Behind Les Diaboliques, there is what is quite possibly the greatest example of a happy accident that ever occured in film history. First, a pair of French psychological crime writers decided to colloborate together under the shared pen name Boieleau-Narcejac. Together they wrote a novel titled Celle Qui N’était Plus (She Who Was No More). After it was published, both Alfred Hitchcock and Henri-Georges Clouzot made a dash to buy the film rights at once. The rights went to H.G. Clouzot. Legend has it that Hitchcock’s offer came in only a few hours after Boileau-Narcejac already promised it to Clouzot, although other accounts say it was more like two weeks. As I said before, this is a happy accident because Boileau-Narcejac, not wishing to miss an opportunity with the greatest American director of that era, quickly wrote D’entre Les Morts (From Among the Dead) and promised it to Hitchcock, who filmed it in 1958 and retitled it Vertigo. Who knows what film history would have been like had Hitchcock’s missive reached France before Clouzot’s? I could say without a doubt the world would be a shabbier place. Hitchcock could not have filmed Les Diaboliques better than Clouzot, just as no one could direct anything better than Vertigo.
H.G. Clouzot had at the time a great deal of notoriety in France, as he was one of the handful of exceptionally gifted film artists whom almost had their careers shattered during the reign of the Vichy government (other examples would be Jean Renoir* and Marcel Carne**). With Clouzot, his treatment was the most brutal. His 1943 film Le Corbeau*** was not only banned in France but earned the director a citation stating that he was never allowed to film again. Luckily, the Vichy gov’t was only a wartime necessity that was dispensed with afterwards and Clouzot’s ban was eventually lifted.
Les Diaboliques was filmed a few years after his return to French cinema. The story is a very dark tale and its tone was likely much the product of the postwar period, when France had seen so much destruction and chaos on its streets already and the memories were fresh. It starts out at a shabby boarding school where even youthful innocence is degradated.
The kids are given lousy food and treatment from Michel, a man who is running the place but is also using it to scam money for himself. Somehow, this disreputable man manages to win the affections of two women, Nicole (Simone Signoret) his mistress, and his wife Christina (Vera Clouzot, the director’s wife at the time). He is abusive to both women, physically and verbally. Tired of his act, the mistress and the wife put aside their animosities (toward each other) and come together to murder him.
Part of what makes this thriller such macabre fun to watch is that it contains not one but two locked room mystery sequences.**** One occurs early on in the picture, and one near the end. Unlike other such mysteries, instead of letting the audience puzzle it out, the murder is shown from the perspective of the murderers (like Double Indemnity). The detective character who comes in later remains, for most of the movie, in the periphery. Don’t worry, the film offers many other puzzles.
The plot takes on a truly nightmarish aspect when, after they have killed Michel, his body disappears entirely as they are in the process of disposing of it. The story becomes a game of three involving the dead man’s mistress, wife, and the detective hired to locate him by the authorities.
What also makes the film so enjoyable is the way it places the two women alongside each other, sometimes to compare and sometimes to contrast. The characters exemplify the classic film-noir archetypes of the femme fatale in Nicole and the innocent saint in Christina. Sometimes in the movie though the characters shift roles. What’s more, between them there persists an unspoken sexual tension, as if there’s always something on the verge of happening that never does, and one could postulate that’s the reason they so often lash out in anger at each other. This subdued homosexual undertone is comparable to that of Farley Granger and Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train, or Robert Mitchum and Raymond Burr in His Kind of Woman, or with the maid and the memory of the deceased woman in Rebecca.
Another reason to watch this film is to understand the breadth of its influence on other films. For one, it inspired an American remake in the eighties with Sharon Stone which I haven’t seen but can assume is terrible–so make sure not to rent the eighties one on accident! It’s influence goes far beyond the remake though. As I mentioned earlier, the fiasco involving adaptation rights gave us Vertigo, but also Hitchcock is said to have been influenced by the gritty, scaled down production of Les Diaboliques and he utilized a technique similar to Clouzot for Psycho. What’s more, Robert Bloch who wrote Psycho is said to have told others that Les Diaboliques was his favorite film. Les Diaboliques and Psycho both feature death in bathtubs.
I have my own theory that the film directly inspired two more movies. The first, coming out around three years after Les Diaboliques, is the classic Vincent Price B-movie The Tingler. The climax of Les Diaboliques and The Tingler are virtually the same, only filmed differently. Watch both and you’ll see it very plainly (I won’t give away a big spoiler). The other film I’m positive it inspired is the phenomenally unnerving and artistic horror film The Orphanage directed by Guillermo del Toro. The Orphanage, like Les Diaboliques, is set in a delapidated orphanage run in part by a belligerent man out to make money; it also features a deep pool filled with scummy water you can’t see through (look at the picture at the top of the post to see the pool from Les Diaboliques). With The Tingler, we have an obvious example of one movie stealing from another, but with The Orphanage I’d sooner call the noticeable similarities to be in part an homage; regardless, both are good films.
So, if you haven’t already seen Les Diaboliques, make a point to watch it, but, as the film’s own credits say, don’t spoil the ending for people who haven’t seen it yet.***** Be forewarned this is a pretty frightening movie, but if you’re squeamish, you can probably handle it since all of the violence is suggested instead of shown. From what I remember, this might just be the scariest movie to never show blood.
*At a screening of Jean Renoir’s film The Rules of the Game the audience became incensed by what they were seeing and one man was caught setting a newspaper on fire, supposedly with the intention of burning down the theater. If that weren’t enough, the original cut of the film was burned from an explosion during a Nazi air-raid.
** The Vichy gov’t considered Marcel Carne’s film Le Jour le Seve to be an example of the kind of French melancholy and weakness that cost them the war, and they had it banned.
***Le Corbeau, by the way, is a fine film. While not as chilling or well shot as Les Diaboliques, it’s more thought provoking.
****A locked room mystery is one where a person is found murdered in a locked room where no immediate trace of a killer is found.
*****There really is a disclaimer placed at the start of the credits that tells people not to go blabbing about the final twist. There’s a similar disclaimer at the end of the wonderful Billy Wilder Agatha Christie mystery Witness to the Prosecution.
Les Diaboliques is currently available to stream on Netflix.