Movies: Diabolique (1955)

The 1955 horror thriller Diabolique (known as Les Diaboliques outside the US, which translates as The Devils or The Fiends) is one of those movies that all horror fans should see at least once, and preferably twice, since the famous twist at the end of the story recontextualizes everything you’ve seen up until that point. Loosely based on the 1952 novel She Who Was No More by the writing team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac—the rights of which were highly sought after by Alfred Hitchcock before being pre-emptively snapped up by French director and producer Henri-Georges Clouzot, who wanted to make the film as a vehicle for his actress wife Véra Clouzot—is an absolute classic of eerie suspense, and is so tremendously admired that it’s been remade several times in different iterations (as a 1974 TV movie called Reflections of Murder, for example, and again for TV in 1993 under the title House of Secrets; it also got a big-budget Hollywood remake in 1996 with Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani in the main roles), and has also been homaged outright in multiple other films and TV shows. In fact, Robert Bloch, author of Psycho, named Diabolique as his favorite horror film of all time, and it has been speculated that Alfred Hitchcock’s failure to secure the rights to the source novel in the 1950s directly led to him opting for an adaptation of Psycho instead.

In execution, Diabolique does have a very Hitchcockian vibe to it, but that may be because the original book’s authors were big Hitchcock fans and hoped the Master of Suspense would direct an adaptation (incidentally, Hitch did end up adapting one of their novels later on; their book From Among the Dead was turned into his 1958 masterpiece Vertigo). Henri-Georges Clouzot, though, brings his own sensibility to Diabolique‘s bleak, haunting tale of the “perfect murder” gone drastically awry.

Véra Clouzot plays Madame Christina Delassalle, a wealthy but physically delicate woman originally from Venezuela who owns a somewhat run-down boys’ boarding school just outside of Paris. Her shitbag of a husband, Michel (played by Paul Meurisse), acts as school principal, and everyone is justifiably terrified of him, as he’s a cruel authoritarian who treats his charges just as badly as he treats his wife, who suffers from a heart condition that he constantly mocks.

Also suffering alongside Christina Delassalle is Nicole Horner (played by Simone Signoret), a teacher at the school and Michel’s mistress. Nicole has been on the wrong end of Michel’s fists many times, it seems, and although it’s implied that the two women were enemies at first, as would be expected given the situation, they’ve subsequently bonded over their mutual hatred of Michel. The whole sordid affair is an open secret at the school, as is Michel’s physical and emotional abuse of the two women in his life.

The severe, no-nonsense Nicole has come up with a plan to do away with Michel for good, and if everything goes as intended, his death will look like an accident. She needs Christina on board for her scheme to work, though, and the cowed, profoundly religious Christina is initially reluctant to participate, even though she despises Michel. After he essentially tells his wife that he’d be glad to see her dead, however, Christina changes her tune, and now not only wants to off the fucker, but regrets that he won’t be alive to realize that it’s she who did the deed.

The primary stages of the mission go pretty much as expected: Christina and Nicole retreat to Nicole’s place some distance away, then Christina calls her husband and lures him there by telling him she’s filing for divorce and selling the school. As the women predicted, Michel sneaks out of the school to catch the train, as his massive ego will not allow him to be seen by the other staff members “running after” his wife.

Once he arrives in the town where Nicole lives, the women drug him with booze laced with an untraceable sedative, then drown him in the bathtub. The next morning, they load his body in a large wicker basket and drive it back to the school, arriving in the dead of night, at which point they quietly dump the remains in the school’s gross-ass swimming pool, which is filled with filthy black water. Their hope is that when the corpse inevitably floats to the surface, the staff will assume that Michel just got drunk one night, fell into the pool, and drowned.

It seems like a foolproof plan for sure, but there’s one problem: days go by, and the body never surfaces. Christina, already fragile and now wracked with guilt, is jumping at shadows, and Nicole is afraid she’s going to crack up and blow the whole deal. The women can’t really set their minds at ease by having the pool drained, because asking about it would be too suspicious, so they have to use some roundabout means to get the job done, and when they do, they find to their surprise that Michel’s body has somehow done a runner and is no longer where they’re quite sure they placed it.

Not only that, but the suit he died in is inexplicably returned to the school from the dry cleaner’s, and one of the students claims he saw Michel that same day, and that the principal took his slingshot away. There’s also the small matter of a faculty and student group photo that may or may not feature an image of Michel peering out one of the school’s windows. Has Michel returned from the grave as a ghost or a revenant in order to take revenge on the women who killed him? Or is something even more insidious going on?

The plot twist of Diabolique will probably be familiar to most people nowadays, as it’s quite famous and has been done several times in other movies since, but even knowing the secret ahead of time does little to diminish the movie’s spooky, suspenseful power. The iconic scene toward the end that always gets shown on those “scariest movie scenes” videos is still fantastic, this many decades later, and the entire outcome of the piece is so deliciously cruel that it’s hard not to love it. It’s also difficult to overstate how influential this movie was on the suspense genre in particular: I already mentioned how it influenced Psycho, but it was also an acknowledged precursor to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, as well as Roman Polanski’s early work.

Interestingly, the film does a gender swap on one of the main characters from the source novel (in the book, the intended murder victim is the wife, not the husband), and adds the entire boarding school setting, while mostly removing the more life-insurance-focused motive for the killing that was present in the book. The ending of the novel is also somewhat darker than the film (though the film ending is plenty dark, don’t get me wrong), as the villain basically gets away with the crime. And, as an amusing footnote, Diabolique may have been one of the first (if not THE first) film to feature what is essentially an anti-spoiler message at the end, admonishing viewers not to ruin the twist for their friends who hadn’t seen the movie yet; a similar warning would appear in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho five years later.

Tense, beautifully shot, and wonderfully acted, Diabolique is one of those classics that still holds up to this day, and is recommended to anyone with any interest at all in suspense films or the history of horror movies in general.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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