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Among the most enduringly popular motives for murder, in films as in life, is the desire to remove an impediment to happiness—to get somebody, once and for all, out of the way. In life, of course, the goal of freeing oneself by canceling the existence of another human being is frequently thwarted by the haste and clumsiness of the means, the hot urgency of the killer’s drive overriding his better judgment about the care required to escape detection. His guilt becomes obvious, he gets caught, and that desperately hoped-for happiness flies out the window. Clever murderers—of whom there are, thankfully, many more in fiction and movies than in life—temper their homicidal passion with meticulous calculation, arranging their dark deeds with the tender artifice necessary to make unnatural death look natural. They’re artists, of a sort. And the fact that there is no such thing as a perfect murder or a perfect work of art has never stopped either a murderer or an artist from trying.
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s cool, clammy, twisty 1955 thriller Diabolique is an almost perfect movie about a very nearly perfect murder, a film in which the artist’s methods and the killers’ are ideally matched, equal in cunning and in ruthlessness. The screenplay, adapted by Clouzot and three other writers from a novel by the crack French crime-fiction team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, is a fantastically elaborate piece of contrivance, but the scrupulous realism of the direction makes the unnatural tale somehow feel entirely likely. From the opening shot—of a stagnant, scummy pool, which later proves to be both an important element of the plot and an apt metaphor for the film’s unwholesome conception of human nature—the director and his cinematographer, Armand Thirard, place us in a murky, overcast, oppressively drab world, the kind of physical and mental landscape in which nothing ever seems to happen, and anything can.
The three main characters, who work at a boys’ boarding school just outside Paris, are presented initially as weary prisoners of a numbing quotidian routine. The headmistress and headmaster are an unhappy married couple, Christina (Véra Clouzot) and Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse); Christina, who is from a wealthy South American family, supplies the funds, which Michel manages, stingily. Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret), the science and math teacher, is a voluptuous blonde with a dubious past and is also, quite openly, Michel’s mistress. Not that M. Delassalle appears to appreciate the two attractive and intelligent women in his life. He abuses both, physically and verbally, and revels in his petty power. He abuses his position at the school, too, doling out disproportionate punishments for his pupils’ most trivial infractions and pinching pennies with unseemly relish: the children are underfed and the staff dines on bad fish and cheap wine, two small, strictly rationed glasses per meal.
Michel Delassalle is, in short, begging to be killed, for the general good; he’s pretty much the Platonic ideal of a deserving murder victim. So it’s really no surprise that his wife and his mistress should become, for this worthy purpose, partners in crime. But because they will be the obvious suspects, their crime has to be uncommonly artful—a meticulously constructed fiction of accidental death. It would probably be unwise, and certainly inconsiderate, to reveal more here. Diabolique is a movie whose effect depends crucially on surprise, on the detonation of exquisitely timed little shocks to the audience’s system, and ultimately on the pleasure of realizing how cleverly you’ve been played. The film even includes an end title sternly warning viewers not to blab about what they’ve just seen (“Don’t be devils!”).
Diabolique was Clouzot’s seventh feature, and it represents, arguably, the peak of his critical and commercial success. The film was extremely popular in France, won the prestigious Prix Louis-Delluc, and became a major international hit. Alfred Hitchcock, who had once toyed with the idea of filming the story himself, was an admirer; it’s reported that he screened it for the writers of both Vertigo (1958)—which was, like Diabolique, based on a Boileau-Narcejac novel—and Psycho (1960). André Bazin, the great critic of Cahiers du cinéma, acclaimed it as Clouzot’s “most perfect” film, though he considered it a “minor” achievement compared with the director’s previous picture, The Wages of Fear (1953), an ambitious and excruciatingly suspenseful adventure story about men transporting a truckload of nitroglycerin along some very, very poorly maintained South American roads.
Clouzot had by this point in his strange, sporadic career become known as something of a specialist in the engineering of cinematic tension, a master both of the traditional policier and of less easily classifiable nail-biters like The Wages of Fear. He was not renowned for his personal warmth or for his openness to suggestions on the set; his films were smooth-running, precisely designed machines, and only he, he clearly believed, knew how to build and operate them properly. Clouzot was born in Niort (the very town to which the women of Diabolique lure their victim for the purpose of dispatching him) in 1907, and spent most of the 1930s as a screenwriter because his fragile health made directing too strenuous. Once he recovered his strength, he directed his first film, a suave policier called L’assassin habite au 21, in 1942, and followed it with the remarkable thriller Le corbeau in 1943, a film that got him into trouble with everybody—the Germans, the Vichy government, the Communist-dominated Resistance—and resulted in his being banned from the French film industry for a short period after the war. The movie, which has to do with the effect of a series of poison-pen letters on the life of a small town, is a thinly disguised condemnation of collaboration, but it was financed by the German-run company Continental, and that offended many of his compatriots. (As did the film’s advertising campaign, which characterized this venomous village as a “typical French town.” True or not, Le corbeau’s image of “typical” Frenchness was considered not helpful for wartime morale.)
When Clouzot was allowed to direct again, in 1947, he came out with one of his richest films, the theatrical murder mystery Quai des Orfèvres, in which the thick, sensuous backstage atmosphere and the tangled passions of the flamboyant characters are so beautifully detailed as to make the whodunit plot seem almost irrelevant (though he does also supply, for genre fans, a wonderfully peevish police detective, played by Louis Jouvet). After a couple of less successful projects—an adaptation of l’Abbé Prévost’s classic novel Manon Lescaut, called simply Manon (1949), and the failed comedy Miquette et sa mère (1950)—he returned to suspense with The Wages of Fear, and hit his stride again. With that film and Diabolique, he became, for a time, one of his country’s most celebrated directors. His status gave him the freedom to take a risk: his next movie was the extraordinary documentary Le mystère Picasso (1956), in which the great artist creates dozens of drawings and paintings before our astonished eyes, each brushstroke seeming to take shape directly on the screen. The film was a flop at the box office; it has since been declared a national treasure by the French government.
Clouzot’s position in the French film industry may have seemed an enviable one in the midfifties, but over the next few years, that industry began to change dramatically, and well-established directors found themselves losing their footing, buffeted by relentless gusts of hostility from younger critics and would-be filmmakers. Bazin’s youthful colleagues at Cahiers du cinéma, who included François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette, wrote furious diatribes against successful older directors like Clouzot, whom the young Turks saw as cautious, conventional, sclerotic—as obstacles to the development of a vital French cinema. The Cahiers du cinéma critics had a sneering name for the older generation: the Tradition of Quality.
Whether Clouzot belonged in that company or not is debatable. One of Cahiers du cinéma’s beefs with the older generation was its penchant for filming safe, respectable material, such as adaptations of the classics of French literature; Clouzot did that exactly once, with Manon. But it’s true that his filmmaking techniques were relatively traditional and highly controlled, and that he tended to work in genres that afforded some prospect of commercial success. The critics who scourged Clouzot were plotting the revolution that, not long after, became known as the nouvelle vague, and revolutions are messy, as the French, of all people, should know. Some victims are innocent. Not every head that rolls deserves to.
Clouzot’s reputation was collateral damage. Although none of his carefully wrought films (he made only three more, of diminishing interest, after Le mystère Picasso) have much in common with freewheeling nouvelle vague works like Breathless or Shoot the Piano Player (both 1960), he wasn’t a stiff either, and his mordant vision of human iniquity doesn’t suggest an artist who slavishly courted acclaim and respectability. Quai des Orfèvres, with its buzzing profusion of vivid minor characters and its tangy evocation of the theatrical life, at times almost recalls the Jean Renoir of the thirties, and even in the claustrophobic Diabolique, the unusual vigor of the compositions and of the performances helps keep the on-screen action consistently alive, even—though of course it’s an illusion—natural. The schoolboys are marvelously unruly and peculiar; the other teachers (one of them played by Michel Serrault, later famous as the drag queen Albin in La cage aux folles) are hilariously pedantic and passive-aggressive; Signoret, whose every gesture is brusque, irritable, quietly violent, gives a superb portrayal of a dangerously bitter woman. And again Clouzot provides a memorable and unconventional detective, here a sly and deceptively amiable old man played by the wrinkly, slow-moving Charles Vanel. And he manages both the complicated plot and the film’s visual metaphors (water chief among them) with unusual grace: his technique is so sure that it seems, paradoxically, a kind of freedom.
Henri-Georges Clouzot was, at his best, as in Diabolique, a terrific filmmaker. And he was an artist who, in his dedication to his own demons, his pitch-black vision of human nature, fulfilled at least some of the aesthetic criteria laid down by the Cahiers du cinéma critics and nouvelle vague revolutionaries. It’s a shame they felt that they had to get him out of the way.
Terrence Rafferty is the author of The Thing Happens: Ten Years of Writing About the Movies and a frequent contributor to the New York Times and DGA Quarterly.