Criterion // 1954 // 116 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Justice Sean McGinnis (Retired) // September 12th, 1999
Stay away from the swimming pool.
Henri-Georges Clouzot crafted, in Diabolique, a masterpiece of suspense with interesting characters and one of the finest plot twists of its time. Too bad this disc didn't receive the typical Criterion treatment in the way of extras.
Diabolique tells the story of a wicked headmaster, Michel Delasalle, who runs a school owned by his wife, Christina. Michel is a dastardly fellow who verbally abuses Christina and physically abuses his mistress, Nicole Horner, also a teacher at the school. In fact, he openly flaunts his relationship with Nicole in front of Christina, further hinting at his controlling nature. All this is learned in the first five minutes of the film, which says a lot about Clouzot's ability, as a director, to set the pace of a film.
Actually, the first thirty minutes of the film complete the plot setup. Nicole has convinced Christina to help her kill Michel in a way that no-one will ever now he was murdered. The two women plan to lure Michel to Nicole's hometown to drug and drown him in a bathtub, only to return the body to the school's pool. This should make everything look either accidental or suicidal, says Nicole.
I can't go much further into the plot without giving away one of the best and most original endings in the history of film (also one of the most famous, so you probably know it anyway). In fact, director Clouzot pleads with the viewer, in the final frame of the film, not to spoil the ending for those who have not seen the picture. But if you insist in knowing more about the plot, there are a few other reviews of this film out there which take one more step in their description of what happens. My feeling is that to go any further wastes an awfully well written setup.
This film has been emulated countless times since its debut, and even copied outright by Hollywood. The question then is what makes this film so much more powerful than its many imitators? My answer is Clouzot and the story he tells. As an example, let's compare Diabolique with another film I liked quite a bit, Wild Things. The major difference is that Clouzot dwells on the persona of his characters and examines both their motives and the effect their choices have on their fragile psyches. Wild Things does none of this. While the plot twists and turns of that film are enough to entertain me, it still falls a bit short, especially when compared to Diabolique.
Diabolique and Clouzot have been compared favorably with Hitchcock and Psycho so many times, one might imagine them related in some strange, far off way. In fact, it has been said that Diabolique had a very strong influence on Hitchcock and his decisions while making Psycho. Both directors use water as a symbol of death, when up till then it was only used to represent life. In another sign of his admiration for Clouzot, Hitchcock adapted Vertigo from D'Entre Les Morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the writers of the novel adapted to Diabolique, Celle Qui N'Etait Plus.
The acting here is very well done, despite Clouzot's famed dislike of actors (another trait he had in common with Hitchcock). Vera Clouzot, wife of the director, plays Christina the frail and sickly wife in such a way as to virtually carry the film. We see in her all the pain and anguish of the decision she has made. A religious woman, Christine is forever burdened by the fact that she murdered her husband. Simone Signoret plays Nicole as a fairly masculine character, one who nearly overpowers Christina both physically and emotionally. Paul Meurisse was outstanding as Michel as well. Deviant and scummy throughout his performance, he gave Michel just the right coloration of character, someone to be hated and despised -- someone who deserved to die. Lastly, Charles Vanel must be singled out for his performance as the bumbling Inspector Fichet who appears later in the film to investigate Michel's disappearance. His character clearly created the notion of the rumpled, crumpled P.I., only to be copied many times over and to varying degrees from Peter Falk's Columbo to Peter Sellers' Jacques Clouseau.
The transfer of this film is pretty good, but far from perfect. The black and white full frame image has been transferred digitally from a 35MM fine grain composite master, which in turn was made from a restored negative. There is some grain evident here, but not enough to be totally distracting. The restoration probably improved the negative, but there are still some significant nicks and scars present. Which is all okay, given the fact this 1954 film probably looks as good as it ever has.
The mono soundtrack is French only, which is bad news for you fans of English dubbing. Personally I prefer reading subtitles to watching a foreign language film badly dubbed with English speaking actors. That reminds me entirely too much of a bad Godzilla Saturday-morning-fest. But, the subtitles were difficult to read in this film for one of a couple of reasons. The first may have been Clouzot's pacing. As noted above, this film is beautifully paced and a very taught thriller. The second may have to do with the native language being French. Whatever the cause, this film was much, MUCH harder to follow than Nights of Cabiria. That might also be attributed to the many silences and very slow pacing of Cabiria which is more like a walk in the park when compared to Diabolique's 440 yard run. The bottom line is that the challenge is not too great and the film is worth the struggle in every way. Do not let that keep you from at least renting this film.
This is a terrific film deserving of a viewing by any serious film buff. If not for the story, at least for the history, and for the fact that it has inspired so many other directors and stories.
The film is acquitted. The disc needs more work and deserves the complete Criterion treatment. Please re-release this as a special edition.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 1954
MPAA Rating: Not Rated