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 join forces to kill the cruel man. After executing what looks like the perfect crime, the women begin to panic when the headmaster’s body disappears without a trace. Did anyone move the body? Is he still alive?
Reaction & Thoughts:
“Die, darling! Die and do it quickly!”
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 clever twists and turns.
That’s not a huge problem, though. Forget the now familiar storyline and enjoy the film’s meticulously constructed set-pieces and clever manipulation. There’s also a copious amount of black humor running alongside the thrills — repeat viewings help appreciate the film’s sharp sense of dark humor.
From a technical standpoint, Les Diaboliques can go toe-to-toe with the very best thrillers out there. French film director Henri-Georges Clouzot (Quai des Orfèvres and Wages of Fear) masterfully creates unbearable tension. The film does not have a traditional music score 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 (by the way, the legendary scene still packs a wallop), 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) 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. I particularly liked Charles-Marie Vanel (To Catch a Thief) as a Columbo-like detective who suspects the ladies are up to no good — Vanel seems to be having fun. The supporting cast includes Pierre Larquey (Le Corbeau), Noël Roquevert (Cartouche), and in one of his first film roles, Michel Serrault (La Cage aux Folles) as a teacher.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Les Diaboliques won’t shock any modern viewers. 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.