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Once touted as the "French Alfred Hitchcock," filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot was known as much for his turbulent personal life as for his indelible contributions to modern cinema. After making his debut with the uncharacteristically light-hearted mystery "The Murderer Lives at Number 21" (1942), Clouzot drew the ire of both the Vichy press and the resistance movement of occupied France for his grim drama "The Raven" (1943). Condemned as a collaborator, due to the latter film's perceived negative depiction of the French people, Clouzot was banned from filmmaking for life after France's liberation. With the help of such supporters as Jean-Paul Sartre, the sentence was reduced to two years, allowing the writer-director to mount a comeback with a string of well-received projects. His acknowledged masterpieces came in the next decade with the nail-biting tale of suspense, "Wages of Fear" (1952) followed by the claustrophobic thriller "Diabolique" (1955). A rare documentary, focusing on the life and work of his longtime acquaintance, "The Mystery of Picasso" (1956), and a psychological drama starring Brigitte Bardot, "The Truth" (1960), brought Clouzot into the next decade. By that time, however, the...
Once touted as the "French Alfred Hitchcock," filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot was known as much for his turbulent personal life as for his indelible contributions to modern cinema. After making his debut with the uncharacteristically light-hearted mystery "The Murderer Lives at Number 21" (1942), Clouzot drew the ire of both the Vichy press and the resistance movement of occupied France for his grim drama "The Raven" (1943). Condemned as a collaborator, due to the latter film's perceived negative depiction of the French people, Clouzot was banned from filmmaking for life after France's liberation. With the help of such supporters as Jean-Paul Sartre, the sentence was reduced to two years, allowing the writer-director to mount a comeback with a string of well-received projects. His acknowledged masterpieces came in the next decade with the nail-biting tale of suspense, "Wages of Fear" (1952) followed by the claustrophobic thriller "Diabolique" (1955). A rare documentary, focusing on the life and work of his longtime acquaintance, "The Mystery of Picasso" (1956), and a psychological drama starring Brigitte Bardot, "The Truth" (1960), brought Clouzot into the next decade. By that time, however, the influential film critics of Cahiers du Cinema, had dismissed the established filmmaker's work as facile, unimportant entertainments. Although chronic illness and personal hardships kept him from regaining his vaunted status during his lifetime, history would soon place Clouzot as one of the most influential and important filmmakers of the 20th-Century.
Henri-Georges Clouzot was born in Niort, France on Aug. 18, 1907 to Suzanne and Georges Clouzot, the proprietor of a local bookstore. The eldest of three children, Henri showed early talent by the early age of four as a pianist and playwright. Circumstances changed in the early 1920s when his father's business failed, necessitating a move to the city of Brest, where Clouzot's father found employment as an auctioneer. Chronic shortsightedness ended the younger Clouzot's naval career before it began. He then moved to Paris, where he studied law and political science for a time, until his interests and acquaintances led him to writing endeavors in the theater and cinema. Impressed with his abilities, producer Adolphe Osso hired Clouzot as a script translator at Germany's Studio Babelsberg. During his time there, the young writer was deeply influenced by his exposure to expressionist filmmakers like Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau as he broadened his own professional scope by writing dialogue and occasional lyrics for dozens of films. After gaining experience as an assistant director, Clouzot made his directorial debut with the short comedy film "Fear in the Batignolles" (1931), an early experiment that would exhibit little of the world-weary pessimism he would later become so closely identified with.
By the mid-1930s, Clouzot watched with growing dismay as Hitler rapidly rose to power; in 1934, his own apolitical views cost him his position at the German studio due to his friendships with Jewish producers like Osso. He was dealt an even more devastating blow the following year when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis - a condition that placed him in a Swiss sanitarium for nearly five years. As painful and depressing as the experience was, Clouzot would later describe it as the time he grew most as a writer and filmmaker. Left with little more than time on his hands, he read constantly, studying the elements of story and human nature. Beyond merely providing him with time to hone his craft, Clouzot's extended stay at the facility would also affect him immensely as an artist, with themes of infirmity - both of the mind and body - and confinement becoming near constant features of his later oeuvre as a writer-director. By the time he was released from the sanitarium and returned to Paris, World War II had erupted, prompting many of his producer acquaintances to flee Germany.
Desperately poor, Clouzot took work as a writer anywhere he could find it. Doors gradually began to open for him, due to his friendship with French actor Pierre Fresnay, for whom he scripted "The Duel" (1939), Fresnay's first directorial effort. Established in 1940 after the Nazi occupation of France, Continental was a German-operated film production company in France whose director knew Clouzot from his days at Babelsberg. Tasked with adapting a popular mystery novel, his first script credit for Continental was "The Last One of the Six" (1941), which starred Fresnay and actress Suzy Delair. During filming, Clouzot and Delair began a romantic relationship that lasted nearly 12 years. Similar work for Continental came in the form of adapting author Georges Simenon's pulp novel "Strangers in the House" (1942) into a successful crime-drama directed by Henri Decoin. Clouzot at last made his debut as a feature film director with "The Murderer Lives at Number 21" (1942). A crime-comedy about an undercover inspector (Fresnay) and an aspiring actress (Delair) trying to catch a serial killer at a rundown boarding house, it went on to become a substantial hit in occupied France that year, establishing Clouzot as a filmmaker on the rise.
The tumultuous nature of Clouzot's life and career reached new heights with his second effort for Continental as a writer-director. A dark drama about a small town doctor (Fresnay) victimized by a series of vicious poison pen letters, "The Raven" (1943) was a project studio heads had warned Clouzot against making, due to its bleak, volatile subject matter. Even before its premiere, "The Raven" stirred up controversy from vastly different sectors. While the Catholic Church denounced its depressing tone, the ultra-conservative Vichy press condemned what it saw as pervasive immoral subject matter. Attacked from every side, the anti-Nazi resistance press also assailed the film for what it deemed to be a negative depiction of the French people - done at the behest of the studio's pro-Nazi chiefs, they surmised. In light of the firestorm "The Raven" had ignited, Clouzot was unceremoniously fired by Continental that year. The scandal would not end there, however. Soon after the liberation of France, Clouzot was hauled before a French court in 1944 and charged with collaborating with the Nazis on "The Raven." The result was Clouzot's being banned from filmmaking for life in France. Although the sentence was later reduced to two years, it was a damning blow to Clouzot's reputation. In the years that followed, most film historians and academics were in agreement that the film spoke not of any pro-Nazi, anti-French or anti-Semitic leanings, but was merely the filmmaker's deeply pessimistic view of humanity as a whole, regardless of race, religion or nationality.
Two years later, Clouzot resumed his career with "Quay of the Goldsmiths" (1947), a taut, well-crafted police procedural that also enjoyed a U.S. release. His career was once again on the upswing, following the exceptionally positive reception of "Quay of the Goldsmiths." Clouzot kept up the momentum with the French resistance tale "Manon" (1949), as well as a contribution to the anthology film "Return to Life" (1949) and the less successful comedy, "Miquette and Her Mother" (1950). It was during the following decade that Clouzot - a demanding director, known for his harsh treatment of actors - earned the critical reputation as the "French Hitchcock" for his masterful tales of suspense. Having recently married Brazilian actress Véra Gibson-Amado and formed his own production company named in her honor, Clouzot and his brother, Jean, co-wrote the script for the action-thriller "Wages of Fear" (1952). The film was a gut-wrenchingly intense tale about a group of four desperate men (French star Yves Montand, among them) hired to haul a truckload of nitroglycerine through the treacherous South American jungle in an effort to extinguish an out-of-control oil rig fire. Widely heralded on both sides of the Atlantic, "Wages of Fear" was Clouzot's first international hit and led to his name being frequently mentioned in the same breath as the master of suspense, Hitchcock.
The professional proximity to Clouzot surely became frustratingly close for Hitchcock when the French filmmaker beat him out for the rights to film "Diabolique" (1955). Equal parts thriller and horror film, it followed a plot to murder an abusive husband (Paul Meurisse) by his frail wife (Véra Clouzot) and mistress (Simone Signoret). After committing the crime, the accomplices are horrified when the corpse goes missing. An international sensation upon its release, "Diabolique" went on to be considered one of the greatest films of all time, inspiring both remakes and thinly-disguised imitations. Clouzot then made a brief departure to film the highly-praised documentary "The Mystery of Picasso" (1956), an entertaining look at the iconic painter, who Clouzot had known personally for decades. Featuring an international cast that included Peter Ustinov and Curd Jürgens, "The Spies" (1957) was more notable as the final film appearance by Clouzot's wife, Véra. Just as her character in "Diabolique" had, Véra Clouzot also suffered from a heart condition and died soon after helping her husband write the script for his next feature film, "The Truth" (1960), which would star French sex symbol, Brigitte Bardot.
Although "The Truth" performed well in French movie houses, Clouzot's reputation among the country's new breed of critics and filmmakers, members of the French New Wave movement - with the exception of François Truffaut, an admirer of Clouzot's - were by then dismissing his work as false and unimportant. Sadly, the director took much of this criticism to heart, and his future output never again reached the acclaimed levels it had with "Wages of Fear" and "Diabolique." Work on a deeply personal film, to be titled "Inferno," was abandoned due to the director's sudden illness. After helming a series of musical documentaries for French television, Clouzot helmed his final feature film, "The Female Prisoner" (1968), a lurid tale of sexual obsession. In the years that followed, his health went into a steady decline and although scripts were written and plans were made, none came to fruition. Two months after undergoing open-heart surgery, Clouzot died of a heart attack in his home on Jan. 12, 1977. He was 69 years old. As an ironic epitaph, director Claude Chabrol - a member of the French New Wave that had so derided Clouzot decades earlier - directed the film "Hell" in 1994, a psychological drama based on Clouzot's abandoned project, "Inferno."
By Bryce Coleman
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"My greatest pleasure is the actual production, the editing....Dialogue, which played a major role in my first films, has diminished in importance. "Le Salaire de la peur" is a visual film in which the dialogue is largely in the background. I developed a form of editing built around continuing shocks. I always set light against shadow. I could be accused, because of this, of being simplistic...But I pursue a process of simplification in order to accentuate contrasts...What do sophisticated, old-fashioned dramas, the recounting of spicy stories matter to us? The social drama, the drama of our times, has arrived. It is those that hold us, those that we hope to fix on the screen." --Clouzot (quoted in Sadoul's "Dictionary of Film Makers" 1972).
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