Director Henri-Georges Clouzot just recently melted my face with the anxiety of his masterpiece Wages of Fear and now, with Diabolique, seems to pre-date Hitchcock’s most iconic movie, Psycho, by giving us a genuinely unnerving and borderline shocking ending to a movie whose dramatic action takes off with a murder in a bathtub.
And the ending really is clever and surprising–which I’m reluctant to even mention here because there’s a popular debate taking place on reddit right now about whether it’s a spoiler to tell somebody, before they’ve seen a certain movie, that it has a plot twist at the end. But for the fact that Diabolique is almost seventy years old, I’m inclined to agree that .
Ten or fifteen years ago I spent a blissful Saturday marathoning a miniseries on Bravo – of all channels – about the hundred scariest scenes in cinema history and I realized, only once I’d gotten to the finale in Diabolique last night, that I’d actually seen this before, somewhere in the middle of that miniseries, back when I was a teenager. The image of the final scene had stayed with me but I never remembered what the movie was. There was a wonderful feeling of belated discovery.
Diabolique also presents our second depiction of complacent polyamory, coming a couple years on the heels of Ida Lupino’s The Bigamist; Diabolique is set at a boarding school in France where the odious headmaster is married to one of the teachers, played by Vera Clouzot (a slow-burning role that takes her slowly to madness), but he’s taken as his mistress another teacher, played by Simone Signoret, who’s got a tough piercing look that made me think of Kim Novak in Vertigo. Imbued with something like the classic mystique Hitchcock gave his blonde female characters.
The headmaster beats both women and cuts corners with the school’s budget so that the students are made to eat inedible meals that appear to be served in small portions; he punishes good students, dominates the table at dinner, and dictates how much wine his colleagues (employees?) are allowed to drink. He’s a twat. So when we learn after a few minutes that his wife and mistress are gonna work together to kill him, we’re immediately on board, cuz murder’s obviously wrong and nobody deserves it but there are some who won’t be missed and who, karmically speaking, invite it (child abusing, philandering, financially dubious tyrants among them), and when shortly thereafter we see the women prepare the scene of the crime it looks pretty clever, if not quite failsafe, and the scene when that murder is about to be carried out, and various disruptors start popping up to maybe steer it astray, is one of the most immersive few minutes from the List in quite a while. The final chase of Silver Lode maybe comes close, and the ending of Rear Window and of course everything except the first hour of Wages of Fear.
Part of what makes that scene (and the movie itself) distinctly exciting, though, is that it isn’t a Hollywood movie. When I’m in the hands of a European director I’m more inclined to worry about the characters because I know they tend to feel no compunction about ending things on a note of wrist-cutting sorrow and horror. Also, to mention it a third time, Clouzot proved with Wages of Fear that he’ll kill any character at any moment and revels in making the audience squirm.
What the women’ve done in Diabolique is they’ve packed a bottle of scotch with hard-hitting sedatives and left the bottle sitting idly on a living room table, next to a single clean glass, while luring the headmaster into, and then manipulating him through, a big quarrel that might make him eager for a drink.
So the headmaster shows up, the argument with his wife begins, and the camera just follows them around the room, arguing, the bottle and glass remaining in perpetual focus off in the background. It’s a clever devise because, in the same way that we can see Vera Clouzot’s nervous awareness of the bottle and what it represents, the audience’s eyes keep flickering down toward it too.
The tension’s great and Clouzot doesn’t quite sustain it throughout the movie but he’s got a few great scenes, like when they actually drown the guy in a bathtub and then later on, after they’ve submerged his body in the boarding school’s murky swimming pool, Clouzot passes his camera over that pool, leaving it in the background of his characters’ routine, in the same way that he made the drug-laced bottle of scotch a distant ominous thing that obsesses the viewer by being just…constantly there.
The List’s passage on Diabolique talks about how it’s still shocking and I do think it’s the case that showing this to a modern audience of college students or adults would keep them more rapt than most movies the List features from this year. I was surprised that even Rear Window has more lulls than some of the Hitchcock stuff that’s come before it (I’m thinking of Strangers on a Train and Blackmail as probably his best examples to-date of just raw suspense).
Diabolique got me thinking of a video Steve Donoghue made over the weekend [Editor’s Note from the Future: this was many weekends ago]. He was mapping out some pulp novels he’d be reading over the next couple days and started talking about how there are three types of pulp writer. First, and best of all, there’s the pulp writer who knows what he is and sports no airs about it. He takes his job seriously, but not his stories. His responsibility is to entertain the reader and that’s all he’s trying to do. No sermonizing, no self-mythologizing or -aggrandizing. Just the thrills.
Then, says Steve, there’s the pulp writer who takes himself seriously, and the work too.
And finally, worst of all, Steve says there’s a third camp of cynical narcissistic pulp writers who, like the first camp, don’t take their own work all that seriously but they expect you, the reader, to take them and their work very seriously. Revere it, talk about it, over-interpret it. The guy he’s deriding here is H.P. Lovecraft. Says Lovecraft’s 20-year-old male followers are maddeningly avid in exactly the way Lovecraft wanted them to be, particularly with the whole Cthulu thing, and that they get uppity and condescending if you suggest that Lovecraft’s work was no better than any other genre writer of his time. And he points out that the unifying principle among all three camps of pulp writers is that, when the deals are done and their books are all on the shelf, it’s all just pulp. Cheap shocking thrills scribbled for a quick couple dollars.
The simple fact that Henri-Georges Clouzot is French, and that his characters are often multilingual, gives his work an air of refinement and austerity. I don’t know anything about Clouzot’s biography or what he thought about his own work but, given the pacing and style of his films, I think he probably belonged to the first of Steve’s three camps. Diabolique and Wages of Fear are both beautifully stylish thrillers, but they don’t draw attention to that style. In fact, if we look at how he manages that bottle of scotch and the corpse-harboring swimming pool, his greatest stylistic flourish is in pretending to draw our attention away from something. Wages of Fear, for example, is mostly concerned, especially after the first hour, with keeping the audience in suspense. There aren’t any stylish cuts to a sunset, with the characters suddenly rendered in silhouette while philosophizing about a laborer’s rights (there’s a fairly heavy political subtext to that movie). Same thing with Diabolique. Its style is, I think, mostly about the cleverness with which he builds tension and makes us wonder about what’s happening. Toward the end, when Vera Clouzot is creeping through the school at night thinking she’s on the trail of her undead husband, we get disoriented about which direction she’s facing, where this hallway leads, and the camera – like her – is moving softly and slowly to peer around corners. This is probably the only moment where the style usurped the action and took me out of the moment.