The most popular motives for murder is either money or passion. The goal of course is canceling the existence of another human being but after the act comes the guilt and the clumsiness of trying to get away with it. Perfect murders thankfully occur much more often in fiction then in real life, and like perfect art, doesn't exist, but it's never stopped a murderer or artist from trying. Director Henri-Georges Clouzot has always been labeled as the 'French Hitchcock' and Diabolique has always been quoted as "the greatest Hitchcock film that Hitchcock did not make." Diabolique is a near-perfect movie about a near-perfect murder, a film in which the director's methods are equally matched as the killers, in cunning and ruthlessness. Clouzot and his style of filmmaking have been considered some of the most thrilling and scariest films of the French cinema, as legendary critic Andre Bazin stated that Diabolique was Clouzot's "most perfect" film. The story of Diabolique unfolds in a French provincial town where Michel Delassalle, a sadistic headmaster of a school belonging to his wife Christina, a fragile young woman with a weak heart, carries on an affair with Nicole Horner, a strong, forceful teacher who has been his mistress from the day she arrived. He has, however, treated her as badly as his wife, and the two women have been driven into an alliance against him. Together they work out an elaborate plot to rid themselves of their common tormentor. Luring him away from the school to Nicole's cheap lodging house, they induce him to drink some doctored whiskey, and drown him in a bath. The body is later wrapped in a nylon tablecloth, placed into a laundry basket, and during the night, is transported back to the school, and thrown into the grimy waters of the school swimming pool. When, shortly after, the pool is drained, the women are shocked to discover that no corpse is found, and soon enough strange and mysterious occurrences begin to happen, along with the subsequent reported sightings of the dead headmaster. Some sources say that Alfred Hitchcock missed out on purchasing the rights to Les Diabolique and of the Boileau and Narcejac novel by just a few hours with Clouzot getting to the authors first. The screenplay was then adapted by Clouzot and three other writers who developed a cold clammy story in which it's characters were as unwholesome and nasty as the stagnant, scummy pool that is used in the murder plot. I believe that the infamous bathtub sequence in the climax of the film is as shocking or even more so then Psycho's infamous shower scene, and ironically Robert Bloch, the author of the novel Psycho, has stated in an interview that his all-time favorite horror film is Les Diabolique. Alfred Hitchcock was said to also be a huge admirer of Clouzot's film and even screened it for the writers of Vertigo, because the murder plot and the using and manipulation of an innocent victim were similar themes used in both stories.
The story starts out at Delassalle, a second-rate boarding school which is run by the mean and cruel headmaster Michel Delassalle as he pulls into the front gate of the school getting through security. The students and the faculty are excited to have a short break over the weekend with the school being closed for a few days. Even though the school is owned by Michel's wife Christina who is a weak and frail woman who suffers from a heart condition, Michel still openly flaunts his affairs and relationships, especially with Nicole Horner, his mistress who is also a teacher there at the school. And yet the women themselves are shown to have a somewhat close relationship, and are frequently talking about how much they hate Michel. Nicole removes her sunglasses to show Christina a black eye that was given by Michel and how he physically beats her. Nicole tells her, "How have you stood him for so long?" Christina says that Michel wasn't always like that and at one time made her happy; with Christina telling her Michel married her only because of her money.
A few of the faculty members are watching Nicole and Christina talking to one another and find it interesting since they know Michel has them both under his control. One of the teachers says, "I may be a bit old-fashioned, but this is absolutely astounding. The legal wife consoling the mistress." Nicole asks Christina if she can show her something in the biology room which looks like a drug of some sort and Michel happens to walk by to see them socializing. "What the hell are you both doing here?" he asks. Christina says nothing, and Michel says, "like kids. Nothing". He intimidates his wife by forcing a kiss on her then throws the two women out of the classroom. When leaving the building Christina sees one of the students writing on the wall and mildly yells at him, but Michel sees this as well and cruelly punishes him; even though Christina tells Michel that student has been doing really good in her class. Later on that evening the mistress and the wife are near the pool discussing Christina's horrible predicament with her cruel husband and Nicole thinking it would be best to kill him.
"I can't. I can't. I didn't even have the courage to divorce him."
"Do you still love him?"
"Of course not. You can't understand. Divorce is a deadly sin."
"And what about the knife you carried around for a month? Wasn't that a deadly sin?"
"I was jealous. I was mad. But to concoct this thing...No."
"As you wish. But think about it. We'll never find a better opportunity. And we have just three days. Everyone knows I'm leaving for Niort. You'll come and rest."
"Don't you believe in hell?"
"Not since I was seven."
Later that day in the cafeteria they are serving fish once again to the faculty and students. Christina says she's not hungry but Michel forces her to eat the fish to set an example for the other students. Michel abuses his position in the school by not only giving out inappropriate punishments to his students but by being cheap, where the children are underfed and the staff are given bad fish and cheap wine. Michel is emotionally abusive to Christina and treats her like a child, degrading her by forcing her to finish swallowing her fish in the lunch room while all the other students and faculty watch. The students start becoming loud shouting "we want food!" so Michel orders his faculty to take care of the situation and control the students.
Christina confronts her husband on the situation saying, "what kind of a supper is it for these growing boys?" Michel says most of the good food is too expensive and Christina says, "It's my money. I'm paying for everything here. I'm paying you too, Nicole. I accept it. I keep quiet. But when he attacks the kids, it disgusts me." Nicole consoles Christina with Christina saying how she'd like to die. Michel cruelly says, "Die, my sweet. Die quickly. We'll have a nice funeral for you, and we'll finally be rid of you. The school won't suffer and I'll feel much better." Nicole then leaves and wishes everyone a good vacation and after she is gone Michel walks up to Christina and they walk off-screen with the audience hearing Christina scream as Michel beats her.
That evening Christina decides to leave her husband because she can't handle being with this cruel man no longer but is to weak to want to divorce him, partly because of her religious views. While Michel is still sleeping, Christina secretly meets up with Nicole like they earlier discussed. She sees Nicole carrying a large straw-box into a truck and the two of them leave the school. Later that morning the last of the students are leaving for the weekend and Michel is told that his wife left early that morning with Nicole; which of course makes him unhappy. When driving up to Niort Nicole tells Christina she has neighbors who are above her which worry Christina but Nicole assures her she has thought of everything. Christina says they'll never have the courage but Nicole says she doesn't know her. Christina says, "you can wish someone's death but kill...you probably wished me dead at times..." Nicole says she didn't but her husband did telling her in private that with Christina's heart condition it won't be long and the two of them could share the school together.
When arriving in Niort at Nicole's apartment they both drag the large straw-basket into her apartment; with of course the tenants above her acting all nosey and suspicious. Finally in Nicole's apartment Nicole has Christina inform her husband that she is staying with Nicole for the weekend and that she wants a divorce. Christina is at first scared to pick up the phone when it rings knowing it's her husband and Nicole tells her, "What are you waiting for? You see, it doesn't bite. And it doesn't hit." Christina goes through with it threatening Michel for a divorce, and that they will start the proceedings after the holiday. Michel is furious as expected and tells her he's taking the midnight train down there so they can talk things over.
Before arriving Nicole grabs a strong sedative and pours it into a bottle of wine to have Christina serve it to Michel when he arrives. When the two hear his train approaching Nicole starts filling up the bathtub; but Christina starts having second doubts about going through with it. "I can't do it! Not today!" She pleads. Nicole tells her they must do it and it's either today or never. Nicole calms Christina down and tells her everything is going to be fine. When Michel arrives Nicole goes upstairs to create a distraction for her tenants so they don't see Michel coming in. Right when Michel walks in Nicole's apartment he tells Christina how humiliating it is to run after a wife. He then demands that she pack her bags but she says no. Eventually Michel calms down and Christina offers him a glass of wine, which of course is drugged.
First hesitant about having him drink it, she grabs the drink away spilling some of it on Michel's suit with him angrily calling her an idiot. She gets a towel to clean it off and he violently smacks her saying "I'll train you, girl". She now changes her mind and is pushing for him to start drinking the drugged wine and after a few drinks he starts feeling dizzy and eventually passes out on the bed. Nicole comes back down through the back door of her apartment and starts continuing to run the bathtub water. When the water gets high enough the two both pick up the unconscious Michel and drop him into the bathtub. When he starts waking up Nicole holds his head underwater until he finally drowns, of course greatly frightening Christina.
Christina starts having heart pains as she lays down to rest on the bed; while Nicole takes plastic tablecloths and covers up the bathtub. The two then discuss their alibi and Nicole says, "when they find him we'll have to be able to prove that we were here the day he died." The next morning Nicole drains the bathtub and Christina brings in the straw-box. She looks at Michel's frightening dead expression and Christina says, "he's so ugly! We are monster's. I don't like monsters." They eventually put Michel's body in the straw-box and place it into the trunk of their vehicle with help from their tenants because of the weight.
That morning they leave Nicole's apartment and besides a few close calls on the road they successfully arrive at the school knowing it will be closed for the holiday weekend. When getting through the front gate they quietly dump Michel's body in the school's dirty neglected swimming pool knowing eventually the corpse will float to the surface, and early Monday when found by the janitor it will appear to have been an accident.
On Monday morning when the students and faculty all arrive back at the school, Nicole opens her bedroom window that faces the pool and Christina asks if she can see his body. Nicole says, "no, either the water is too dirty or we're too far away." The faculty starts to question Michel's whereabouts when not showing up for school that morning. During one of Christina's lectures she looks out the window and focuses on the janitor cleaning near the pool which of course frightens her; but the janitor sees nothing.
Later that evening Christina is wondering why the body hasn't risen yet and during the next day of school one of the students kicks a ball into the pool during recess. One of the students decides to jump in and grab it which frightens Christina once again but the student comes out seeing nothing. Christina then decides to empty the pool herself since it seems Michel's body is not going to rise to the surface. During class while waiting for the janitor to drain the pool the students can see that something is bothering Christina and they are worried for her. Suddenly when she looks out the classroom window and sees that the pool is now drained she runs outside to look in the pool; and when the body is not there; she faints and collapses on the ground.
"It can't be true. It's impossible!" Christina says to Nicole while the doctor arrives to see if Christina is feeling better. After he leaves Christina and Nicole try to understand what really is going on and yet they can't find an explanation on how his body disappeared from the pool. Nicole says, "does a corpse that disappears seem natural to you? Not to me. If he's not in the pool, someone took him out. This is insane!" Christina tells Nicole she was insane for going through with this murder plot with her, and suddenly there's a knock at the door. A suit that was pressed at the dry cleaners is returned, and they realize it is not only Michel's suit but the exact suit he wore the night they killed him. When asked who took the suit to the cleaners, the deliverer said the man didn't leave a name.
They both decide to go to the cleaners that delivered the suit and ask if they can describe the person who ordered the suit to be cleaned. The workers at the dry cleaners give an exact description of Michel and then Christina and Nicole are brought to a hotel room that supposedly Michel has rented out for the last few days. Christina goes into the room to investigate looking around for possible clues that Michel is actually the one staying there; and is then suddenly interrupted by the hotel cleaner.
When he comes in and finds her in there he questions who she is and what she's doing there. She asks the man if he has seen Mr. Delassalle; the man who has rented out this room. The hotel cleaner says the man who rented out this room is never here during the day and must leave before the night shift gets on. He then tells her, "Who knows if he comes back at all. His bed is always neat. See, no belongings, no bags. Nothing. He's a strange customer." Christina then tells him she is his wife and the hotel cleaner says to her that if she's looking for him, this wouldn't be the place to find him. Back at her apartment her anxiety level is getting high. Nicole is there with her and they are still trying to figure out what is going on. When they both start going over the crime they committed they begin to start throwing accusations at each other and blaming one another for the crime.
"He was really dead, wasn't he?"
"You should know."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because...you killed him. Look, you're the one who planned the whole thing."
"I'm sorry, we planned it...and you made the phone call."
"You brought the tablecloth to wrap him, the drug to put him to sleep. I could never have done that."
"You managed to make him drink."
"You liar! I didn't want to! You know I didn't want to! Who filled the tub? Who pushed him underwater?"
Christina says that she isn't scared of the police and would rather turn herself in; and is about to dial for the authorities but Nicole stops her. The next day Nicole sees in the paper that the police found a naked corpse in the Seine, and shows it to Christina believing its Michel from the description. "What counts is they found him" Nicole says. Christina still not satisfied decides to go to the morgue and make sure herself that the body is him. When there she learns it is not Michel's body, and there she meets Alfred Fichet, a retired private detective who knows something fishy is going on.
He decides to take a cab with her back to the school and confronts her about her missing husband telling her he will look into her husbands recent disappearance and if he finds him she can pay him, if nothing comes up its free of charge. When Christina gets back to the school with the inspector Nicole is watching from curiously inside her classroom. Alfred tells Christina that she might have worried a bit too early on her missing husband, and he finds it strange that it's only been five days and she goes to the morgue to look for him. She tells him the description of the dead man in the paper upset her.
Alfred says, "Dear madame, there are 100,000 men in Paris who fit this description. And that's not including the tourists. But don't worry... I'll find him." When he notices the school pool drained he questions that and Nicole walks up and lies to him saying they drained it because she dropped her keys in the pool. Alfred says, "It was pure coincidence. Really, the keys in the pool, the husband in the morgue. You dream too much about water in this house!" When Alfred looks through Michel's closets and goes through his suits Christina starts to have a dizzy spell when he looks at the one suit she knows they killed him in. Alfred says that all this isn't so urgent now and he has enough information to keep himself busy and he thanks them for their cooperation and leaves.
After the inspector leaves Christina and Nicole see one of the students named Moinet out in the courtyard standing against the wall. Moinet tells them that the headmaster punished him because he broke a window with a slingshot. Nicole yells at the child saying, "I had enough of your stories! Tell me the truth, now!" Moinet still says the headmaster punished him and that he isn't lying. Nicole says the boy is a pathological liar because none of the other students say they saw Michel and either did the staff. "I saw him...I know I saw him" says Moinet. After hearing this Christina becomes paranoid, and unstable, and is laid inside to rest while her doctor is again on his way over to take care of her.
The next day Christina is too ill to be photographed for the school photo, and she is ordered by the doctor to stay in bed because of the recent strain on her heart. The school photo is then taken without her and Michel. A few hours later everyone is anticipating on what the developed photo looks like and when looking at it Nicole becomes hysterical as she runs inside to show Christina the photograph.
The photograph it seems shows Michel in it, standing in the back inside the school looking out through a window at the camera. Nicole herself now becomes afraid, and decides she can't stay there any longer. "You hate me...don't you?" she asks Christina. Christina says, "not at all." Nicole quickly packs and decides to leave and separate from Christina while Christina is told to stay in bed on doctor's orders.
Later that evening Christina struggles to sleep and wakes up to find Alfred in her room. He says that he is there to make his report, because that is what she is paying him for. When Alfred lies and tells Christina and he found Michel, she says that is impossible and confesses to what she and Nicole had done, explaining everything and revealing the motivations in great detail. Christina asks if Alfred will charge her with murder and he says, "You should stop charging your nerves. You need a strong sedative. Good night. Tomorrow morning you'll wake up acquitted." Alfred checks above the garage for the wicker truck that Christina had revealed she and Nicole used to hold Michel's body. That evening the teachers leave for the night and the school shuts down, as Christina tries her best to catch some sleep and recover.
In one of the most suspenseful sequences of the film, Christina wakes up in the middle of the night hearing noises coming from out in the hallway. She peers out and asks, "Who's there?" She makes her way slowly down the school corridor hearing typing sounds from a typewriter coming from her husband's office. When upon entering the room the desk-light seems to be on and she comes across the typewriter and Michel's name typed over and over again. Suddenly the lights go out and Christina frighteningly runs to the bathroom. When upon entering the bathroom she makes the horrifying discovery of Michel's dead body laying lifelessly in the bathtub. Suddenly Michel's body begins to rise and Christina is in such a shock that she has a heart attack, collapses and dies.
After the body has risen the audience comes to the realization that Michel is in fact alive as he removes fake eye lenses that made him appear dead, and Nicole appears from the darkness and asks if it is all over. It is revealed that the plot to kill Michel was actually a hoax, and the real target was Christina. Michel says, "She was tough. The bitch. She used to say she had a weak heart." Nicole says, "My poor darling. You're all wet. Go change your clothes." Michel says, "In the bathroom, it took me more than an hour to get out of the tub without making noise." Nicole says that he must've suffered during his long trip in the trunk, and of the dive in the pool in the middle of the night. "Wasn't it worth it?" Michel asks as the two embrace and kiss. "Now, we're rich. Just by selling the school we'll get a lot." Suddenly Alfred appears out of the shadows hearing everything and says, "Between 15 and 20 years in jail. It'll depend on the judge."
The film cuts to the last day of school, where the same young student Moinet who earlier claimed to have been punished by Michel, breaks another window with the same slingshot. When questioned from the staff, he says that Christina gave him the slingshot, and again no one believes him. "She opened the door. She gave me the slingshot. She said, 'This is for you, Moinet. Have fun.'" His teacher says Moinet is impossible and that Christina is dead, and her body was taken away that morning. Moinet says she came back, but no one believes his story and lies, and he is walking again towards the corner to go to time out as he mutters, "I saw her."
Among the most enduringly popular motives for murder, in films as in life, is the desire to remove an impediment to happiness—to get somebody, once and for all, out of the way. In life, of course, the goal of freeing oneself by canceling the existence of another human being is frequently thwarted by the haste and clumsiness of the means, the hot urgency of the killer’s drive overriding his better judgment about the care required to escape detection. His guilt becomes obvious, he gets caught, and that desperately hoped-for happiness flies out the window. Clever murderers—of whom there are, thankfully, many more in fiction and movies than in life—temper their homicidal passion with meticulous calculation, arranging their dark deeds with the tender artifice necessary to make unnatural death look natural. They’re artists, of a sort. And the fact that there is no such thing as a perfect murder or a perfect work of art has never stopped either a murderer or an artist from trying.
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s cool, clammy, twisty 1955 thriller Diabolique is an almost perfect movie about a very nearly perfect murder, a film in which the artist’s methods and the killers’ are ideally matched, equal in cunning and in ruthlessness. The screenplay, adapted by Clouzot and three other writers from a novel by the crack French crime-fiction team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, is a fantastically elaborate piece of contrivance, but the scrupulous realism of the direction makes the unnatural tale somehow feel entirely likely. From the opening shot—of a stagnant, scummy pool, which later proves to be both an important element of the plot and an apt metaphor for the film’s unwholesome conception of human nature—the director and his cinematographer, Armand Thirard, place us in a murky, overcast, oppressively drab world, the kind of physical and mental landscape in which nothing ever seems to happen, and anything can.
The three main characters, who work at a boys’ boarding school just outside Paris, are presented initially as weary prisoners of a numbing quotidian routine. The headmistress and headmaster are an unhappy married couple, Christina (Véra Clouzot) and Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse); Christina, who is from a wealthy South American family, supplies the funds, which Michel manages, stingily. Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret), the science and math teacher, is a voluptuous blonde with a dubious past and is also, quite openly, Michel’s mistress. Not that M. Delassalle appears to appreciate the two attractive and intelligent women in his life. He abuses both, physically and verbally, and revels in his petty power. He abuses his position at the school, too, doling out disproportionate punishments for his pupils’ most trivial infractions and pinching pennies with unseemly relish: the children are underfed and the staff dines on bad fish and cheap wine, two small, strictly rationed glasses per meal.
Michel Delassalle is, in short, begging to be killed, for the general good; he’s pretty much the Platonic ideal of a deserving murder victim. So it’s really no surprise that his wife and his mistress should become, for this worthy purpose, partners in crime. But because they will be the obvious suspects, their crime has to be uncommonly artful—a meticulously constructed fiction of accidental death. It would probably be unwise, and certainly inconsiderate, to reveal more here. Diabolique is a movie whose effect depends crucially on surprise, on the detonation of exquisitely timed little shocks to the audience’s system, and ultimately on the pleasure of realizing how cleverly you’ve been played. The film even includes an end title sternly warning viewers not to blab about what they’ve just seen (“Don’t be devils!”).
Diabolique was Clouzot’s seventh feature, and it represents, arguably, the peak of his critical and commercial success. The film was extremely popular in France, won the prestigious Prix Louis-Delluc, and became a major international hit. Alfred Hitchcock, who had once toyed with the idea of filming the story himself, was an admirer; it’s reported that he screened it for the writers of both Vertigo (1958)—which was, like Diabolique, based on a Boileau-Narcejac novel—and Psycho (1960). André Bazin, the great critic of Cahiers du cinéma, acclaimed it as Clouzot’s “most perfect” film, though he considered it a “minor” achievement compared with the director’s previous picture, The Wages of Fear (1953), an ambitious and excruciatingly suspenseful adventure story about men transporting a truckload of nitroglycerin along some very, very poorly maintained South American roads.
Clouzot had by this point in his strange, sporadic career become known as something of a specialist in the engineering of cinematic tension, a master both of the traditional policier and of less easily classifiable nail-biters like The Wages of Fear. He was not renowned for his personal warmth or for his openness to suggestions on the set; his films were smooth-running, precisely designed machines, and only he, he clearly believed, knew how to build and operate them properly. Clouzot was born in Niort (the very town to which the women of Diabolique lure their victim for the purpose of dispatching him) in 1907, and spent most of the 1930s as a screenwriter because his fragile health made directing too strenuous. Once he recovered his strength, he directed his first film, a suave policier called L’assassin habite au 21, in 1942, and followed it with the remarkable thriller Le corbeau in 1943, a film that got him into trouble with everybody—the Germans, the Vichy government, the Communist-dominated Resistance—and resulted in his being banned from the French film industry for a short period after the war. The movie, which has to do with the effect of a series of poison-pen letters on the life of a small town, is a thinly disguised condemnation of collaboration, but it was financed by the German-run company Continental, and that offended many of his compatriots. (As did the film’s advertising campaign, which characterized this venomous village as a “typical French town.” True or not, Le corbeau’s image of “typical” Frenchness was considered not helpful for wartime morale.)
When Clouzot was allowed to direct again, in 1947, he came out with one of his richest films, the theatrical murder mystery Quai des Orfèvres, in which the thick, sensuous backstage atmosphere and the tangled passions of the flamboyant characters are so beautifully detailed as to make the whodunit plot seem almost irrelevant (though he does also supply, for genre fans, a wonderfully peevish police detective, played by Louis Jouvet). After a couple of less successful projects—an adaptation of l’Abbé Prévost’s classic novel Manon Lescaut, called simply Manon (1949), and the failed comedy Miquette et sa mère (1950)—he returned to suspense with The Wages of Fear, and hit his stride again. With that film and Diabolique, he became, for a time, one of his country’s most celebrated directors. His status gave him the freedom to take a risk: his next movie was the extraordinary documentary Le mystère Picasso (1956), in which the great artist creates dozens of drawings and paintings before our astonished eyes, each brushstroke seeming to take shape directly on the screen. The film was a flop at the box office; it has since been declared a national treasure by the French government.
Clouzot’s position in the French film industry may have seemed an enviable one in the midfifties, but over the next few years, that industry began to change dramatically, and well-established directors found themselves losing their footing, buffeted by relentless gusts of hostility from younger critics and would-be filmmakers. Bazin’s youthful colleagues at Cahiers du cinéma, who included François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette, wrote furious diatribes against successful older directors like Clouzot, whom the young Turks saw as cautious, conventional, sclerotic—as obstacles to the development of a vital French cinema. The Cahiers du cinéma critics had a sneering name for the older generation: the Tradition of Quality.
Whether Clouzot belonged in that company or not is debatable. One of Cahiers du cinéma’s beefs with the older generation was its penchant for filming safe, respectable material, such as adaptations of the classics of French literature; Clouzot did that exactly once, with Manon. But it’s true that his filmmaking techniques were relatively traditional and highly controlled, and that he tended to work in genres that afforded some prospect of commercial success. The critics who scourged Clouzot were plotting the revolution that, not long after, became known as the nouvelle vague, and revolutions are messy, as the French, of all people, should know. Some victims are innocent. Not every head that rolls deserves to.
Clouzot’s reputation was collateral damage. Although none of his carefully wrought films (he made only three more, of diminishing interest, after Le mystère Picasso) have much in common with freewheeling nouvelle vague works like Breathless or Shoot the Piano Player (both 1960), he wasn’t a stiff either, and his mordant vision of human iniquity doesn’t suggest an artist who slavishly courted acclaim and respectability. Quai des Orfèvres, with its buzzing profusion of vivid minor characters and its tangy evocation of the theatrical life, at times almost recalls the Jean Renoir of the thirties, and even in the claustrophobic Diabolique, the unusual vigor of the compositions and of the performances helps keep the on-screen action consistently alive, even—though of course it’s an illusion—natural. The schoolboys are marvelously unruly and peculiar; the other teachers (one of them played by Michel Serrault, later famous as the drag queen Albin in La cage aux folles) are hilariously pedantic and passive-aggressive; Signoret, whose every gesture is brusque, irritable, quietly violent, gives a superb portrayal of a dangerously bitter woman. And again Clouzot provides a memorable and unconventional detective, here a sly and deceptively amiable old man played by the wrinkly, slow-moving Charles Vanel. And he manages both the complicated plot and the film’s visual metaphors (water chief among them) with unusual grace: his technique is so sure that it seems, paradoxically, a kind of freedom.
Henri-Georges Clouzot was, at his best, as in Diabolique, a terrific filmmaker. And he was an artist who, in his dedication to his own demons, his pitch-black vision of human nature, fulfilled at least some of the aesthetic criteria laid down by the Cahiers du cinéma critics and nouvelle vague revolutionaries. It’s a shame they felt that they had to get him out of the way.
It's easy to root for the murderers in this film because the character of Michel Delassalle is so unsympathetic and loathsome right from the beginning, that he becomes the most perfect murder victim, as he is just begging to be killed. Christina is the perfect foil for a murder, and even though we feel for her suffering and torment, she could have easily divorced her husband if she truly wanted to, but is too weak minded and stubborn to go against her religious frame-work that she believes is much more important than her happiness. I find it ironic and quite humorous that Christina believes divorcing her husband would be a horrible sin, but taking his life would be something she could consider. Throughout this whole film Christina is near the brink of confessing to the police, but Nicole is stronger than her and always tries to talk some sense in her irrational behavior. Alfred the retired police detective reminds me of Edward G. Robinson's character in Billy Wilder's masterpiece film-noir Double Indemnity. Someone who is calm, analytical in his thinking, and always seems to be ahead of the game. Clouzot's cinematographer, Armand Thirard, shoots the film in a murky, overcast and depressed like world, which makes the impossible in the film seem slightly possible.
Clouzot has been known mostly for his suspense thrillers. Like Diabolique his other masterpiece is The Wages of Fear which is a excruciatingly suspenseful adventure about men transporting a truckload of nitroglycerin along some very, poorly maintained South American roads, and is considered his finest achievement. Even Le Corbeau: The Raven was a well made thriller about a French village doctor who becomes a target of a man sending him poison-pen letters, which are accusing him of practicing abortions. But it was Diabolique that made him a truly house hold name and gave him the nickname "the French Hitchcock."
Unfortunately Clouzot's position in the French film industry after the mid fifties seemed to change dramatically and well established directors found themselves loosing their footing by younger, reckless and more experimental filmmakers, most of them being colleagues of Cahiers du cinema which included Frances Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette. These young ambitious directors were against the trend of the older directors and their traditional styles. They were more radical and experimental in their film-making, and didn't believe in resorting to the old way of French filmmaking like Clouzot did, which was considered more safe, respected material, such as adaptations of classic French literature. Clouzot's style of film making was considered very highly controlled and it is said that a lot of people were scared to work with Clouzot because he was a tyrannical director who had a very short-temper on set, always asking for perfection.
When Diabolique was released it was the 10th highest grossing film of the year with a total of 3,674,380 admissions in France. Diabolique was Henri-Georges Clouzot's seventh feature and it was at the peak of his critical and commercial success, becoming a major hit in France and internationally even winning the Prix Louis-Delluc award.
Most murders in films always don't go exactly as planned and yet in Diabolique it goes exactly as planned until the very end. Most films which revolve around murder plots usually need a foul up, which gives the characters a way to become careless, and turn the blame on one another. This of course increases the level of tension and suspense, having audiences at the edge of their seats, impatiently waiting to see if the characters will either confess out of having a guilty conscious, or are able to get away with their hideous deeds perfectly intact. Diabolique like Vertigo, Psycho and even the recent film The Sixth Sense is a film where its power and effect depends more on the surprises, shocks, twists and the reactions of the audience, which even though is a sort of easy cheap film gimmick, isn't always a bad thing if done well. Diabolique did what Hitchcock does and included an end title warning for the viewers to not reveal the ending to others who have not yet seen the picture. The last 15 minutes are like the classic moments in a haunted house film, as audiences hear the sounds of creaking footsteps, the shutting and opening and doors, and the light tapping sounds of a typewriter. The scene of Michel slowly rising from the bathtub is horrifyingly frightening as he looks (with the help of his fake eye lenses) similar to the zombies of later horror films. I have to say when first viewing this movie, the surprise twist came as a shock, and the building tension of the film leading up to its conclusion was flawlessly executed. I personally like the added ambiguity of its ending, and how the student Moinet swears that he had seen Christina, which brings up the ambiguity of movies as a whole and that the magic of the storyteller can devise any unbelievable scenario to be believable, and that nothing is never what it seems. This is one of the finest horror films ever made as Diabolique in 2007 was voted in Time Magazine's list of the top Top 25 Horror films, and the infamous bathtub sequence was on the top 100 scariest movie moments in film history. The film gained additional press five years later after the release when, Véra Clouzot (who is Henri-Georges's wife) who played Christina died of a heart attack at age 46, somewhat mirroring her character's death in the film. This is one of the smartest and scariest horror films of all time, and after seeing it I also recommend like Clouzot, to tell others about it, but to not spoil the ending.