English Title: Diabolique
Original Title: Les diaboliques
Genre: Horror, Mystery
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
This is a superb thriller, a holistic cliff-hanger directed by H.G. Clouzot, adapted from Bioleau and Narcejac’s novel (who later would purvey VERTIGO 1958, for Hitchcock to make amends for his vain attempt to acquire LES DIABOLIQUES). Shot in monochrome, the film excels in keeping audiences engaging in the crafty conspiracy of a demure wife colludes with her husband’s mistress to murder her horrendous husband, taking almost half of the screen-time to character-building and meticulous plotting, their plan progresses pretty well until an unexpected twist swerves the film into a psychological horror torment, at the end of the day another scam has been uncovered and the final revelation triumphantly wins its trophy for its shock value.
The film piques our interest with a peculiar ménage a trois situation, a wife-cum-mistress (Ms. Clouzot and Signoret) alliance plots a punctilious scheme to kill the husband (Meurisse), Clouzot confidently takes a meandering pace at first, set in a rural all-male boarding school, Meurisse is the ill-tempered principle and both Ms. Clouzot and Signoret are the teachers, but a significant but easily overlooked minutia is that it is Ms. Clouzot who brings about the fortune to the school. After steadily details the conflict among the protagonists and cunningly accentuates the two female leads’ disparate personality, Ms. Clouzot is a well-heeled, wan, indecisive woman, the victim of mental abuse, hemmed in a dead-water marriage with a traditional mind which means she cannot risk a scandalous divorce, by comparison Signoret is a tough, adamant, subversive doer, the recipient of domestic abuse but doesn’t reconcile to the status quo. So the weird affinity of the two may suggest something more radical than the surface, but the film doesn’t dare to provoke the controversy (or for the sake of the surprising finale).
Clouzot knowingly manufactures several minor hitches to the execution of the murder, the grumpy tenants living upstairs, the drunken soldier-hitchhiker and the bathroom light in the middle of the night, each juices up the tension moderately and finally, when it seems their plan has been conducted successfully, the film inaugurates its great conjuring, starts with the missing corpse, to the involvement of a senior private detective (Vanel) until the disintegration of the two convicts and the truth gradually comes into light, a textbook thriller-horror segment which would inspire many emulators, it is an utterly heart-in-the-throat experience, Ms. Clouzot is ineffably remarkable in the guilty-haunting, soul-crunching trauma of scare, one of the most impressive death scene I’ve even seen! Signoret and Meurisse both nail their roles with sharp precision.
LES DIABOLIQUES is a masterful suspense-establishing film and H.G. Clouzot is a no lesser achiever than Mr. Hitchcock if there is any justice in the world!