Release Date: November 21st, 1955 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot Actors: Simone Signoret, Vera Clouzot, Paul Meurisse, Charles Vanel, Jean Brochard
he Delassalle Boarding School in Paris is run by a particularly cruel headmaster, Michel (Paul Meurisse), who is accustomed to mistreating his students, his employees, and especially his sickly, fragile wife Christina “Cricri” (Vera Clouzot) Delassalle. His mistress Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret) is also physically abused. The two battered women decide to hatch a plot to do away with Michel, starting by having Christina announce divorce plans, followed by the continually upbraiding man tracking her down in Niort. It is there that they drug him and then drown him in the bathtub, ferry the corpse back to the institution and dump it into the disused, murky swimming pool. The terror has just begun, however, as the water is eventually drained and Michel’s body is not found.
It’s an intriguing pairing of women: one is insecure, doubtful, and hesitant; the other is intense, strong-willed, and calculating. They’re perfect opposites to conduct a morbid murder, allowing for the execution to be suspenseful yet faulty. The duo is smart enough to arrange an alibi and a large wicker trunk to conceal the stiff for transportation to a different location. But as with most crime thrillers, things don’t go according to plan – a snapped piece of string nearly reveals Michel’s bloated corpse, a drunken soldier almost exposes leakage from the makeshift casket, and a boarding school resident gives them a scare by turning on his light just as they discard the body into the turbid water. Matters become tenser when, after a few days, the dead body hasn’t risen. It’s too much for Christina’s guilty conscience.
The murder plot is introduced quickly and the deed is done shortly thereafter. What makes “Diabolique” (originally “Les Diaboliques,” which translates to The Devils or The Fiends) so amusing is that the majority of the film focuses on the disturbing possibilities of a fouled up killing, blackmail intentions, distrust between the coconspirators, uncertainty of their roles in the murder, disparate levels of blameworthiness, and unattainable absolution. Clever tricks for added anxiety are included in the forms of identifying remains at the morgue, a nosy retired police commissioner (Charles Vanel) insistent on locating the missing person, the principal’s suit mysteriously arriving from the dry cleaners, and a child claiming to have been recently reprimanded by the head himself. Could supernatural forces be at work?
The story elements are masterful, but the pacing is a touch slow. Lengthy sequences of dialogue confirm Christina’s dwindling mental state, as well as the creeping apprehension exhibited by the now disquieted mistress. The policeman also spends a great deal of time snooping around for clues. Despite the dragging footage, an exhilarating, mortifying, unforgettable twist ending marks “Diabolique” as one of the greatest of all psychological horror films and a stunning inspiration for filmmakers fascinated by unexpected resolutions – and the idea of mercilessly toying with their audiences. Alfred Hitchcock reportedly tried to obtain the rights to adapt the original novel into a film, but was beat to it by Henri-Georges Clouzot. Ironically, “Diabolique” is often considered as influential as “Psycho,” with a climax comparable to Hitchcock’s notorious shower scene.
– Mike Massie