Diabolique: Scariest Film Ever Made (Criterion Version)

One of the scariest and most suspenseful films ever made, Henri-George Clouzot’s “Diabolique” features the kind of shock ending that sent audiences back in 1955 screaming out of the theaters.

Les Diaboliques
Lesdiaboliquesposter.jpg

Theatrical release poster

I think the French title, “Les Diaboliques” (which translates into “The Devils”) is better and more accurate.

Set in an extremely strict, provincial boarding school, the film revolves around a callous, rigid school master, Michel Delasalle (Paul Meurisse), his rich, fragile wife, Christina Delasalle (Vera Clouzot, the director’s real wife) and his mistress, Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret).

Les Diaboliques (1955) - trailer
2:32 Les Diaboliques (1955) – trailer; YouTubeTrailers

Seemingly a cold-blooded murderess, Nicole helps Christina kill her abusive husband by poisoning him, then dumping his body in the pool of the school.

For some reasons, Christina believes that her husband is still alive.  The next day, when the pool is drained, no body is found there.  Adding to her fears is the report of some school boys that they have seen their master.

As the investigation of Michel’s death proceeds, the tension between the two women increases.

No doubt, “Diabolique” is a cruel, coldly calculated exercise in cinema, manipulating viewers in the best (and worst) possible ways.  As director, Clouzot uses every trick to keep us guessing up to the final shot, which is utterly shocking (and cannot be disclosed here).

“Diabolique” also contains an effective “eyeball” scene, which is easily on the same level as that in “Un Chien Andalou” by Bunuel and Dali, and the memorable image of Janet Leigh’s eye at the end of the murder in Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”

Speaking of Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense was so impressed with Clouzot’s film that he decided to out do him, and “Diabolique” is believed to influence the 1960 “Psycho.” (But, for me, “Diabolique” is far more cruel, chilly, and frightening on any level).

The screenplay is based on a popular novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who later wrote “D’Entre Les Mortes,” which served as the source material for Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” considered by many critics to be his greatest masterpiece.

Upon its initial release the film created a sensation among viewers.  It’s one of the most commercially successful pictures in France’s film history.  According to one estimate, about 20 percent of the French population saw the picture, which enjoyed a very long theatrical run.

The film also enjoyed critical acclaim from the more cerebral reviewers.  The venerable New York Film Critics Circle honored “Diabolique” as Best Foreign language film, declaring a tie with Vittorio De Sica’s neo-realistic film “Umberto D.”

Life imitates art: Véra Clouzot died of heart attack five years after the film was made, at the young age of 46.

Spoiler Alert

Signoret’s Nicol pretends to kill her married lover with the assistance of his meek wife, only to drive the wife crazy, in order to reunite with the husband-lover.

End Note:

Steer clear of the American remake, “Diabolic,” in 1996, starring Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani, which is vastly disappointing.

Cast

Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret)

Christina Delasalle (Vera Clouzot)

Michel Delasalle (Paul Meurisse)

Credits

Produced and directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot

Screenplay: Clouzot, Jerome Geronimi, Frederic Grendel, Rene Masson, based on the novel, “Celle Qui N’etait Pas” by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

Camera; Armand Thirard

Editing; Madeleine Gug

Music: George Van Parys

Art direction; Leon Barsacq

Distributed by Cinédis (France); UMPO (US); Gala Film Dists. (UK)

Release date: January 29, 1955 (France); November 21, 1955 (US)

Running time: 114 minutes; 107 minutes (US)