Monday, August 3, 2020

Les Diaboliques: Murder with a Twist

Vera Clouzot and Simone Signoret.
Michel Delassalle, the headmaster at a second-rate French boarding school, is not a nice person. He treats his frail wife Christina with disdain, openly engages in an affair with fellow teacher Nicole, and buys bad fish because it’s cheap. He even waters down the wine served to the staff at dinner!

The strong-willed Nicole, who wears sunglasses to hide her recent black eye, is fed up with her abusive lover. She convinces Christina that murder is the only way to get rid of Michel permanently. The two women devise a seemingly foolproof scheme that provides them with solid alibis. And everything works according to plan—except, of course, that Michel’s corpse disappears.

Made in 1955, Les Diaboliques is the forerunner to the twisty psychological thrillers, like Psycho and Homicidal, that became prevalent in the 1960s. Even Hitchcock was interested in adapting the novel She Was No More by Boileau-Narcejac. However, filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot purchased the rights after his wife Vera recommended the book.

Simone Signoret as Nicole.
Vera Clouzot also stars as Christina, infusing the role with vulnerability and timidity. Even the boys in her classes recognize her fragility (though she is easily the most popular teacher). Filled with doubt from the outset, Christina needs a strong conspirator and finds one in Nicole. Simone Signoret plays the role with authority and an almost masculine flavor. While her fellow teachers struggle with unruly boys, Nicole’s students march out of their classroom in single file. (The very nature of Nicole’s personality provides a clue to the twist ending.)

Paul Meurisse as Michel.
Henri-Georges Clouzot, whose previous film was the acclaimed Wages of Fear, directs with a sure hand. He fills his frames with shadows and furtive looks. He builds tension effectively, especially in a scene in which a frightened Christina watches from her classroom as a swimming pool—which should contain Michel’s corpse—is drained. Clouzot also adds a touch of dark humor, such as when some upstairs neighbors complain about the noise in Nicole’s apartment, not realizing that a bath tub is being filled to drown a drugged Michel. 

Les Diaboliques has been remade multiple times. Curtis Harrington’s Games is a loose variation starring Simone Signoret again. Tuesday Weld, Joan Hackett, and Sam Waterston appeared in a 1974 TV adaptation called Reflections of Murder. Another notable version was the 1996 theatrical film Diabolique with Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani.

We recommend just sticking with the original, though. Clouzot's taut direction, combined with strong acting by the lead actresses, make Les Diaboliques an influential thriller that has stood the test of time. That said, if you're a fan of twist endings, don't expect to be blown away. It's really not that surprising by today's standards, but that's only because the format has been replicated so many times since its release.


Caftan Woman said...

Tension? I almost began holding my breath while reading your review!

Those disappearing corpses will get you every time.

Mike said...

This and Wages of Fear both excellent films!

Christian Esquevin said...

This is one of my favorite thrillers Rick. I still remember the punch from viewing it unawares many years ago. Great acting and script. Of course the authors subsequent book D'entre Deux Morts, became the basis of Vertigo. If your read it it is very similar to Hitchcock's classic. Thanks for reviewing this great film.

Silver Screenings said...

I don't think I've seen any version of this story, so I'm looking forward to seeing this one.

The Metzinger Sisters said...

Its been years since I've seen this gem! Your review makes me want to watch it again and soon....its great for the Halloween season.