Even if you’ve never actually seen Henri-Georges Clouzot’s masterpiece of psychological horror “Les diaboliques” before now, you will almost certainly feel an acute sense of déjà vu by the end of it. If you’ve ever seen “Psycho”; if you remember ever having watched one of the run of black & white ‘mini-Hitchock’ psycho-thrillers written by Jimmy Sangster and produced for Hammer Films in the sixties; and if you’ve ever relished any of the classic Italian thrillers made in the giallo mould and which hit the height of their production in the mid- seventies (such as Sergio Martino’s “The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh” for instance) – and I’m guessing if you’re perusing this site, you almost certainly will have been exposed to at least one and probably more of these – then Clouzot’s game will undoubtedly seem strikingly familiar to you in many regards, in both its tone and content.
You may also feel the denouement of this mid-fifties masterpiece is disappointingly easy to predict. That’s not surprising. The Sangster films were shameless and infamous for recapitulating essentially the same plot in various guises, and the tried and tested model for it – first and most successfully essayed in “Taste of Fear” (1961), right down to the obsessive water imagery and the concept of a body being disposed of in a swimming pool – was “Les diaboliques”. Outrageous plot twists, cruel and twisted relationships based on ruthless greed, and the confluence of classic thriller and horror tropes in the handling of such films’ use of suspense and abject terror were also a recognisable trait of the giallo genre from Mario Bava onwards; and, of course, casting its long shadow over all subsequent movies made in the psycho-thriller sub-genre is Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, which, in its melding of classic Gothic Horror imagery to the thriller’s evocation of extreme mental states as part of its suspense formula, defined for many filmmakers henceforth what a psycho-thriller actually was.
It has been claimed that “Psycho” was, in large measure, Hitchcock’s attempt to snatch back the ‘master of suspense’ crown that many critics handed on to Clouzot in the wake of the release and subsequent success of “Les diaboliques” -- a film which features several masterful suspense sequences that are easily the equal of anything in Hitchcock’s body of work. Indeed, Clouzot was often referred to as ‘the French Hitchcock’ in the light of this one film. Hitchcock had apparently also been interested in adapting the film’s source novel, written by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, but was beaten to it by Clouzot. The British director later made “Vertigo” which was adapted from another of the same French writing team’s works. Like Hitchcock, Clouzot was a meticulous planner, leaving nothing to chance in the composition and mise-en-scène of his shots. In his exhaustive essay on the British psycho-thriller, “Psycho-thriller, qu’ est-ce que c’est?”, written for “British Horror Cinema” (edited by Steve Chibnall and Julian Petley), Kim Newman points out how Hitchcock, in the process of adapting Robert Bloch’s Ed Gein inspired original novel, takes many of the most memorably striking visual motifs from “Les diaboliques” and sets out to do them bigger and better: ‘a body rising from the bath is trumped with a stabbing in the shower,’ writes Newman, ‘a weed-choked swimming pool is bettered by an entire swamp.’ There are other similarities, too: Janet Leigh’s long, guilty drive to Fairvale having stolen $40,000 from a client, ‘stalked’ by a motorcycle cop whom she suspects of somehow preternaturally recognising her guilt, is an intensified echo of the extended suspense sequence in “Les diaboliques” involving Nicole and Christina’s drive back to the school with the murdered body of Christina’s husband in the back of the school delivery van. Even a central plank of “Psycho’s” much remarked upon ballyhoo -- Hitchcock’s insistence that audiences should not be admitted after the start of the film and his plea to viewers to ‘please don’t tell the ending … It’s the only one we have!’ – comes in the wake of Clouzot’s on-screen anti-spoiler request at the end of “Les diaboliques”: ‘Don’t be devilish. Don’t tell your friends what happens.’
Yet, though we may now see through the various artifices of the plot long before the film’s conclusion (although having said that, it is still surprising just how long the director is able to misdirect us and string us along before the penny finally does drop), “Les diaboliques” has not been eclipsed by its better known heir. For all the influence it has had (often a second hand influence filtered through the success of “Psycho”, since the film was for many years quite hard to see), there are chillingly distinctive qualities to it running throughout the film: a sardonic, relentlessly cynical sense of humour and an indefatigable misanthropy that touches every relationship and colours every character, and which leaves the viewer creeped out just as much by the profound, all-encompassing pessimism at its heart, as by the director’s haunting use of painterly chiaroscuro lighting and the cobweb-y, careworn gloom of much of the film’s setting.
The film is set in a dilapidated, gone-to-seed boys’ boarding school on the outskirts of Paris, which is being run by a penny-pinching and cruel tyrant of a headmaster called Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse). The place is dour and old-looking and clearly hasn’t seen any renovation since the last century, and Michel’s cost-cutting mentality extends to his buying up cheap, past-its-sell-by-date food for the boys’ school meals -- fish that’s gone off and which has to have its reeking stench masked with some ingenious and quite skilful garnishing from the school’s cook. The place is run on a skeleton staff of four, and the subsequent unruly behaviour of the boys seems not only to be tolerated but largely ignored by the negligent schoolmasters, which include among their number both Delassalle’s wife Christine (Véra Clouzot) and his lover Nicole (Simone Signoret): an unusual arrangement to say the least, and one that infects the whole atmosphere of the school with its poisonous vapours.
Christine -- a beautiful but fragile bird with a weak heart -- is clearly weak-minded to accept such an arrangement, but her medical condition gives her little choice but to adopt a stoic attitude to such emotional abuse. She seeks solace instead by losing herself in the Catholic religion of her upbringing, keeping a small shrine in her cluttered room. Nicole meanwhile, seems to fare little better, for she is apparently regularly beaten by Michel (she has to wear dark glasses to mask the black eyes), yet she seems content to remain in the claws of this twisted relationship. Michel for his part appears to enjoy the mastery he has over both women, particularly his defenceless wife -- rubbing her nose in his adultery and taking pleasure in her discomfort (he forces everyone in the school to silently watch her trying to gulp down a piece of bad fish without vomiting during dinner). Little wonder then that the two women hatch a plot to be rid of him. Led largely by the callous and unfeeling Nicole, they lure Michel to Nicole’s unkempt flat during a school break by having Christine ring him up at the school and tell him she wants to discuss a divorce. Once at the flat, the sneering husband is drugged with whisky laced with a sleeping drought and then mechanically drowned in the bathtub, Nicole revealing a sociopathic level of ruthlessness while she holds him under. The women drive the body back to the school to be dumped in the slimy, weed-ridden swimming pool.
But the terror and the confusion are now about to escalate … when the pool is drained, the body is gone! Furthermore, the suit Michel was wearing when he was killed is delivered to the school having been dry-cleaned by a mysterious ‘someone’. The women begin to suspect somebody who knows the truth is toying with them, but for what gain? The weird occurrences and coincidences start to pile up: a familiar face seems to appear in the window during a school photograph, a naked body turns up in the River Seine and a mysterious retired police officer takes an interest in the case, all before the shadowy suspense-soaked finale reveals all.
Perhaps the biggest difference between “Les diaboliques” and many of the later psycho-thrillers that splattered onto screens in the wake of “Psycho” is the complete absence of any suggestion of madness in the murderous activity and cruelly executed plots and plans that motivate all the characters in the narrative. Perhaps inspired by the centrality Hitchcock gave to Norman Bates’ bogus psychological underpinnings, with normality restored at the conclusion of the film by a professional mental health figure, an expert who comes along and ‘explains’ the events of the film in terms of a colourful, pseudo-Freudian psychology -- most of the ensuing films in the psycho-thriller sub-genre had maniacal killers and mad men at the centre of them. This is a tradition that stretches back to long before Clouzot’s film, to the 1940 British movie “Gaslight” for instance, which has Anton Walbrook engaged in a plot to drive his wife mad, but being revealed to be insane himself by the end.
In marked contrast, the scariest thing about “Les diaboliques” is that nobody in it is mad and the striking thing about the film is that there are no completely sympathetic characters. Many of the characters who are wronged are themselves little better, and by the end even the most sympathetic are revealed to be somewhat less so than was at first assumed. Nicole is abused by the clearly greedy and violent Michel, but she is herself utterly callous and unfeeling throughout, meticulously planning every detail of the murder plot against Michel and cajoling the weak-willed Christine to go along with every stage of it. For most of the film, we’re more inclined to sympathise with Christine because she does after all, at least question the morality of what the two women do. But even she is in the end revealed to be so weak and pliant that one loses a certain degree of sympathy with her. She’s meant to be scrupulously religious, but when it comes down to it, all that baggage falls away as soon as she’s required to take a clear moral stand: the icons and the candles become merely a fantasy retreat from the pressures of life rather than an adequate guide for how to live it. First of all it provides relief from the public humiliation Michel forces upon Christine in his open extra-marital relationship with Nicole, and later from the horror of the act she’s helped commit and the apparent threat of exposure. The constant reminders and symbols that represent the murdered Michel, and which keep popping back up throughout the film – the suit, the clanking typewriter etc. -- are also representative of the Catholic guilt that is a central part of Christine’s outlook: they’re the reminders of what she’s done coming back to haunt her. Furthermore, aside from the unruly and ungoverned schoolboys; the gossiping and constantly toadying schoolmasters, who nevertheless actually hope Michel doesn’t return so that they won’t have to put up with watered wine during lunch -- even the strange little retired detective, Fichet (Charles Vanel), who takes it upon himself to investigate the case, seems rather less than sympathetic, hanging around the morgue on the off-chance of finding a case he can poke his nose into. It’s hard not to read the whole film as a wry comment on France’s occupied status under the Nazi regime; surveillance is a big theme throughout, with characters observing others but misunderstanding the nature of what they see (as indeed the viewer realises he/she has misunderstood events, by the end).
“Les diaboliques” comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Arrow Films’ new imprint Arrow Academy, which aims to present classics of world cinema wherever possible with new High Definition transfers, in special duel format editions which include the film on both the Blu-ray and DVD formats. “Les diaboliques” clearly looks sharper on Blu-ray than it does on the DVD format, but the transfer is nowhere near as vivid as the medium is capable of delivering. The surviving materials appear to have not weathered as well as one might have hoped so, while one gets an extra boost of clarity and depth to what the DVD can offer, it falls far short of the kind of immaculate transfer we’ve seen in other films of this vintage which have also made the leap to HD recently. Both DVD and Blu-ray versions include the same package of extras: a French trailer, a video interview with French film scholar Ginette Vincendeau which lasts for 28 minutes and provides a great deal of interesting background on Clouzot’s career and the making of the film, and an audio commentary by Susan Hayward, author of “Les diaboliques (Cine-file French Film Guides)” which is fine for the first half of the movie, with Hayward offering up detailed scholarly analysis of Clouzot’s film technique and approach to cinema, but seems to peter out in the second hal,f leaving many pauses and sometimes very long silences with just the occasional interjection from the commentator. The Blu-ray/DVD duel format package also comes with a booklet of essays and other writing from critic Brad Stevens (who provides an excellent commentary on the film as an example of the ‘Terrible House’ archetype), an interview with Paul Schrader and some reproductions of original set drawings as well as illustrations by art director Léon Barsacq. Finally, in a tradition carried over from Arrow’s Arrow Video imprint, we have the choice of four covers, including three original poster designs and a newly commissioned piece of artwork.
In the fortuitous combination of Clouzot’s strong, meticulously planned visual style and the film’s unnerving and forbidding setting, so evocatively captured by Barsacq’s creation of the decrepit, mouldering boarding school set and its muddy, dilapidated surroundings -- and styled with black & white photography of the deepest noir by cinematographer Armand Thirard -- “Les diaboliques” still retains its haunting power today, despite the plot having been reused countless times in the years since its 1955 release. The mix of humour and dry wit with chilling suspense thriller and old dark house horror motifs is still just as affecting, and anyone interested in the history of the horror film, French noir or the thriller genre owes it to themselves to seek out this French cinema masterpiece. Arrow Academy has provided the best excuse to do so yet with this duel-format release. So buy it, sit back and enjoy the misanthropic, shadowy delights of “Les diaboliques”, captured in HD in all its dark, festering glory!