Maddy at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films is hosting the Horrorathon, celebrating horror movies in the light of the forthcoming Halloween, and I have decided to contribute with a short review of one intelligent and highly influential film which some view to be one of the parents of the modern psychological horror/thriller genre:
Les Diaboliques (1955)
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s French-language film “Les Diaboliques” is the film which Alfred Hitchcock was dying to make, but never did (he ardently wanted to buy the rights to the book). The film is not a strictly horror movie, but, rather, a psychological thriller with suspense and horror elements combined. Here, two women, Christina and Nicole, the wife and the mistress of the oppressing director of a boarding school respectively, decide to kill their man and dispose of the body. Everything goes according to plan, but does it really? After the murder, the two women realise that the corpse of their victim is nowhere to be found and the mystery seems to deepen with each passing day.
The thing to note here is that “Les Diaboliques” plays out so unassumingly for the majority of its time. The plot seems simple: Michel Delassalle is a tyrannical and mean director of a boarding school for boys, and the two women under his direction are fed up with his abuse towards them and the children. Nicole and Christina are friends and decide to kill Michel to relieve themselves of their oppression, and they do so by luring Michel out, sedating him and killing him by drowning in a bathtub. Now, the suspense throughout the key moments of the film is high indeed, and the focus is especially on frail Nicole as she is most affected by her husband’s murder. There are fascinating mental breakdowns here shown, and one mystery after another surfaces, while the detective, who would like to investigate the disappearance of Christina’s husband, is seemingly getting closer and closer to the truth. The real realisation or the “payoff” comes only at the very end of the film. However, the twist at the end is so unexpectedly mind-blowing, and so cleverly constructed and presented, that the film’s length and its slow pace become justified. This means that, upon watching “Les Diaboliques”, it will be almost necessary to re-watch the film, because the audience undoubtedly missed some important clues or expressions when watching it for the first time.
Based on the novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac titled “Celle qui n’était plus” (“She who was no more”), “Les Diaboliques” is the kind of a film whose plot is filled with hidden agendas and clues, and it is for that reason, probably, that Hitchcock wanted so badly to make the film. In fact, instances of “Les Diaboliques” are clearly evident in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960), especially the run of a female from a male down the road to hide the crime, and the use of the character of a nosy detective who, finally, has right theories about the crime. Nowadays, the film’s first part reminds of Ridley Scott’s “Thelma and Louise” (1991), a movie which looked to “Les Diaboliques” for some inspiration. However, “Les Diaboliques” is also miles away from “Thelma and Louise“, because of its emphasis on spiritual/psychological horror and suspense. The film’s use of light and sound is admirable, but it is probably the film’s culmination which will not leave anyone without a lasting impression.
The cast of the film also does a great job. Simone Signoret plays a woman with the nerves of steel, Nicole Horner, who is contrasted nicely with fragile and vulnerable wife of the victim, Christina, played by Véra Clouzot, who also happens to be the wife of director Henri-Georges Clouzot. Paul Meurisse, as a diabolical husband Michel, is also good, while Charles Vanel, as a private detective Alfred, has a certain eccentricity and cool rationality about him which later gave the push to invent such a notable character as Lieutenant Columbo.
“Les Diaboliques” may start and continue like one’s ordinary psychological thriller with a murder and mystery involved, but, in the end, it is evident that the film is something very original, very thought-provoking and more intelligent than first assumed. The twist is very effective, necessitating a second viewing of the movie. Maybe, “Les Diaboliques” should have been less dull in some parts half-way through, but it is definitely ground-breaking in what it ultimately suggests and, with exemplary direction and acting, it really is the classic movie to watch this Halloween season. 9/10