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Michel Delassalle is the cruel headmaster of a boarding school owned by Christina, his wife. Christina bonds with his mistress, Nicole Horner, a teacher at the school, who shares her hatred for the abusive Michel. When the two plot to kill him, they devise what they hope will be the perfect plan. They drug Michel, drown him in the bathtub and dump the body in the school pool. But when the pool is drained, the body is gone. Did Michel come back from the dead or is someone playing a diabolical game with them and testing the limits of their sanity?

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Producer: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Original Music: Georges Van Parys
Cinematography: Armand Thirard
Film Editing: Madeleine Gug
Art Direction: Léon Barsacq
Assistant Director: Michel Romanoff
Sound Department: William Robert Sivel
Cast: Simone Signoret (Nicole Horner), Véra Clouzot (Christina Delassalle) , Paul Meurisse (Michel Delassalle), Charles Vanel (Alfred Fichet, le commissaire), Jean Brochard (Plantiveau, le concierge), Pierre Larquey (M.Drain, professeur), Michel Serrault (M. Raymond, le surveillant), Thérèse Dorny (Mme. Herboux) Noël Roquevert (M. Herboux), Yves-Marie Maurin (Moinet, une jeune Moynet), Georges Poujouly (Soudieu, un élève), Georges Chamarat (Dr. Loisy), Jacques Varennes (M. Bridoux, professeur)

Why DIABOLIQUE is Essential

There were no thrillers like Diabolique (aka, The Fiends and The Devils) in 1955. It stood alone. There were thrillers, yes, and many good ones but none quite like this one. In thrillers like The Spiral Staircase (1945) or the many works of Alfred Hitchcock, such as Strangers on a Train (1951), Dial M for Murder (1954) and Rear Window (1954), suspense and tension played out but none had a twist ending on the order of Diabolique. In fact, the twist of Diabolique was so shocking that the closing credits even included an anti-spoiler plea card that read, "Don't be devils! Don't ruin the interest your friends could take in this film. Don't tell them what you saw. Thank you, for them."

The plot wasn't spoiled by critics or audiences and Diabolique became a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. That was important. Foreign films were just becoming a marketable commodity in the post-war world in the early fifties but very few made their way to the states. When they did, they were social or romantic dramas, such as Bicycle Thieves (1948) or The Earrings of Madame de... (1953), so a thriller with a shocker ending was not only a rarity but a welcome one at that.

However, one thing setting Diabolique above the ordinary thriller was the attention to character personality and physical detail. The protagonists of Diabolique represent three different aspects of human emotion. The wife, Christina, is nervous, worried and forever submissive to the whims of those around her. Nicole is strong, rigid and unmoved by displays of emotion. Michel is the abusive exploiter, playing these personalities off of one another for, it would seem, his own amusement. Why else would he blatantly parade his affair with Nicole in front of his wife and constantly remind Nicole of the wife if not for perverse control, a way to show that he, and he alone, is in charge?

Then, there are the physical details. The opening credits display over a static shot of black, filthy, stagnant pool water, a pool that will be later used to dispose of the headmaster's body. This is followed by a shot of a puddle with a toy boat in it, run over by Michel as he drives by. When he arrives at the school, it is wet, muddy and thick with mist. From the opening to Michel's arrival, Clouzot has established the motifs of water, decay, filth and callousness. Most thrillers don't achieve an ambience like that throughout their entire run-time.

And Diabolique was more than just a popular success with audiences, it was also quite a hit with Alfred Hitchcock who, years later, would also take water, in the form of a shower, and create a shrieking counterpart to the bathtub murder in this one. Also influential was the introduction of supernatural plot elements in which the dead, it is hinted, walk the earth, are seen in schools and heard in hallways. Up until the last few minutes of the movie, the audience is not sure if the explanation for everything that is happening is paranormal or rooted in the ordinary. And this mix of horror and thriller elements had a tremendous influence on later film makers. Ronald Koltnow of Magill's Survey of Cinema notes "[t]he reanimation of the corpse in the bathtub certainly inspired a similar scene in Stephen King's novel The Shining. Furthermore, when Christina finds Michel's typewriter and a sheet of paper with Michel's name typed in various formations on the page, Diabolique becomes the precedent for Stanley Kubrick's film version of King's novel."

by Greg Ferrara

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