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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: Lon Barsacq
Assistant Director: Michel Romanoff
Sound Department: William Robert Sivel
Cast: Simone Signoret (Nicole Horner), Vra 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), Thrse Dorny (Mme. Herboux) Nol Roquevert (M. Herboux), Yves-Marie Maurin (Moinet, une jeune Moynet), Georges Poujouly (Soudieu, un lve), 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
Perhaps apocryphal, Clouzot claimed that he beat Alfred Hitchcock in a bid to buy the rights to the book upon which Diabolique is based, She Was No More (Celle qui n'tait plus) by mere hours.
Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, authors of the novel that served as the basis for the film, wrote another novel, From Among the Dead (D'Entre les Morts), which Alfred Hitchcock made into Vertigo (1958).
In a very sad event mirroring the story of the movie, Vra Clouzot indeed turned out to have a weak heart and, a mere five years after filming, died at the age of 46 from cardiac arrest.
Simone Signoret was married to Yves Montand, star of Henri-Georges Clouzot's previous film, Le Salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear, 1953). They were married until her death in 1985.
Signoret's previous husband was also named "Yves," after French film director, Yves Allgret.
Probably apocryphal, but nonetheless amusing, Roger Ebert reported on this story of a letter received by Alfred Hitchcock after Psycho (1960): "A man wrote to Alfred Hitchcock: 'Sir, After seeing `Diabolique,' my daughter was afraid to take a bath. Now she has seen your `Psycho' and is afraid to take a shower. What should I do with her?' Hitchcock replied: 'Send her to the dry cleaners.'"
Memorable Quotes from DIABOLIQUE
Christina Delassalle (Vera Clouzot): "Don't you believe in Hell?"
Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret): "Not since I was seven."
Christina Delassalle: "I do."
M.Drain, professeur (Pierre Larquey): "I may be reactionary, but this is absolutely astounding - the legal wife consoling the mistress! No, no, and no!"
Nicole Horner: [handing Christina the phone] "Here, take it. It doesn't bite. It doesn't slap, either."
Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse): [to Christina, having trouble swallowing rotten fish] "Everyone is looking at you! Swallow!"
Nicole Horner: "It's disgusting!"
Michel Delassalle: "Sorry?"
Nicole Horner: [to Michel] "Some things are hard to swallow, and I'm not talking about the fish!"
Christina Delassalle: [to Nicole] "I'd like to die and not see him anymore."
Michel Delassalle: [overhearing it] "Die, darling! Die and do it quickly!"
Alfred Fichet, le commissaire (Charles Vanel): "To commit suicide in the Seine, one doesn't need to undress."
Alfred Fichet, le commissaire: "The keys in the pool, the husband in the morgue! You dream too much about water in this house!"
Plantiveau, le concierge (Jean Brochard): "Watch out, ma'am. That's the deep part where you are."
Christina Delassalle: "There is no danger. I can swim."
Plantiveau, le concierge: "That don't mean a thing. It's always the ones who know how that get drowned. The ones who can't, don't go near the pool."
Nicole Horner: "I won't have any regrets."
Alfred Fichet, le commissaire: "I'll find him."
Christina Delassalle: "So it's a coincidence?"
Nicole Horner: "A coincidence, yes."
Christina Delassalle: "And Fichet. Was his being at the morgue a coincidence? And the suit. And the hotel. And now the children! Is it a coincidence that it's getting closer and closer?"
Christina Delassalle: "Who's there? Who's there?"
Moinet, une jeune Moynet (Yves-Marie Maurin): "I saw her. I know I did."
Compiled by Greg Ferrara
Simone Signoret wrote in her autobiography, Nostalgia Isn't What It Used to Be, that the real person responsible for getting the rights of the book purchased and the film made was Vra Clouzot, not Henri. Simone wrote, "The truth of the matter is that it was she who wanted to make this film... She wanted to make this film and she wanted to make people think he was forcing her to do it." She added, "Clouzot asked me because he needed me for the part. Above all, he needed an actress whom Vra knew. She wasn't an actress at all and he wanted her to work with a friend, in a kind of family atmosphere."
Henri-Georges Clouzot was the kind of director, like Hitchcock, who had to have everything planned out. Every shot, every detail. He once remarked that blank pieces of white paper terrified him. He wanted everything written down and planned out. When it came time to film, all that was required was to follow the blueprint carefully laid down. Diabolique was no different.
Planning every detail also meant Clouzot had little patience for actors who didn't understand his vision. When Simone Signoret signed on, she knew what she was in for but she respected him and drew a clear line between shoot time and down time. She said she would tell him to "go to hell" at the hotel where they were staying but would never say, "merde to him on his own set."
The origins of Diabolique go back much farther than the purchase of the book rights. During the war, Clouzot found work in Nazi-occupied France with Continental Films and his work with this company led to his official banishment from the French film industry until 1947 when he was allowed to direct again. His interest had long been in thrillers but now, he wanted them to be more than just cleverly plotted exercises in suspense. Like Alfred Hitchcock, whom he admired, he wanted his films to be about human nature, viewed through the prism of a suspense thriller. By 1955, he had perfected this method of examination and with Diabolique, created a malevolent masterpiece.
The film would not merely be a thriller but a study in the darkest sides of human nature. The resonating motifs of water and rot would be augmented by a strong hint of the supernatural. In fact, if one were to stop watching the film a mere five minutes before its closing title card, it could not be said with certainty whether or not it was a ghost story or a murder mystery. This was, of course, part of the plan. Rather than engage the audience in only one choice of misdirection, Clouzot chooses two, as touted by Nicole and Christina. Nicole thinks someone is playing a game with them, possibly for blackmail. Christina thinks Michel has come back from the dead and will haunt her until she is driven insane. This is a choice that Clouzot returned to time and time again in his work. He stated, "The great rule is to push the contrasts as far as they will go, the drastic highlights being separated by 'neutral zones.' To move the spectator I always aim at emphasizing the chiaroscuro, opposing light and shade. It is for this reason that my films have been criticized as oversimplifications."
Diabolique thus becomes as much about the two women's point of view as about the thriller aspects of the mystery. Nicole sees malicious intent all around her. Her view of the world is one in which she gets what she wants and if someone else tries to stop it, she stops them. Christina is riddled with guilt and views all her actions as inherently in need of forgiveness. When she finally decides to make a difference and take control of her destiny, she ends up too riddled with guilt to be anything but her own enemy.
by Greg Ferrara
Filming Diabolique took a lot longer than expected. The shoot was originally scheduled for eight weeks but ran for sixteen. This caused tensions between Henri-Georges Clouzot and Simone Signoret to increasingly mount. "I knew that I was letting myself in for a hell of a time," Signoret said, "[but] I had no idea that it was going to be as wretched as it was for sixteen weeks."
Clouzot was convinced that Signoret was playing the character incorrectly because she, the actress, knew the ending of the movie and, thus, was giving away too much to the audience with her characterization. One day on the set, Clouzot said angrily, "I should have never let you read the end of the script!"
To make matters worse, Vra went up and down in spirits and when Henri and Simone would begin to fight, she would "arbitrate or pour oil on troubled waters, depending on the state she was in." The three of them, not unnoticed by observers on the set, mirrored the three characters of the movie, with Henri-Georges Clouzot standing in for Michel. In fact, in the movie, there is a scene where rotten fish is served because Michel is too cheap to replace it with fresh fish and refuses to let it go to waste. He forces Christina to eat it in front of everyone. The story goes, whether true or not has never been determined although it has been repeated by enough people involved in the production to point to its veracity, that Clouzot opted to serve spoiled fish so that he could get a genuine reaction of revulsion from his wife, Vra. On camera, Michel is ordering her to swallow the fish in front of everyone. Off camera, Clouzot was literally doing the same.
Some twelve weeks into the production, Signoret received notice that rehearsals had begun for a stage version of The Crucible in which she was starring. She had originally thought there would be no conflict since the Diabolique shoot was only supposed to go eight weeks and wrap a solid month before The Crucible rehearsals started. Clouzot would not rearrange the shooting schedule to accommodate her and she had to go straight from the set to rehearsals for the play, get a few hours of sleep in between (maybe) and start over again. As Signoret described it, "After a period of unbearable tension came a period of pure hell, and then the apocalypse..." As if that weren't enough, she hadn't read her contract closely before signing it and didn't realize she was to be paid for only eight weeks, regardless. After sixteen weeks and a wrap, she found out Clouzot was only going to pay her for the contractually obligated eight. She protested but the outcome didn't change. By the end of the shoot, according to Signoret, she, Vra and Henri were no longer on speaking terms. Paul Meurisse, her co-star, and director Jean Renoir, next door filming French Cancan (1954), were the only ones who made the shoot bearable for her.
After Clouzot wrapped the production and did the final editing, Diabolique made its way around Europe and across the ocean to America. It was a huge hit but despite its success, and a couple of awards for Best Foreign Film overseas, most notably The New York Film Critics Circle awards, Clouzot's reputation was not held in high regard by the influential critics of Cahiers du cinema, including Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. They railed against old-guard filmmakers they felt played it safe. Of course, despite meticulously planning out his productions, Clouzot's films could hardly be accused of playing it safe. Terrence Rafferty had the final word on Clouzot when he wrote that Clouzot was, "an artist who, in his dedication to his own demons, his pitch-black vision of human nature, fulfilled at least some of the aesthetic criteria laid down by the Cahiers du cinema critics and nouvelle vague revolutionaries. It's a shame that they felt they had to get him out of the way."
by Greg Ferrara
Sometimes a film's setting can become the driving force behind the narrative and in the case of Diabolique (aka Les Diaboliques, 1955), it becomes a character in its own right. Set in a seedy public school for boys in some unspecified French provincial town, Henri-Georges Clouzot's landmark suspense thriller creates a disturbing environment of decay, stagnation and impending dread that surrounds a menage a trois - Michel, a sadistic headmaster; Christina, his long-suffering wife who has a heart condition, and Nicole, the headmaster's much abused mistress who also serves as a schoolteacher. As Michel's cruelty to the two women increases, so does their hatred of him until the duo devise a plot to drug him and stage his death as an accidental drowning in the school's swimming pool. Their plan succeeds but when the police come to investigate and drain the pool, no body is found, leading to a series of increasingly strange and frightening occurrences.
A contemporary of Alfred Hitchcock's whose work was often compared to films by the "master of suspense," Clouzot is not as well known today but Diabolique created quite a stir upon its initial release, generating huge box office profits on both sides of the Atlantic and inspiring Hitchcock to outdo Clouzot's famous bathtub murder sequence with his own infamous shower stabbing in Psycho (1960). The two directors shared other similarities - the way they pre-planned and storyboarded their movies prior to filming, their skill in evoking a feeling of complicity in the viewer, and their attitude about acting. Though Hitchcock was once quoted as saying actors were "cattle," he enjoyed a good working relationship with most of them which wasn't always the case with Clouzot who could be cruel and dictatorial with his cast. For the sequence in Diabolique where the students are served bad fish and the headmaster commands them to eat it, it was rumored that Clouzot actually forced his actors to eat spoiled fish for the scene. In an essay on Diabolique by Ronald Koltnow (in Magill's Survey of Cinema), Simone Signoret was quoted as saying Clouzot "is concerned with every detail, almost to an obsession. He has to work in a constant ambience of crisis. He has to be depressed, he has to be sad. And he expects all his artists and technicians to share his sorrow completely." Certainly, Clouzot's films can seem relentlessly bleak and humorless in comparison to Hitchcock's thrillers which were often alleviated by moments of black comedy and sparkling wit. But, if you watch closely, you'll glimpse fleeting moments of macabre, deadpan humor in Diabolique like the look on Christina's face as she pours her husband a second glass of drugged whiskey.
Clouzot once admitted his sole purpose in making Diabolique: "I sought only to amuse myself and the little child who sleeps in all our hearts - the child who hides her head under the bedcovers and begs, 'Daddy, Daddy, frighten me." But Diabolique is no simple amusement; it's a dark, decadent tale that glistens like an ugly diamond. One of the most telling sequences in the movie is Michel's carefully planned demise which proves Hitchcock's point that murder can be hard work. From the lugging of the heavy, water-soaked body to a desperate attempt to submerge the corpse in the stagnant pool, the entire act of murder is shown to be a ghastly business indeed. [SPOILER ALERT!] Equally memorable is the double twist finale which has been copied repeatedly in subsequent thrillers though none can top the original shock ending of seeing a corpse remove his own eyeballs (a homage to Luis Bunuel's and Salvador Dali's Un Chien Andalou, 1929).
Not surprisingly, Diabolique divided the critics over its merits. Among those who praised it was critic Paul Dehn who wrote "Clouzot handles this bloodcurdling material in the one way guaranteed to make it horrifically effective, i.e., by rejecting every melodramatic artifice...and photographing his story head-on - at human eye-level - as though he were making a newsreel." On the other hand, some were offended by the film's overt cruelty to Christina, the only marginally sympathetic character in the film. Critic Dilys Powell mirrored the opinions of the latter reviewers when she dismissed the film, writing, "Grand Guignol sets out merely to horrify. I don't think one should take moral exception if it succeeds." In spite of the controversy, Diabolique ended up sharing the New York Film Critics Award for Best Foreign Film with Umberto D. and even today, you can see homages to Clouzot's thriller in the movies of Stanley Kubrick (the haunted bathtub scene in his version of The Shining, 1980) and other filmmakers. Diabolique later inspired a thinly disguised B-movie remake by Curtis Harrington in 1967 entitled Games with Simone Signoret playing a variation on her Nicole character, a made-for-television version called Reflections of Murder (1974) featuring Tuesday Weld, Joan Hackett and Sam Waterston, and, of course, there was the forgettable 1997 remake starring Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani.
Diabolique was based on a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac entitled Celle Qui N'etait Plus. Hitchcock would later adapt one of their novels and bring it to the screen as Vertigo (1958), now considered his undisputed masterpiece and recently placed in the top ten poll conducted by Sight and Sound magazine.
Producer/Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Screenplay: Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jerome Geronimi, Frederic Grendel, Rene Masson, based on the novel Celle qui n'etait plus by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac
Art Direction: Leon Barsacq
Cinematography: Armand Thirard
Editing: Madeleine Gug
Music: Georges Van Parys
Cast: Simone Signoret (Nicole Horner), Vera Clouzot (Christina Delasalle), Paul Meurisse (Michel Delasalle), Charles Vanel (Inspector Fichet), Pierre Larquey (Drain).
by Jeff Stafford
Awards and Honors:
Diabolique won the Le Prix Louis-Delluc Prize for 1954.
Diabolique was awarded Best Foreign Film by The New York Film Critics Circle and the Special Edgar for Best Foreign Film at The Edgar Allan Poe awards.
The Critics' Corner on DIABOLIQUE
"...this is one of the dandiest mystery dramas that has shown here in goodness knows when. To tell anybody the surprises that explode like shotgun blasts in the last reel is a crime that should be punishable by consigning of the culprit to an endless diet of grade-B films. And it isn't only in the last reel that the surprises and the excitement are in evidence. The morbid fascination starts building before the picture is ten minutes gone. By the time it is rolling toward a climax it is spreading the most delicious chills. It is a pip of a murder thriller, ghost story and character play rolled into one." - Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, 1955
"As with Wages of Fear , Henri Clouzot has given us suspense, tension and a touch of the macabre with his new film Les Diaboliques (The Fiends)... It is not until the last few feet of the picture that one learns the full significance of the title, The Fiends. The plot is full of ingenious twists. Henri Clouzot's direction is excellent. He builds the tension throughout, and gives the story and characters - well played by his wife, Simone Signoret and Paul Meurisse - a depth and plausibility which they easily could have lacked." - Robert A. Pollock, Films and Filming, 1956.
"Henri-Georges Clouzot's cool, clammy, twisty 1955 thriller Diabolique is an almost perfect movie about a very nearly perfect murder, a film in which the artist's methods and the killers' are ideally matched, equal in cunning and in ruthlessness. The screenplay, adapted by Clouzot and three other writers from a novel by the crack French crime-fiction team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, is a fantastically elaborate piece of contrivance, but the scrupulous realism of the direction makes the unnatural tale somehow feel entirely likely." - Terrence Rafferty, Criterion Collection
"Famed director of suspense Henri-Georges Clouzot transposed a mystery novel (two lesbian lovers plot to kill one of the pair's commercial traveler husband) into a sensational melodrama abetted by chilling sound effects and Armand Thirard's murky photography." - James Reid Paris, The Great French Films
"Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1955 thriller, now re-released in a restored print, however, accomplishes much more, creating a diabolical double-reverse plot that keeps the audience guessing right up to the thoroughly implausible final scene." - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times, 1995.
"Diabolique is exhilarating at first viewing, and proved to be both commercially successful and controversial on its first release. For most critics, however, the contrivance of the ending renders a second viewing meaningless, since it underlines the film's remoteness from a livid reality and even makes Clouzot's deeply felt black vision seem trite and superficial." - Roy Armes, Film
"Diabolique, like many of Clouzot's movies, is really a caustic, despairing character study masquerading as a thriller. It conjures an atmosphere of suffocating rot that's so palpable, in fact, that the murder plot is in many ways its least disturbing element....So the film, which has empathy for no one, offers the somewhat unpleasant sensation of watching mice navigate a maze that has no cheese. You watch Diabolique with a detached fascination, and Clouzot has been criticized for the tendency his films have to trigger this kind of response." - Chuck Bowen, Slant Magazine
"Classic chiller builds slowly, surely to final quarter hour that will drive you right up the wall. A must." - Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide
Compiled by Greg Ferrara