Criterion // 1955 // 117 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // May 16th, 2011
Don't reveal the ending!
"I may be reactionary, but this is absolutely astounding -- the legal wife consoling the mistress! No, no, and no!"
Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse, Army of Shadows) is the headmaster of a boy's boarding school. He is also a complete jerk. Despite being married to the meek Christina (Vera Clouzot, The Wages of Fear), Michel has openly engaged in a relationship with Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret, Ship of Fools), one of the teachers at the school. Michel has treated both the wife and mistress with considerable cruelty, and the two women begin to form an unlikely bond over their mutual frustration with the man. At long last, a breaking point has been reached: Christina and Nicole determine to murder the self-absorbed Michel. Despite a great deal of careful planning, things become vastly more complicated than either of the women ever anticipated.
It's said that Alfred Hitchcock was keen to make a film adaptation of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac's novel She Who Was No More, but was beaten to the punch by Henri-Georges Clouzout (who would adapt the novel as Les Diaboliques, though it's known to American viewers simply as Diabolique) by a matter of just a few hours. Watching the film, it's easy to see why Hitchcock wanted to get his hands on this plot; it's the sort of thing that was right in the middle of Hitch's comfort zone as a director. It's a considerable compliment to Mr. Clouzot when I say that it's doubtful that Hitchcock would have delivered a film more compelling and memorable than the one we actually get.
Few filmmakers were as precise as Hitchcock, but Clouzot certainly could have given the Master of Suspense a run for his money. Diabolique is a deviously fascinating piece of cinematic clockwork; a fine-tuned exercise in sleight-of-hand that surprises the first time and reveals its many nuances upon repeat viewings. Clouzot keeps the viewer so absorbed in the moment-to-moment details of the murder plot that the film's true nature sneaks up on you. It's like watching the quick movements of the second-hand on the clock so intently that you fail to notice the other two hands creeping towards midnight.
Diabolique came on the heels of Clouzot's The Wages of Fear, a masterful thriller but also a film with deep political undertones and unusual subtext. While Diabolique may feel like a leaner, more traditional genre exercise (and I suppose it is, to an extent), Clouzot still has plenty of things percolating below the surface. Upon close examination, you will realize that at no point is Diabolique simply filling time; there's a sense of meaning (and even Meaning on occasion) and purpose to everything the film does.
It's been noted that quite a few suspense/thrillers owe some measure of their success to Diabolique (the Blu-ray case suggests Psycho, Peeping Tom, and Repulsion), which remains a benchmark of its genre. Some have complained that the film is nothing more than a calculated exercise (many have even accused the film of being an exercise in cinematic cruelty), but what an exercise it is! When a director is demonstrating as much skill as Clouzot demonstrates in this film, there is no need for a film to be about more than its own unfolding. For those in love with the medium of cinema (as opposed to those simply in love with stories and characters which have come from that medium), Diabolique is essential viewing.
The performances are solid, though the performers occasionally feel like putty in the hands of the director. That is not to say that the performances are wooden, but simply that there is a slightly precise, rigid quality which suggests that very little improvisation was permitted on the set of the film (Clouzot was a famously demanding helmer). Mrs. Clouzot provides a nervous fragility, Meurisse brings a businesslike sleaze to his role and Signoret offers a slightly weary air of confident authority. Set loose among these tightly controlled performances is a single loose cannon: Charles Vanel as the detective Fitchet. Vanel's frisky, funny third-act performance somehow ratchets up the tension while simultaneously providing a welcome dose of humor to the otherwise grim proceedings. His distinctive personality is reported to have inspired Peter Falk's Columbo and Inspector Clouseau (Clouseau? Clouzot?) of The Pink Panther, along with a number of other rumpled detectives of cinema and television.
Criterion's 1080p/Full Frame transfer of Diabolique is decent, but I was surprised to note how soft much of the film looks. There are moments when the softness doesn't do much to affect the image, but there are a handful of scenes which look flat-out blurry. Still, detail is as sturdy as it can be under the circumstances and the film's natural grain structure has been left intact. Don't expect an eye-popping level of detail and depth, but it's an acceptable transfer. The audio is strong throughout, with well-captured, nuanced sound design and clean dialogue. The musical score is a little distorted during the opening titles, but otherwise there are no problems to report. Supplements are a bit light but well worth checking out: a 14-minute introduction from Serge Bromberg, a 16-minute video interview with novelist and critic Kim Newman and a scene-specific video commentary from French film scholar Kelley Conway (running about 45 minutes). You also get the original trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Terrence Rafferty.
A chilly exercise in suspense containing surprising flickers of dark playfulness, Diabolique remains a riveting experience. Criterion's Blu-ray release is well worth picking up.
Not guilty. Don't be devils!
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 117 Minutes
Release Year: 1955
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Scene-Specific Commentary
* Video Essay