Friday, July 21, 2017

Les Diaboliques (Diabolique to We English Speakers)

(This blog post is part of the 'Til Death Do Us Part Blogathon hosted by Cinemaven's Essays from the Couch)

When people think of influential horror thrillers directed by a master filmmaker, they are usually inclined to think of Alfred Hitchcock's classic Psycho (1960). Those who are a bit more knowledgeable about film history might also think of Michael Powell's classic Peeping Tom (1960). While both Psycho and Peeping Tom were very influential, however, years before either movie was released there was a French horror thriller directed by a master filmmaker that would be as influential as either of them. Les Diaboliques (1955) was directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, who had earlier directed such classics as Manon (1949) and Le salaire de la peur (1953--in English The Wages of Fear). The film was released in English speaking countries as Diabolique. Not only would it prove to be a hit throughout the English speaking world, but it would have an impact that is still felt to this day.

At the centre of Diabolique is a love triangle, although one that is certainly atypical. Michel Delassalle (played by Paul Meurisse) is a schoolmaster of a school outside Paris that is owned by his wife Christina (played by Véra Clouzot). Deslassalle is abusive towards Christina, even to the point of physical violence. Delassale is carrying on an affair with a teacher at the school, Nicole Horner (played by Simone Signoret), to whom he is also abusive. Rather than being jealous of each other, Delassalle's wife Christina and his mistress Nicole bond over their mutual hatred of Delassalle. It is not long before the two of them hatch a plot to kill him. From there on out I really cannot reveal anything without spoiling the movie for those who have not seen it. Indeed, Diabolique has twists that make the twist in Psycho look small in comparison. Because of this the closing credits included a title 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."

Diabolique was based on the novel Celle qui n'était plus by Boileau-Narcejac. Henri-Georges Clouzot claimed that none other than Alfred Hitchcock himself tried optioning Celle qui n'était, but was beat out by Mr. Couzot by a mere matter of hours. Whether true or not, Diabolique would certainly have a influence on Alfred Hitchcock, as well as other English language filmmakers (as will be addressed below). 

It was planned that Diabolique would be shot in only eight weeks. Ultimately it would take sixteen weeks. Things were not always pleasant on the set. Henri-Georges Clouzot and Simone Signoret were constantly at odds with each other. Véra Clouzot alternately found herself either arbitrating Mr. Clouzot and Miss Singoret's fights in an attempt to get them to make peace or egging both of them on. To make matters worse, Simone Signoret began rehearsals for a production of The Crucible twelve weeks into the shooting of Diabolique. She had to go straight from shooting Diabolique to rehearsing The Crucible and as a result got little sleep over the next four weeks. By the time Diabolique wrapped up production, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Simone Signoret, and Véra Clouzot were no longer speaking to each other. Strangely enough, Paul Meurisse, who played the villainous Michel, was the only actor who remained on good terms with both the director and his two leading ladies!

Les Diaboliques was released in France on January 29 1955. The film proved to be a major hit in France.  What is more remarkable is that it also proved to be a hit in the English speaking world, where foreign language films often do not do particularly well. When it was released in the United Kingdom it was often part of a double bill with a Hammer film, X the Unknown (1956). When it was released in the United States it was often part of a double bill with another Hammer film, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), the film that would start a string of Hammer Gothic horror movies that would last for nearly 20 years. 

Diabolique not only made a good deal of money in the United Kingdom and the United States, but it also received a good deal of critical acclaim. It won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Film. It also won a special Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Foreign Film. Curiously, despite its critical acclaim in the English speaking world, Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard of the influential publication Cahiers du cinema disliked the film and regarded such older filmmakers as Henri-Georges Clouzot as playing it safe. What they failed to realise is that in making Diabolique in many ways Mr. Clouzot produced something as risky, if not more so, than the films they would make. 

The success of Diabolique would not be lost on other filmmakers. It was the success of French thriller Diabolique in the United States that inspired William Castle to produce his own low budget horror movie. That movie would be Macabre (1958), the first of Mr. Castle's many horror movies produced on shoestring budgets. Jimmy Sangster, both a screenwriter and director for Hammer Films, referred to Diabolique as one of his favourite films of all time. It should then come as no surprise that Hammer's psychological thrillers often owe more to Diabolique than they do Psycho. This is particularly true of Hemmer's first psychological thriller Taste of Fear (1961). Unlike Hammer's Gothic horror movies, Hammer's psychological thrillers were shot in black and white and often on low budgets. Their plots often resembled Diabolique more so than some better known, English language thrillers.Some have even seen the influence of Diabolique on Alfred Hitchcock himself. This is certainly true of Psycho, down to the film's director asking its audiences not to reveal its twist ending, but some have even seen the influence of Diabolique on Vertigo. Precisely how I can't reveal because, well, of spoilers.

As to the reason for Diabolique's success, there can be little doubt that it was a unique film at the time of its release. Very few films before Diabolique had ever blended the horror and thriller genres the way it did. And while spouses killing spouses was a common trope even in 1955 (indeed, it would be the theme of many episodes of a show that debuted that year, Alfred Hitchcock Presents), Diabolique played with the trope in a way that no other film ever had before.  Quite simply, Diabolique took a common trope (spouses murdering spouses) and did in a such a way that was downright shocking at the time.

Ultimately the influence of Diabolique is still felt today. From Silence of the Lambs (1991) to Seven (1995), it is no longer unusual for movies to blend elements of horror movies and psychological thrillers. Diabolique was the film that started it all. 


kebma2424 said...

Great review. Looking forward to more of the posts in the Till Death Do Us Part Blogathon. I posted my take on Blood Simple this morning. Thanks for pointing out the influence Clouzot had on directors down the line. He is one of my favorites, but i often have to hard sell him. i can still remember my reaction to the conclusion the first time i saw Diabolique, which thankfully was on a big screen in the dark with a crowd of people (Thank you Detroit Film Theatre!) Great film!!

bien joue

Quiggy said...

I bought this and the classic D.O.A. on VHS back in the early 90's (for $1 each...) I wore out both of them. It was my first real collection of film noir movies. Fantastic memories garnered from just reading your review.

Caftan Woman said...

I only saw this film once, as presented on TVOntario (our public television) during my teen years. Even the title can make me jump out of my skin! A perfect choice for this blogathon, I cannot imagine. Well done, my friend.

Silver Screenings said...

Thanks for not including spoilers, although it might have made this a tricky essay to write...? Your review has me keen to see this film, especially your references to "Psycho". Thanks also for the behind-the-scenes history, too.


Diabolique was such a good movie! It left me speechless with all the plot twists. I also find it interesting that Véra Clouzot was born in Brazil, and in many moments in this film looks like Greta Garbo!
Wonderful review.