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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs, Pick of the Week: Classic. Diabolique.



“Diabolique” (Also Blu-ray) (Four Stars)

France: Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955 (Criterion Collection)

The worst kind of fictional horror, the kind that seeps right into your psyche and stings to life your worst fears, sometimes springs from what seem to be the mundane routines of life: from the seeming world of the everyday, suddenly become a backdrop for darkness and evil.

In French filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot’s masterpiece of suspense, Diabolique, a somewhat forbidding boarding school in the suburbs outside Paris — a beautiful realized, wonderfully ugly old semi-chateau of a place, a house of big windows, stone walls and petty tyranny, run by a brute of a headmaster (Paul Meurisse) and his persecuted headmistress wife (Vera Clouzot) — becomes the site for a cold-blooded murder, and a den of everyday nightmares.

Soon, things change fiendishly. The crime we’ve seen unfolding seems to turn into something ghostly and supernatural. Finally, the story swerves again — like a truck full of explosives on a mountain road — and seems to become something else entirely, a nightmare even worse than the ones before.

“Seems” — as in things are not what they…. (Are they ever?) Diabolique, called “Les Diaboliques,“ (or “The Devils”) in France, is a movie about the mystery and terror of appearances, and the ways that they can destroy us or drive us mad. The man who made this astonishing and deeply frightening movie, writer-director Clouzot, seemed to be many things himself: a specialist in movie melodrama, a cynic and a sometime sadist to his actors (especially his own wife, Vera), a friend/collaborator of artistic greats like Pablo Picasso, a WW2 opportunist who worked for a company run by the occupying Germans, and, above all a genius at making movies that tightened the vise of anxiety like a noose around the audiences‘ throats.

Clouzot was, in fact, the only specialist in movie suspense who was ever plausibly bracketed with Alfred Hitchcock — and Hitchcock indeed, was one of Diabolique’s biggest admirers. The wry British master of movie fear had wanted to buy the novel, “Celle qui n’etait plus,” by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, on which Diabolique was based. And later, when Diabolique became an international hit, and one of the few foreign language films that played in regular American movie theatres in the ‘50s, Hitchcock bought another Boileau-Narcejac novel, and turned it into his masterpiece Vertigo.

Not content, Hitch then acquired a Robert Bloch novel called “Psycho” and essentially made it his “Diabolique,” shooting Psycho in black and white (like Diabolique), playing up similar scenes and themes (including the idea of murder in a bathroom), borrowing liberally from the earlier movie‘s style and execution, even reworking some of its advertising gimmicks. Where Clouzot, at the end of Diabolique, had asked the audience not to reveal his film‘s secrets, Hitchcock went further, banning the audience from even entering the movie theatre after Psycho began, in an age when people walked freely in and out of movies all the time. (“This is where we came in.“)

That reminds me: If there was ever a movie review that needed a “Spoiler Alert” as soon as possible, it’s Diabolique, a film that doesn’t just have a surprise or two up its sleeve, but many. It’s all surprise, all mystery, one twist after the other, going off like a chain of firecrackers, pop-pop-pop, never stopping until the end of the film — and even perhaps, beyond that.

So, for those among you who are Diabolique virgins and first-timers, Au revoir. We’ll catch up again after you watch the excellent new Criterion disc of the movie….


Diabolique takes place in a somewhat forbidding boarding school, an ugly sprawling ex-chateau run by a ferret-faced brute of a headmaster, M. Michel Delassalle (Meurisse) and his weak, ill and persecuted wife Christina (Mme. Clouzot). Christina‘s family‘s money funded the school, but Delassalle viciously exploits and abuses his wife, and is also openly unfaithful to her, with the school’s sexy science and math teacher, a sultry smart blonde named Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret, in one of her most famous roles). And Delasssalle is not only is mean to his wife, but also to his mistress Nicole, to his pupils, his employees, his teachers (a beaten-down group who include Michel Serrault) and even to casual passersby and dogs.

Headmaster Delassalle is an awful man and the school is an awful but believable place, with bleak dormitory rooms, kitchens with rotten food, dark hallways which are an invitation to heart attacks, and outside, a big, leaf and scum-clogged swimming pool in which something terrible, we feel, will happen — or maybe not. Or maybe…

In the first of the movie’s string of shocks and surprises, we discover that Christina and Nicole, wife and mistress, have formed an unholy alliance. Both seemingly disgusted by the swinish Michel, they are plotting to kill him and disguise it as an accident. The murder seems mostly Nicole’s idea, but the gentle, vulnerable Christina goes along. And Michel is such a cad and sadist — a brilliant performance by Meurisse, who was later just as fine for both Jean Renoir (Picnic on the Grass) and Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Cercle Rouge) — that we don’t condemn them.

Why does the moral Christina decide to become a murderess? And why do we give a tacit assent, to the extent that we’re uneasy for the women when things seem to unravel? Perhaps because Michel is so terrible, and his wife is in a trap of his making, a victim with a weak heart. Diabolique is not just about the terror of appearances, it’s about how those appearances can ensnare us, about the contagion of amorality and evil. We watch this ugly terrain of bourgeois hypocrisy and self-deception, as, in the narrative, Clouzot opens one trap and pitfall after another — and we stay with the program, first out of anger at Delassalle and what he seems to be, then out of sympathy for the two women, and what they seem to be. And finally, out of overwhelming curiosity about the entire movie and what it seems to be.

Of such seductive moral missteps is the path to hell — cinematic as well as worldly — very dangerously paved.

I refuse to reveal much more. Diabolique is built on surprise and delayed revelation, just as a magic act is built on misdirection and sleight of hand. But I will note that another brilliant actor of astounding longevity — Charles Vanel, who also played the cowardly gang guy in Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear and whose move acting career spanned eight decades, from 1912 to1980 — plays superlatively well the retired detective Fichet, who starts sniffing around when he runs into Christina at the morgue.


Clouzot is a lesser artist than Hitchcock — less visually inventive and less compelling. But Clouzot’s world view was more bitter and more astringent than Hitchcock‘s. His stories are darker and less prone to compromise, his people more generally wicked and fallible –though maybe Hitch’s movies would have been darker too if he hadn’t had to labor under the Production Code for so much of his career. Still, Clouzot was almost as much of a perfectionist as Hitch, and, together with master cinematographer Armand Thirard, he creates here, in story and style, one of the genuine great, classic French film noirs — a movie that, as much as that other dark tale of a murder gone awry, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, helps define the whole genre.


Diabolique is a great, or near-great film but not, for me, a perfect one. I‘ve always thought that the central event of its plot is a flaw, a device and scheme so fearsomely complex that it’s unlikely that anybody would actually try to pull it off’ Even so, Clouzot is such a fantastic magician that it seems to make sense as we watch. (Just don’t start thinking about it all too quickly.) It’s The Wages of Fear — a perfect nightmare that also seems to make perfect sense — that seems to me Clouzot’s greatest work.

But there’s no doubt which film was the more influential — on film noir, on horror movies, on crime movies in general. Diabolique. With Psycho, Diabolique became the new exemplar and main model of the “old dark house thriller,” and movies that didn’t copy it, copied Psycho — which itself was copying Diabolique.

Diabolique seemed to some at the time one of those dark, dirty movies that go too far — and it was new and daring in the way it plumbed the minds and motives of its characters, and in the games it played with its audience. (Hitchcock also described Psycho as a game, and Curtis Harrington‘s later Diabolique knock-off/hommage, starring Signoret and James Caan, was entitled “Games.”) But Clouzot’s movie was also an old-fashioned thriller, a classic one that depended as much on character and drama and social observation, as it did on the mechanics of terror and suspense — even though Clouzot, like Hitchcock, knew those mechanics from the bones out.

Clouzot was a great technician, a great storyteller. But he was also a nearly pitiless observer of what we sometimes sentimentally call the human condition. Fittingly, his most popular movie had for his hero/detective the tough old cynic Fichet, the hard-boiled cop who’s seen so much that he cant be fooled. Or so it seems.

So watch Diabolique now, by all means. In this movie era, with its huge resurgence of film noir, now seems to be the time for Clouzot’s movie. It’s waiting for you, as it waits for all film buffs. The game begins again. And, as you enjoy the twists and shocks of this dark, subversively noir classic, please don’t think that the movie is some piece of impersonal classicism from what Truffaut mockingly called the “French tradition of quality,“ that you can easily outguess and outwit it. Diabolique is not impersonal; it speaks from a heart seemingly seemingly bruised but intact. Don’t kid yourself that this film that terrified so many is just some typical old French black and white movie that can’t possibly scare you. You’re wrong. It only seems to be. (In French, with English subtitles.)

Extras: Commentary by scholar Kelley Conway; Introduction by Serge Bromberg; Video interview with film noir expert Kim Newman; Original trailer; Booklet with Terrence Rafferty essay.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon