows up and begins poking around. A drowned body in the Seine turns out not to be Paul, as the women had hoped. A student swears that Paul remonstrated with him and confiscated his slingshot, which later turns up in the office.
Medical discretion precludes further revelations concerning the plot.
It's a well-done murder mystery, full of tension and thrills, a successful commercial enterprise. Inevitably it will be compared to Hitchcock, and it should be. The story is the sort that might have attracted either of them -- murder, guilt, suspense. But the directorial styles are different, with Clouzot's being more traditional. There are few point-of-view shots, for instance. Here we see everything "objectively." The camera doesn't linger over a plate of food. We identify with none of the characters, all of whom are evil in one or another sense. And Clouzot doesn't bash anybody's MOTHER.
Nice job by all concerned, including Henri Clouzot's wife, Vera. Imagine if the movie had been made by Herbert J. Yates at Republic, a guy who also insisted on starring his wife Vera.
One cannot imagine a wife (Vera Clouzot) and a mistress (Simone
Signoret) knowing each other, much less plotting together to murder the
husband (Paul Meurisse), who is abusive, but that is the plot of this
thriller that reportedly was snatched from Hitchcock by just 30
minutes. One can imagine it might have been his greatest film, but
Henri-Georges Clouzot gets that honor.
It's the common case of the wife who has the money, and the abusive husband that is living off her largess, but doing his own thing (think Christie Brinkley and Peter Cook). Nicole (Signoret) is the strong one, and you might even think there are subtle lesbian intentions here. Christina (Clouzot) wavers constantly in her intentions, but a visit from Michel (Meurisse) and more abuse, firms up her resolve.
They have a good plan, but something happens when they carry it out. They drown the husband in the bathtub and dump him in the school pool. When the pool is drained, no Michel! Then his suit appears from the dry cleaners. A body shows up in the river the next day.
She goes to the morgue to identify him, and meets Colombo. Actually, it is Alfred Finchet (Charles Vanel), but you would swear Peter Falk stole his character from this film. It was not Michel in the morgue!
How does this end? The Director requests that we not tell you. But, the last 15 minutes will astound you.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I watched this classic again last night , and while I imagine most
people have seen it already, I would urge anyone who hasn't to watch it
and appreciate it for what it is , a true masterpiece.
Based loosely on the novel "She who was no more" by Boileau- Narcejac , director Clouzot bought the rights to the novel , beating Alfred Hitchcock to it by a matter of hours , so the story goes. Of course , the story goes that they also wrote "D'entre les morts" specifically for Hitchcock , who filmed it as Vertigo. It is true that many aficionados believe that Hitch was strongly influenced and inspired by Diabolique , not least when it came to Psycho. But what the master of suspense achieved with razor-sharp edits and violins , Clouzot managed it without any fancy cutting and hardly any music. Apart from the opening score ( which includes a creepy kids chorus and shows how effective that can be ) , and a little bit of music at the end , there is hardly any music to speak of. What we are given instead , is an account of a diabolical scheme with clinical precision , a step by step storytelling with acting that make it seem real...and that's what draws you in. And this is before the tension even begins !!
Perhaps it's fair to make a little comparison . The two main actresses , not those scantily clad scream queens of American or Italian horror , just a bashful Brazilian beauty and frosty 'femme francaise' ( though I must admit at this point, that I was rather surprised at how 'see-through' Chritina's night-gown is at the end of the movie). Special mention for how seriously cool Simone Signoret looks when she first appears on the screen wearing those fabulous sunglasses. She goes on to smoke Gauloises cigarettes and drink whiskey.. Not your usual Hollywood fare.
The build-up in the tension/suspense is the work of genius , culminating in a climax which will send shivers down your spine. Remember , this was made in 1955 , one must take into account how 'so far ahead of its time' this film really was.
I don't want to give too much away , I would hate to spoil it for anyone who has yet to see it. Instead , I'm going to finish off with a few bits of trivia regarding this film :
The director , who shot on closed sets , away from all outsiders , was supposedly so sadistic that if any actor had to swallow poison in one of his films, he made them take a non-lethal dose of the real thing.
Paul Meurisse , who plays the husband , had to spend an entire day in a cold bath-tub in a full suit. He also had to keep ice cubes in his mouth while filming the outdoor scenes in the dead of winter to avoid forming steam with his breath.
It is rumoured that the director actually gave Chritina fish that was 'off' in order to get a realistic reaction when she ate it.
Knowing all of this, it's easy to see why Simone Signoret was constantly in dispute with the director throughout the making of the movie , for various reasons , and never spoke to him again once production had wrapped.
In Diabolique, character and circumstance come together in a twisted
concoction more sulphurous than anything ever crafted. The movie is a
skillful marriage of ingredients that tread dangerously close to the
edge of reasoning while still absorbing them in impeccable artistic
The Delasalle Boarding School is one of those provincial French boarding schools where the children of the rich get packed off for months of unenthusiastic instruction, sketchy and arbitrarily stern discipline, and even sketchier meals. Running the place is headmaster Michel (Paul Meurisse), a foul, mean-spirited, cold-eyed bastard of a fellow who cares for his put-upon, mousy wife Christina (Vera Clouzot) even less than the students unfortunate enough to be left to his care. Christina is a sickly, quiet presence who seems to live only to be tormented by Michel. Given that he sees himself as the absolute master of this small realm, Michel thinks nothing of the fact that he's openly carrying on an affair with one of the teachers Nicole (Simone Signoret). Although Nicole suffers Michel's advances and occasional beatings at night, she is also Christina's only support and solace as they commiserate about Michel's animalistic nature and near-constant put-downs. Everything seems to be set up for one of those ghastly little psychological tales, when - Bing! -the mischief begins.
First off, the wife and the mistress conspire to dispose of their mutual male, on the thoroughly acceptable conclusion that he is fit for nothing else but to be killed. And, in the coziest, clammiest fashion, they go about it, by first drugging the brute with tampered whiskey, then soaking him in a bathtub, and later dumping his soggy body in the school swimming pool. The wife's qualms and the mistress' tenacity add to the sport and the suspense. At first, the plan appears to have gone off without a fault. But when Michel's body doesn't turn up when the pool is drained the next morning, the tension ratchets up to dizzying heights!
On the surface, Diabolique is a crackerjack horror-thriller, woven by intricate performances and a chilling narrative filled with twists and turns. But upon closer inspection, you realize that it is instead a character study, forcing its two sympathetic, but morally compromised protagonists beneath the cinematic microscope and watching them squirm and collapse. Henri-Georges Clouzot tracks the proceedings from a dispassionate distance, with a dramatic use of dark shadow that highlights the asymmetric nature of the characters' tangled and triangulated passions. What he does so seamlessly is take a humdrum domestic crime scenario and envelop it with the kind of cool, glassy dread, plunging us into a pool of blood-chilling mystifications and asphyxiating dreads and then lead us into its rug-yanking climax.
Diabolique still has the power to scare the heebie-jeebies out of audiences. It is a diabolical masterpiece that is meant to entertain, albeit with a certain spiritual shiver.
Considered a Horror Film, in the Hitchcock mode, has been imitated and
ripped-off so many times by now that the unfolding suspense is lessened
by now familiar Plot devices, therefore Today, the Surprise Ending will
seem familiar, although the Denouement has a few Shots of creative,
The Movie does contain certain realism and reflection of Social and Cultural behavior that was not evident in Mainstream American Cinema for Years.
Quite well Acted, however the Children's School is a poor choice for the Setting and is a distraction. Presented with very little Style, until the last Reel, it may not hold up enough for anyone except Film Buffs and Foreign Fans.
Sadly, the passage of time and loving, emulating admiration ends up, ironically, leaving this ground-breaker as somewhat of a letdown to some.
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