Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Les Diaboliques

(France, 1955)

One more gap in my cinema knowledge filled in. There are still a few real classics out there I haven’t seen, but now there is one less.

Henri-Georges Clouzot was the French Hitchcock, though with less of a sense of humor and the absurd. In fact, Hitch wanted this script, and Clouzot beat him out by a matter of hours, or so the legend goes. Before this he made Le Salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear), absolutely one of the most suspenseful movies ever made, and part of a really rare twosome: William Friedkin remade it—almost always a bad idea—and Sorcerer was almost as good as the original. Better in some parts. (Sorcerer is my nominee for Worst Movie Title of All Time, in the sense that it would have been a great title for a swords and dragons epic, but totally stinks as the title of a movie about men driving trucks full of unstable dynamite through the jungle. People didn’t know what they were being asked to shell out money for, so it never found its audience. Even worse, it began with four subtitled sequences, deadly in the US at that time. People were walking out, indignant. The producers even went back and added a card in front assuring the audience that this was an English language film. Didn’t work; the film still laid an egg.)

I won’t even get into the plot. Clouzot included a plea at the end, basically “Don’t tell your friends what happens!” Again, he was ahead of Hitchcock, who didn’t allow anyone to be seated in the theater during the last half hour of Psycho, a revolutionary idea back then, when people often wandered in at any time, watched the end, then stayed for the cartoon, newsreel, short subject, the second feature, and the beginning. Suffice it to say that the surprise ending carries a lot less fright value today than it did back then, when it must have been awesome. Today, a writer would have added two or three more “surprise” twists. That’s not a bad thing, I guess—we’re a lot harder to surprise now than we were in 1955—but it’s so seldom done well.

Stylistically it’s very noir, very deliberate in building its suspense, and very well acted by the icy Simone Signoret, the loathsome Paul Meurisse, and the scared-shitless Vera Clouzot, the director’s wife. I will be haunted for a long time by Mme. Clouzot’s final scene. I do, however, have a big question concerning the end. Unfortunately, I can’t ask it here without revealing way too much. So if you’ve already seen the film, click HERE to see the question.