Henri-Georges Clouzot was called the Hitchcock of France for his shadowy thrillers and the atmosphere of distrust and suspicion that ran through so many of his films. Diabolique (France, 1955, not rated, with subtitles), his 1955 thriller about a plot to commit a perfect murder and the wrenching tension when the corpse disappears, plays like his attempt to out-do Hitchcock. In fact, Clouzot beat out Hitchcock to secure the rights to the original novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (Hitch consoled himself with another of their novels, “D’Entre Les Morts,” which became the basis for Vertigo) and turned that blueprint for terror into the most popular film in his career.
Vera Clouzot stars as the sickly wife of the bullying, philandering headmaster (Paul Meurisse) of her family’s provincial private school and the commanding Simone Signoret is his mistreated mistress. He married her for her money and, tired of waiting for her weak heart to give and leave him with her small fortune, he now torments her with an open affair while refusing a divorce. The two women find common ground in their desire to kill the cause of both of their miseries.
Clouzot, a perfectionist of a filmmaker, is in prime form as a master conductor of suspense here, tightening the screws as he meticulously documents every step of their plot, every detail of the murder and the cover-up and each crack in the perfect plan as someone turns the tables on them. Diabolique is as precise and accomplished as anything in Hitchcock’s canon, a film of grueling suspense and startling shocks in an overcast, gray world of decay (in some cases literally, is in the dinner of rotten fish that he forces upon the teachers), but Clouzot is less interested in character and psychology than in the cinematic mechanics of executing the perfect thriller. In a world where almost every adult character has morally withered to a state of selfish cynicism, Clouzot is the most cynical of them all. I find his The Wages of Fear a more resonant picture, thanks to more psychologically compelling characters and conflicts, but can’t deny that Diabolique is a ruthlessly effective portrait in murder, mystery, and suspense.
In French with English subtitles, in black and white.
Also available on DVD and Blu-ray in a deluxe Criterion edition and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Diabolique (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Diabolique (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]
Criterion released the film on a remastered Blu-ray and DVD in 2011. Both editions features a new video introduction by film historian and archivist Serge Bromberg (who directed the documentary Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno), select scene commentary by French-film scholar Kelley Conway and a new video interview with horror film expert Kim Newman, plus a booklet with a new essay by film critic Terrence Rafferty.