by Professor Kinema
Underneath the opening credits is an image of something dark and murky. It is revealed to be a mud puddle in the courtyard of a seedy boarding school for boys just outside of Paris. The dark and murkiness establishes a motif and sets the tone for the story to follow, a tale of mental as well as physical abuse, a plot of murder gone wrong, and all the diabolical intrigue that follows. Much of the cinematic imagery mirroring these elements consist of dimly lit interiors, long shadows and grey exteriors.
Reaching into international film history, one can see the influences for les Diaboliques. A true autéur, director/screenwriter Henri-Georges Clouzot exercises a masterful control of the extreme darks and lights which hark back to the German Expressionism (with surrealism touches) of works like Cabinet of Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922) and Warning Shadows (vt, Schatten - Eine nächtliche Halluzination, 1923). The movie’s key shock scenes are the drowning of the abusive husband, his ’dead’ body being transported from the apartment to the swimming pool and his eventual rise from the dead - with totally blank eyes. This is all accomplished in the truest sense of film noir intermingled with heavy doses of le Grande Guinol. The title is translated as either ‘The Devils’ or ‘The Fiends.’ All involved in the diabolical plot can be defined as devils or fiends, for sure. With the retitling for the US release, Diabolique, there is an emphasis on an intangible plot element; something diabolical is going on here. In either interpretation, the title works.
The thematic element of placing the setting at a boy’s boarding school, that has definitely seen better days, is reminiscent of Jean Vigo’s Zero de Condiute (Zero For Conduct, 1933). As pre-teen and teenaged schoolboys do, they laugh, joke around, complain, and yet are reluctantly obedient to their adult supervisors. This is played out among these same adults who are experiencing emotional turmoil. While plotting the intrigue that would go with a murder and it’s sinister aftermath, they must function in their every day routines as educators and administrators.
This play between what we, the audience, are shown, what we are told, and, consequently, what we are led to believe is the essence of the suspense of the story. Along with the fragile Christine and stoic Nicole, all present are also victims of the abusive and insulting headmaster Michel. If ever a character in a story was being groomed for elimination, it’s this slick, chain-smoking lothario: students and staff are compelled to dine on bad fish; Christina is humiliated by being forced to swallow this very same bad fish with everyone looking on. Yet, being adolescents, the students rebel by ending up not eating their meal, instead using it for an impromptu food fight. Rebellion is definitely in the works, but it’s not only the students who rebel.
Because of her weak heart, Christina’s physical state is established early on as a ‘petite ruin.’ The question as to whether or not she and Nicole truly managed to murder Michel, or if he’s ‘risen from the dead,’ causes much on-screen tension. Two interesting exchanges containing ‘death’ lines occur in les Diaboliques.
Christina to Nicole: “If only I could die and not see him any more.”
Michel: “Why don’t you dear? Go and die. We‘ll bury you, and good riddance”
Christina and Nicole arguing whether their victim Michael is truly dead:
Nicole: “There’s an explanation for everything, there are no miracles”
Christina: “Each time I shut my eyes - I think I see him come in.
Nicole: “Will you be quiet! He must be in a pretty state by now.”
Christina: “If he’s dead!”
Nicole: “I’ve seen dead people before. Michel is very dead.”
Michel, the ‘drowned’ husband, manages to be perfectly still for an entire night immersed in the apartment bathtub. He then remains lifeless during the entire trip back to the school where he is unceremoniously dumped into the neglected pool the following night. At no time throughout all this did he need to relieve himself?
Other writers who have discussed les Diaboliques have questioned the coincidence of the retired police detective that Christina just happens to meet at the Paris morgue. Obviously, for the sake of the story, he was inserted into the proceedings to add to Christina’s turmoil while giving more substance to the story. He immediately takes an active interest and offers his services practically free of charge. This leads one to believe that since he is retired, he is undertaking the task of investigating the mystery simply because he finds it interesting and to have something to occupy his free time. Naturally, he encounters and questions inconsistencies, but sticks with it until the end. After Christina is ‘frightened to death,’ Nicole emerges from the shadows to embrace Michel and explain the whole diabolical scenario (mainly for the audience to tie up loose ends). Hearing it all, the inspector then emerges out of even deeper recesses of these same shadows to let them know the jig is up.
Big question: Did the inspector know of the intricacies of the murder plot and simply allow these two to carry it out to it’s diabolical climax--resulting in Christina’s murder--then step out to arrest them, single handed? This would indicate that he had no intention of helping the hapless wife and preventing her murder. Or, maybe, unseen by the viewers, he conspired with Christina to let the murder plot unfold, fake her heart attack and then have him slowly step in and arrest Michel and Nicole?
He informs them that they should both receive, “…about fifteen to twenty years hard labor, depending on your lawyer.” Under French law of the time, is this what one could draw for murder, or attempted murder? We are not given any explanation of the latter series of events, except for the final action of the film. The little boy who adamantly claimed to have earlier encountered the missing schoolmaster, now claims to have encountered the murdered Christina. One of the other school administrators tells that she has been taken away earlier that morning. Could more people, such as this administrator, have been in on some sort of elaborate counter-plot with Christina and the inspector? We are gently warned not to reveal the ending to future viewers of the film. Yet discussions of exactly how this ending should be interpreted have prevailed. It shall prevail long after the memories of other films released around this same time have faded from memory.
By some accounts, Henri-Georges Clouzot secured the rights to Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narcejac’s novel,Celle qui n’était plus (She Who Was No More) just hours before Alfred Hitchcock was able to. This was immediately after Clouzot completed his other masterwork, The Wages of Fear (1952). Another account relates that the authors did, in fact, offer the property to Hitchcock, but either he didn’t want to pay what they were asking or simply wasn’t interested. Other accounts tell that he regretted not acquiring it, so Boileau and Narcejac subsequently wrote D’Entre les Morts (From Among the Dead) especially for him. Hitchcock filmed it as Vertigo(1958).
les Diaboliques supposedly helped inspire both book and film versions of Psycho (1960). Robert Bloch, the author of the novel Psycho, has stated in an interview that his all-time favorite horror film was les Diaboliques. However, in his unauthorized autobiography, Once Around the Bloch, he doesn’t mention the film at all.
Bloch does relate the story of how Hitchcock managed to secure the screen rights to Psycho. The author was approached by agents of an anonymous production company with an offer of $9,500, which he accepted. Later he learned it was the great director and was informed of the reason all was kept in anonymity. Based on this account one can suspect that the ‘not interested’ story concerning the rights of Celle qui n’était plus could be closer to the truth. The ‘missing buying the rights by mere hours’ story makes for a better urban legend.
One can only wonder what Hitchcock would have done if he did manage to make a film of Celle qui n’était plus. Firstly, would the release title be Diabolique (or les Diaboliques)? Who would he cast in the lead roles? Maybe Grace Kelly as Christina? Either James Stewart or Cary Grant as the husband and/or the retired police inspector? Who, pray tell, could assay the role of Nicole, a co-conspirator (or co-co-conspirator)? Would the location have stayed in a less than scenic locale outside of Paris? Where would the ‘murder’ take place...in a small scenic inn on the Rivera? Would the cast be first timers (for a Hitchcock film) as was the case of the casting of Hitchcock’s landmark film of 5 years later, Psycho. Would it be lensed in a stark monochromatic technique of deep shadows, darkly lit interiors and grey exteriors? Quite possibly.
In volumes of literary analyses of the great director’s life and work, writers have indicated that because Clouzot’s opus was in black and white, shot in an almost no-frills straightforward style and utilized mostly unknown (outside of Europe) actors, Hitchcock settled on similar elements for his next project. Yet les Diaboliques as it exists, stands in a class by itself, mainly due to the artistry of Henri-Georges Clouzot.
Where would Hitch have turned up to make his infamous ‘walk on’ insertion scene? As what character? His brief scene was always within the first few minutes of the film, sometimes immediately after the title sequence. He simply may have casually walked, with that distinctive saunter, past the camera after the car enters through the gate, splashing the mud puddle that served as the background for the film’s credits. He wouldn’t be the tipsy soldier that harasses Nicole and Christina for a ride on the road at a gas station, almost exposing what they are carrying in the casket in the back of their car, or even the gas station attendant. He wouldn’t be the photographer who takes the group photo, or even the mysterious face that appears in the background window. He wouldn’t be the morgue attendant who shows Christina the body that was fished out of the Seinne, or even the body. Maybe he would’ve been standing in another nearby corner of the school building with the errant child, hands folded behind him?
Since several reviewers of the time boldly declared that Clouzot ‘out Hitchcocked, Hitchcock,’ one could find a Hitchcockian plot device within the structure of les Diaboliques: the McGuffin.
What did Clouzot include in the plot that could be the film’s McGuffin? The closest would be Michel’s suit, introduced about 30 minutes into the film’s running time. He is wearing it when he confronts Christina in the apartment in Nior. He gets whisky spilled on it and loudly declares, “My New Edwardian suit!” Since this is the mid 1950s, and the location is Europe, one can accept the fact that a man would sneak away from his home late at night, take a long train ride and confront his errant wife on a serious domestic matter wearing a ‘new Edwardian suit.’ He continues wearing it when he goes into the dirty pool. Later it very mysteriously is returned from a Paris cleaners. A retrieved key from one of it’s pockets leads the two women to even more diabolical mystery at a hotel room. He is wearing it when he emerges from the bathtub to fatally frighten Christina. Nicole remains stoic throughout all this while Christina wastes away into a fragile bundle of nerves.
Locations for les Diaboliques figure importantly, both in the storyline and as actual filming places. The run down boarding school was placed just outside of Paris. Reportedly, Clouzot utilized an abandoned manor house and grounds for the location, having the required ramshackled look he needed. The address of the cleaning establishment that cleaned Michel’s suit was 29, rue Saint Fernand. This is in the Neuilly section of Paris where Simone Signoret had lived at one time.
For several years in the 1980s and 90s my girlfriend and I stayed in a friend’s apartment in the Neuilly area, one street away. According to our Amie Parisienne, the scene in the film was filmed at the actual cleaners at the above address. The address of Christina’s solicitor (who she was lying about handling her divorce) was 64, rue Victor-Hugo, not far from the cleaners’ location. Paul Meurisse (Michel) is buried in the Cimetiere de Neuilly-sur-Seinne. The apartment where Christina and Nicole flee to is in the town of Niort, in the middle western section of France, not many kilometers from the Bay of Biscay. Henri-George Clouzot was born in the town of Niort.
An influence of les Diaboliques is evident in the film Games from 1967. Set in New York City, the story concerns a couple, played by Katherine Ross and James Caan, indulging in deadly practical jokes. Entering the scene is a mysterious lady, played by Simone Signoret, who joins in on the diabolical games the couple are playing. One game goes very wrong and results in an accidental killing (or so we’re led to believe). The very lesDiaboliques-ish ending involves the ‘dead’ victim (Don Stroud) returning to life to menace his killer and frightening her to the extreme. The purpose of all this is not to frighten her to death, but to rather force her to commit a murder. The double cross happens when it is revealed to be a plot between the husband and the mysterious stranger to have the wife put away. The triple cross happens when the mysterious stranger, in turn, poisons the husband and calmly walks away with the prize they were both to divide: money. Curtis Harrington, the director, was in turn influenced by German Expressionism with an earlier work, Night Tide.
Les Diaboliques' place among many 'Best Of' lists is assured when one views the several remakes (and rip-offs) that manifested in the years following it’s release. In 1974 Reflections of Murder appeared on TV. It was directed by John Badham and featured Tuesday Weld as the mistress Vicky, Joan Hackett as the abused wife Claire, and Sam Waterston as the husband Michael. It followed the plot closely making a few minor alterations. Instead of the wife and intended victim being an English teacher like in the original, she was a music teacher. The murder plot indeed causes her heart attack, although executed less dramatically than Vera Clouzot’s performance. The setting was Puget Sound with filming locations in Washington and Canada. Almost mirroring the fate of Vera Clouzot, Joan Hackett died a mere 9 years after Reflections of Murder. The cause was ovarian cancer, however, not any sort of heart condition.
Another TV movie appeared in 1993, House of Secrets. It was directed this time by a woman, Mimi Leder, and featured Melissa Gilbert as wife Marion Ravinel, Bruce Bosleitner as husband Dr Frank Ravinel, and Kate Fernon as Laura Morrell. The investigating detective was played by an African-American, Michael Boatman as Sgt Joe DuBois. The location was a medical clinic in Louisiana. French sounding surnames are used (an ‘homage’ to the original?). Bits of voodoo were also involved in the story. Both TV films credit Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac's novel Celle qui n’était plus, but not Henri-Georges Clouzot’s original screenplay.
A vastly inferior big budget theatrical film appeared three years later in 1996 under the American release title of the 1955 film, Diabolique. This time it was directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik and starred Sharon Stone as the mistress/co conspirator Nicole, Isabelle Adjani as the abused wife Mia, and Chazz Palminteri as the cruel headmaster, Guy. More changes are made, one of gender and a revision of the end sequence. The retired police inspector is now a woman, played by Kathy Bates, who gets totally involved in the outcome, actively preventing the ‘murder by fright’ plot. She even manipulates the outcome by belting Mia in the mouth, to provide her with more physical evidence of spousal abuse. Mia is now a former nun (in the original les Diaboliques Christina had been brought up in a convent and is very religious) and there is a hint of a lesbian relationship between Nicole and Mia. This time the location is Pennsylvania. This version of les Diaboliques credits the Henri-Georges Clouzot screenplay, indicating it to be more a remake of the original film rather than an adaptation of the original novel.
Jason Ankeny in the All Movie Guide refers to les Diaboliques as 'The greatest film that Hitchcock never made.’ Surely it could only be taken as a compliment when someone compares a work to a master like Hitchcock, indicating it as something superior.
It established a few items in the history of the Cinema. Released on the very first calendar day of 1955, it was the first foreign film to generate long lines (allegedly stretching around the block) of patrons waiting to see it. It was one of the first films to successfully utilize a "Please do not reveal the ending (or else…)" element in it’s advertising. This became a true influence on the ad campaigns of future films, including Hitchcock and the immortal William Castle. The surface emphasis of such a phrase was to stimulate a sense of guilt coupled with disappointment in patrons, thus sending patrons to a local theater.
One poster for Psycho includes the statement ‘The manager of this theater has been instructed, at the risk of his life, not to admit to this theater any persons after the picture starts.’ One could imagine some sort of official signed statement (a true cinematic collectible) that the theater manager would’ve been compelled to sign. If violated, would someone dressed in a cheap wig and shabby woman’s clothes come after him wielding a large carving knife? A poster for Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) contains the warning "Don’t dare tell the ending to anyone--you’ll be blamed for nightmares!"
Castle, who was experienced in pulling publicity stunts of all sorts--even by this time, reworked the les Diaboliques phrase at the end of the trailer for Homicidal (1961). Taking it all to extremist level, he turns to the camera and frankly states, “Please do not reveal the ending of Homicidal to your friends or they will kill you. If they don’t, I will!”
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