Diabolique / The Devils / The Fiends / Les Diaboliques (1955) *****
Once Hollywood established itself as the epicenter of the film industry in the United States, it was a long time before American audiences again took much notice of the fact that movies were being made elsewhere in the world, too. By most accounts, the first foreign film since the end of the silent era to become a big hit over here was the French suspense flick Diabolique/Les Diaboliques. And when I say “big,” I mean stand-in-line-for-hours-to-get-a-ticket big. Indeed, it was in an attempt to reproduce the block-long lines that he saw out in front of theaters showing Diabolique that William Castle started making his notorious gimmick-horror films. Every bit of that buzz was merited, too. Its surprise ending has been ripped off too many times in the ensuing half-century to be especially surprising anymore, and by modern standards it’s a little light on action, but Diabolique is still a lot more impressive than any of the Hitchcock I’ve seen, and might well be the tensest movie ever made without background music.
If I had to guess what made Diabolique such a phenomenon in the US, I’d say it was probably because this movie’s story offers a sterling example of what you could never possibly have gotten away with in Hollywood at the time. Somewhere in the French countryside is the Delasalle Boarding School, owned by Christina Delasalle (Vera Clouzot, the director’s wife) and governed by her husband, Michel (Paul Meurisse). Michel is a complete shitbag, and a cheapskate as well. He is cruel to the children who attend his school, abusive toward his employees, and openly unfaithful to his wife, on whom he is cheating with a teacher named Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret, from The Sleeping Car Murders and the 1947 version of Fantomas). Of course he treats Nicole just as badly, slapping her around whenever it suits him, with no regard at all for the impression it gives when one of his instructors appears before her class with bruises all over her face. The most intriguing aspect of the whole situation, though, is that Christina and Nicole have become something like friends. After all, having to deal with Michel means they’ve got a lot in common. So when Nicole gets it into her head that nothing would improve her life more than Michel’s death, she immediately attempts to recruit Christina as an accomplice. Christina is resistant at first, but the truth is she wants Michel dead even more than Nicole does— the only thing putting her off is the idea of killing the man herself. But with one of the school’s vacation breaks coming up (leaving Delasalle almost totally deserted) and Nicole scheduled to spend a few days back home (giving her the chance to set up the perfect alibi), Christina allows herself to be convinced that the time for action has come.
The women’s plan is a very well considered one. Christina will announce that she intends to join Nicole on her vacation; then, after arriving at Nicole’s house, she will place a call to the school so as to inform Michel that she wants a divorce. Because Christina is the one who brought all the money into the relationship, a divorce is the last thing in the world her husband wants, even though he has long ago ceased to love her (if indeed a man like him can be said to love at all), and Michel can be expected to rush right over to try his hand at talking her out of it. And because Michel’s pride would never allow him to admit to anyone else that he was being forced to beg, threaten, or cajole his wife into staying with him, he can also be expected to make the trip to Nicole’s place under the strictest secrecy. Meanwhile, when Michel arrives, Nicole will be upstairs with her tenants, making sure there are witnesses to the effect that she and Christina were at home at the time of the man’s disappearance, and simultaneously distracting them from the doomed man’s arrival. The killing itself will be effected by giving Michel some drugged whiskey, and then drowning him in a bathtub once he’s good and unconscious. Then the two conspirators can conceal their victim’s body in the trunk that Nicole brought with her from the school, drive back with it when they return, and dump it in the school’s swimming pool on their first night back. When the body floats up to the surface in a few days and the medical examiner determines that drowning was the cause of death, the police will rule Michel’s death an accident and that will be the end of that.
The women’s scheme proceeds seemingly without a hitch, notwithstanding an attack of last-minute cold feet on Christina’s part, and Nicole figures they’ve got it made once Michel’s body is safely at the bottom of the murky, duckweed-befouled pool. But strangely enough, there’s still no sign of the corpse resurfacing nearly a week later. Christina starts to worry, believing in spite of everything that Michel may somehow be alive. Eventually, she orders school groundskeeper Plantiveau (Jean Brochard) to drain the pool, ostensibly in order to retrieve a set of keys that she dropped into it. Emptying the pool reveals good reason for Michel’s failure to float— the only sign of him at the bottom is his expensive cigarette lighter!
Over the ensuing weeks, Christina and Nicole will encounter more and more evidence either that Michel is alive after all (Christina’s theory) or that someone discovered and removed his body and is now attempting to blackmail them (Nicole’s). A delivery boy from the dry cleaner in town shows up at the school with the suit Michel had been wearing on the night of his supposed death. A body that washes up on a riverbank not far away proves to be someone else’s. A hotel nearby is revealed to have rented a room to a man using Michel’s name. Alfred Fichet (Charles Vanel), the private detective Christina hires, turns up a slew of inconclusive— but impossible to discount— clues that Michel is alive and well and at large in the school’s environs. Eventually, one of the students even claims to have seen his missing principal in the school building itself. And if Michel really is alive, and really is prowling around Delasalle, that can’t be good news for Nicole or Christina. Not that being blackmailed would be all that much better…
This is the way a suspense movie is supposed to be. We’ve got killers (or at least would-be killers) who have entirely believable reasons for committing their crimes, we’ve got a bad guy who’s such an absolute scumbag that any audience would be naturally inclined to side against him no matter how morally compromised the “good guys” might be, and we’ve got a seemingly air-tight scheme that somehow goes wrong anyway. The tension builds up slow and steady until it reaches a climax that would really have thrown audiences for a loop when Diabolique was first released. Director Henri-Georges Clouzot displays a masterful eye for light, shadow, and frame composition, achieving a mood of eerie menace that is more commonly associated with supernatural horror than with a straight murder mystery. And on top of it all, there’s a lot of snappy, well written dialogue and first-rate acting all around. Even the comic relief is well handled— firmly grounded in the surrounding story and sufficiently underplayed that it never makes a nuisance of itself. I’m not sure I’d call it (as I’ve seen so many people do) “the greatest suspense movie of all time,” but Diabolique is definitely a credible contender for that title.