At the end of this film, which will be screened on September 6th, a title card reads: ‘Don’t be diabolical. Don’t destroy the interest your friends might take in this film. Don’t tell them what you have seen. Thank you on their behalf.’ It was a tactic Hitchcock would adopt a few years later for Psycho (1960).
So what can I say? If you have already seen this film, I trust you can keep quiet about one of its great pleasures. I saw it as a teenager and have never forgotten it’s effect. However, the end is not its greatest pleasure: its tight plot, expert pacing, atmosphere and understated characters are all superb too.
Often called the greatest film Hitchcock did not make (one review calls it More Psycho than Psycho), Les Diabolique (variously The Devils or The Fiends) is a psychological thriller and was the 10th highest grossing film of 1955, selling over three million box-office receipts in France alone. Most reviews urge you NOT to watch its 1996 American remake with Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani, but to read the subtitles of this original.
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907-1977) and starring Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot, Paul Meurisse and Charles Vanel, this finely wrought film blends elements of thriller and horror in a story that focuses on two women, Nicole and Christina (right); the wife and mistress of a sadistic boarding school headmaster plot to kill him! After drowning him in the bathtub and dumping the body in the school’s swimming pool, they wait for something to come to the surface … and wait … and wait until the pool is finally drained and …. that’s when their problems really start!
When Clouzot bought the film rights to the original novel (Celle qui n’était plus [She Who Was No More] by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac] he reportedly did so just in time as he beat Alfred Hitchcock to the deal by only a matter of hours.We can only speculate on what Hitchcock might have done with a script that is carried by the performances of two powerful women and a theme that apparently credits females with all the power. Not that Clouzot was without Hitchcock’s sadistic sensibility: it is believed he actually had his is wife, Véra Clouzot, served with rotten fish on the set to ensure her character would look genuinely sick with worry!
Clouzot could make a great film noir even before the term was invented. He was an expert not in the dark and diabolical underside of the human soul but in shabby secrecy and the terror of accident or discovery. At its core, Les Diaboliques is a story of avarice, love and craftiness. Its psychological suspense forces us to enter into the mind and soul of the characters and the ultimate question is: Just who are “the devils/ fiends?” Are all the characters devils? Don’t look for Clouzot’s exquisitely imaginative screenplay to give anything away about this: it’s a question to discuss in the pub afterwards!
As for visual motifs: water plays in important role. As well as rain and drizzle that never seems far away, the crumbling boarding school where much of the action takes place has a swimming pool filled with a murky stagnancy that almost gives off the moldy smell of a menacing cadaver, lending the whole film the grimness of nightmares.
There is also a hint (very taboo in 1955, but present also in Clouzot’s 1947 film Quai des Orfèvres – which we screened in October, 2013) that Nicole may have lesbian designs on Christina. In any case, only a French film could, in 1955, run with a backstory that takes for granted a wife so defeated by her husband’s abuse and his open affair with one of the school teachers, that she lets him continue running the school – which she owns!
The retired detective, Alfred Fichet (Charles Vanel, left) is never seen without his shabby coat and constantly chews on a stubby cigar as he asks inconvenient questions. Remind you of anybody? Fichet provided the inspiration for Peter Falk’s TV character Columbo.
The film also contributed to a funny anecdote in screen history: Hitchcock once received a fan letter that read: “Sir, After seeing ‘Diabolique,’ 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 replied: “Send her to the dry cleaners.”