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Are you still capable of having your "hackles raised" by a horror-suspense movie? The one filmmaker that made the Master of Suspense feel insecure in his crown is H.G. Clouzot, the French writer / director responsible for some of the most misanthropic thrillers on record: Le Corbeau, Quai des Orfèvres, The Wages of Fear, Les espions. Clouzot's most popular attraction is 1955's Diabolique, an ultra-dark haunted murder mystery that, typically for the director, sees very little good in the human race. I'm not going to detail the plot too far, in the interest of encouraging Diabolique virgins to see it first and ask questions later.
Hitchcock appreciated pulp fiction authors like Cornell Woolrich, with their trick plotting and wickedly black, ironic sense of humor. H.G. Clouzot turned to the French team of Boileau and Narcejac, the writers responsible for the stories behind Hitchcock's Vertigo and Franju's Eyes without a Face. Diabolique is set in a seedy French boarding school for boys, the kind that saves money by skimping on heating and food. The school owner and director Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) is a total louse. He forces his underpaid teachers to maintain a cruel and unsympathetic discipline. He buys outdated meat, fish and vegetables for the kitchen, and browbeats his sickly wife Christina (Vera Clouzot) for complaining, even though it was her money that purchased the school. Originally from South America, Mrs. Delassalle must guard what little pride she can, for Michel abuses her sexually and openly consorts with the school's other female teacher, Nicole Horner (top-billed Simone Signoret). Nobody is happy with this adulterous situation. Nicole wears dark glasses to cover a black eye from one of Michel's beatings. Nicole is the only person Christina can really talk to. After a particularly brutal evening, the two women get together, and a diabolic plan is hatched to murder the tyrannical Michel.
Diabolique doesn't show us the movie France of Parisian nightclubs and boulevard restaurants, and it isn't even the upscale bourgeois France of Eyes without a Face. One of the first shots is a close-up of a car driving through a mud puddle, as in Wages of Fear. The Institution Delassalle is run down and its staff live like paupers. One scene shows the teachers and Christina unable to eat the fish Michel has served. Everything looks cold and clammy, especially the inky black swimming pool that Delassalle is too cheap to have cleaned. Nicole and Christina tool around in a clunky Citroen van that seems to be made from war surplus corrugated steel. The school seems overrun with an ugliness that flows straight from the director. There's no sense of camaraderie among the staff and the only spirit we see is the rebellious spirit of one or two of the more delinquent boys. The whole system is so rotten that even the meek Christina wants to do something about it.
Nicole and Vera's amateur murder scheme seems to go perfectly, at least at first. When it comes time for the fiendish dirty work, the sullen Nicole is up to the task. Vera's motivations aren't as clear. Nothing initially goes wrong, but murder plans are a slippery slope. The body is left where it can be 'accidentally' discovered by a neutral party, yet the tension rises to the limit when.... let's just say that Nicole and Vera spend the next thirty minutes looking over their shoulders, convinced that it is only a matter of time before their diabolical debt is repaid in blood.
This is where Clouzot lets out all the stops. When the frail, vulnerable Vera sees lights in a wing of the school that's supposed to be empty, the fear in the darkened halls becomes unbearable. Alone, she gathers up her courage to go investigate. Having already seen the sordid murder we expect anything to happen. And knowing H.G. Clouzot's flair for cruelty and violence, we know it won't be pleasant.
Who is the unknown phantom creeping the halls of the École Delassalle? One of Diabolique's fumbling teachers may know more than he admits, and a sarcastic veteran detective (Charles Vanel of The Wages of Fear) has a keen interest in finding out where the school's director has disappeared to. Clouzot lets nobody off the hook, not even some of the kids. One of them provides the show with a strange twist ending, one we hope is just another black joke.
Clouzot's picture is the real deal, a genuine horror classic. The delicate Vera Clouzot appeared in just three movies, all directed by her husband. This is by far her best role. Her quietly haunting presence contrasts well with Signoret's unhappy, somewhat overfed Nicole. Paul Meurisse makes his schoolmaster a wholly kill-worthy human being, a mean-spirited monster that even a saint would want dead. The creepy camerawork is quite accomplished, and adds greatly to growing feeling of entrapment. If one discounts a faux-horror scene from Val Lewton's The Seventh Victim, Diabolique has filmdom's first horriifc bathroom encounter. When the little announcement comes up at the end asking us to keep the movie's secret ("Don't be a Devil!"), we nod our heads in agreement. This is a gem, with an ending to savor.
I saw Diabolique at the ripe age of 17 without knowing anything about it; it may have been my first subtitled movie in French. I remember thinking, Hmm, they must have stupid radio quiz shows in France, too... The movie has a reasonably sedate build-up to its terrors, and doesn't try to pay off each scene with something shocking. We were accustomed to watching movies, and being patient while the story ramped up to speed. But would a modern audience respond the same way? They say that people now want entertainment that doesn't require their full concentration, and I've read that fewer people have the patience to follow a plot or do any of the normal dramatic work of watching a movie. Diabolique needs to be seen in the dark with few distractions or it won't have anything near the impact it should -- heck, that goes for any great suspense movie, even Psycho. On another level, I can see audiences accustomed to later giallo slasher films sulking because the director hasn't arranged for a sexy starlet to be the one creeping the halls in a flimsy nightgown. Perhaps great movies need great audiences to work, viewers looking for more than instant gratification, and who can focus long enough to invest their emotions in the action on screen.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Diabolique is a fine encoding of this great horror-suspense picture. It will rest nicely beside their superb HD disc of Roman Polanski's Repulsion. The original's clammy B&W cinematography is finely replicated, and will have you peering into the murky Delassalle pool for clues to the murder. The audio is also well rendered, giving Blu-ray viewers the full measure of creepy sound effects.
I was lucky to see Diabolique in stunning 35mm prints, and in each case I remember it being matted to at least 1:66, with the subtitles raised high in the frame so as to not to be cut off. The wide ratio may have been a compromise for U.S. screens, because Criterion's transfer on this Blu-ray and their original 1999 DVD are both flat 1:33. 1 Interestingly, the film's main title sequence would matte off well to 1:66, and there is almost always a wide separation between the top of the frame and the tops of character's heads. But the text in the original French trailer (included) is definitely formatted for 1:33.
Scholar Kelley Conway contributes an academic selected-scene commentary for the feature. She reminds us that the superb director Clouzot was belittled and marginalized by the New Wave critics, one of many casualties in their campaign to overthrow French filmmaking culture. Producer Serge Bromberg, who made last year's investigative documentary Henri-Georges Clouzot's "Inferno", appears in a video introduction that should not be seen before the film itself. The caveat also applies to novelist and popular film critic Kim Newman's interview essay, with its clear analysis of the film and spirited appreciation of its influence on screen horror. The creative original French trailer finishes the video package. An insert booklet carries an informative essay by Terrence Rafferty. Criterion's disc producer is Johanna Schiller. The choice of cover art is a welcome switch from the two or three overused still images from the movie -- which I happily reuse here. The disc is also available on standard DVD.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Diabolique Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.