Les Diaboliques (1954) Dir: Henri-Georges Clouzot
It was director Henri-Georges Clouzot [often referred to as the French Hitchcock] who made Les Diaboliques in 1954, a film that, up until the release of Psycho, was considered to be the scariest picture ever made. What he crafted was a masterwork of meticulously calculated suspense and a finely built sense of pervading dread, a film so cold and intense that it is often referred to as one of the greatest thrillers of all time, far superior to the generic thrillers that are often released nowadays. Ever captivating and intoxicatingly eerie in every sense, Les Diaboliques set a new standard for the horror genre a standard that, even to this day, has seldom been reached let alone surpassed. Les Diaboliques is a film so Hitchcockian that one often wonders why it wasnt directed by the Master of Suspense himself. Indeed, though hes been always heralded as one of the best directors of all time, he once admitted that, just as he had been a major influence on Clouzot, Clouzot had also been a major influence on him.
Hitchcocks comparison to Clouzot is one that can be easily justified; for instance, they were both thought to be la crème de la crème of their respective nations [England and France]; and not only that, but it seems as though Hitchcock borrowed Clouzots lack of music [excluding the credits] in Les Diaboliques and did practically the same in The Birds. It is also well known that Hitchcock would not let people go into Psychos showings once it had begun prior to that, Clouzot had used a similar technique at the end of Les Diaboliques, where he gave the viewers a message that read: Dont be devils! Dont spoil your friends interest in seeing the film. Dont tell them what youve seen. Thank you for their own sake. And, of course, there were many similarities of Les Diaboliques traces, so to speak in Psycho, where Hitch used analogous plot devices, twists, somewhat disturbing images and even the surprise ending. Lets not forget the infamous bathtub and shower scene [used in Clouzots and Hitchs film respectively], the former being spine-tingling and the latter, well, besides technically brilliant, completely unexpected. As a sidenote, there is also the letter Hitch once received: Sir, after seeing Les Diaboliques, 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 responded by saying: Send her to the dry cleaners.
A tyrant school headmaster named Delasalle [Paul Meurisse] in a seedy boarding school has both his wife [Vera Clouzot], who suffers from a heart condition and his mistress [Simone Signoret] continually tortured. Unbeknownst to his wife, hes having an affair with the mistress, whom hes taken into beating. Both ensnared by this domineering beast, they weave a plot together and decide to murder their tormentor. The two women drown Delasalle in the bath and then dump the body in a swimming pool. When the pool is drained and no body is found they start to worry. When his suit is returned, cleaned, they start to panic. And could Delassalle be the figure standing in the window behind the boys in a school photograph? Is he alive? Does someone else know?
Les Diaboliques is a film that starts off slowly, but it then hurtles the viewer into an unparalleled terror and anxiety; a constant sense of trepidation looming over the picture. The atmosphere that is weaved is one of the most effective that I have ever seen; despite the fact that there is no music in the film, it still manages to stand your hair on end [its unforgettable finale uses splendid use of silence, thus making the suddenness of a tiny nose all the more terrifying]. Its story, one of the finest horror-oriented ever committed onto the screen, is dark and at times macabre; there is also a slight touch of feminism added to it, what with the two women taking over and all, plus a fairly morbid sense of humour that every once in a while decides to pop up. But it is the twists and turns that lie inside it, executed with such finesse and ingenuity, which prove to be the elements that keep the film going. From the moment that no body is found, problems start to arise for the two women and everything seems to be going wrong. Rather logically, the two women are perturbed by the mysterious events and they start to get slightly baffled. Just what is happening? Where has the body gone? Not very long after a veteran inspector gets involved in the case and begins to investigate the circumstances. Everyone is aware of the headmasters bizarre disappearance, but, save for the two women, nobody knows what really occurred to him. Some claim he went away [where, it is not known], but the inspector thinks that there is something else going on, and so he suspects the two women. He asks seemingly redundant questions, likes the chew on a cigar and wears a shabby old rain coat at then end, he may have figured something out but it seems that hes been waiting for too long, and cannot do anything about it. So much pressure is exerted upon the murderesses that they are not sure what to do but it is one night that the headmaster comes back to get revenge upon those who killed him [or did they?], in one of the creepiest climaxes in the history of cinema, flawlessly realised by Clouzot. Les Diaboliques has a terror that is penetrating as hypodermic needles, a terror that engulfs the viewer and does not let go until the ending scene.
Technically, visually, Les Diaboliques is superlative. Although its main strengths may be the directors manipulation [and misguiding] of the audience, the cinematography of the film, excellently contrasting the dark with the light, evokes that sense of unbalance of the two leads and its sound design is as spooky as it is efficient. There are scenes of sheer terror, such as the bathtub scene or the ending and the acting, as always, is truly great, the female duo being the ones who stand out the most. Seldom has there been an actress able to express pure shock like Vera Clouzot, the directors wife, or to ooze as much calm sexual power as Simone Signoret did. Les Diaboliques is a film that also subtly criticises the teachers incredulity for what the kids often say. There is one specific scene in which a little kid, armed with a slingshot, states that hes seen the headmaster. Evidently, the teachers do not believe him and so they tell him to face the wall [the closing scene, marvellous, is similar and ends on a what if? note that tends to make the viewer both bewildered and astounded]. At the ending scene we dont wholly know whether what the kid says is true or not, but the possibility of it still lies, which makes it all the freakier. Clouzot often likes to play with the audience, and he does it in a rather delicate yet ever amazing way.
Over the course of time, some of the plot twists of Les Diaboliques may have been imitated countless times [its influence cannot be denied], yet it still manages to both terrify and enthral, in a way very few films have done. Sinister, densely atmospheric and incredibly intriguing, Les Diaboliques is one of the best horror films ever made. This is a film so layered and balanced, so terrifying and yet so exquisite its hard to describe, but one thing is for certain: Les Diaboliques is not for the faint of heart, come to think of it.