The timid wife (Vera Clouzot, Wages of Fear) and mistress (Simone Signoret, Room at the Top) of a mean-spirited headmaster (Paul Meurisse, Army of Shadows) of an all-boys private school come up with an elaborate plan to kill him. After executing what looks like the perfect crime, the women begin to panic when the headmaster’s body disappears without a trace. Is he still alive? Did anyone move the body?
Reaction & Thoughts:
Based upon She Who Was No More, the 1951 French novel by the writing team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, Les Diaboliques (aka Diabolique) is often cited as one of cinema’s best shockers and I have to agree with the critical mass — there’s much to be admired here. Unfortunately, the film has been imitated so many times that there’s no way you’ll be fooled by its twists.
That’s not a huge problem, though. Forget the now familiar storyline and enjoy the film’s meticulously constructed set-pieces and the clever manipulation (you are forced to identify with the killers!). There’s also a deliciously black humor running alongside the thrills — repeat viewings help appreciate the film’s sharp sense of dark humor.
Visually, Les Diaboliques can go toe-to-toe with the very best shockers out-there. Director Henri-Georges Clouzot (Quai des Orfevres and Wages of Fear) masterfully creates unbearable tension. The film does not have a music score — there is a little bit of music at the beginning and at the end — and that speaks volumes of Clouzot’s confidence as a filmmaker. More often than not music is used to manipulate the audience, but that’s not the case here. The images alone create a sense of dread.
The film’s most famous sequence comes near the end, but I found many other sequences equally unnerving. It’s hard to explain things without giving away important elements of the plot, but suffice to say that you’ll never look at wicker basket the same way! Armand Thirard’s (And God Created Woman and Goodbye Again) camera barely moves, but you are enthralled all the same.
Simone Signoret apparently hated making the movie — she and director Clouzot didn’t get along — but she gives a terrific performance as the scorned mistress. Véra Clouzot, the director’s wife, projects fear and anxiety splendidly. Strangely enough, the actress died of a heart attack a few years after making the movie. Her character also has a heart disease. The real-life tragedy adds another layer to the movie.
Paul Meurisse plays the abusive headmaster with gusto — he’s an intimidating SOB. Charles-Marie Vanel (To Catch a Thief) is a lot of fun as a Columbo-like detective who suspects the ladies are up to no good. The supporting cast includes Michel Serrault (La Cage aux Folles), Pierre Larquey (Le Corbeau) and Noël Roquevert (Cartouche).
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Alfred Hitchcock allegedly wanted to make the movie. It has been said that writers Boileau and Thomas Narcejac wrote their 1954 novel, Among the Dead, for Hitchcock (the book became the basis for Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece Vertigo). Anyhow, as I said before, Les Diaboliques won’t shock any modern viewers. The many impersonators have ruined the original’s surprises. The movie itself has been remade at least three times: twice for TV (Reflections of Murder and House of Secrets) and yet again in 1996 with Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani. Clouzot’s original remains untouchable — it’s a genuinely intense chiller. Highly recommended! B&W, 117 minutes, Not Rated.
P.S. This is part of my annual October Horror Movie Challenge: