Henri-Georges Clouzet's Diabolique (1955) is a classic suspense/horror film. Although Clouzet was maligned as "old guard" by the up and coming leaders of the French New Wave, the movie has definitely stood the test of time. Comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock's work are often cited, and the influences clearly worked both ways. Hitchcock's masterful Psycho (1960) for one was directly inspired by Diabolique.
On the surface, the story is fairly routine - if a bit fantastic. Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) is the principle of a boys boarding school outside of Paris. He is a villainous character from the outset, terrorizing the boys, the staff, his spouse, and even his mistress whenever the opportunity arises. Delassalle's wife Christina (Vera Clouzet) is a mousy teacher, whose poor health makes her an even more sympathetic victim. Mistress Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret) is also a teacher at the school, and her affair with Michel is an open secret.
A major complication in the love triangle is the fact that Christina is the owner of the school, thanks to her wealthy South American family's largess. This makes it a little difficult for her to simply walk away. So when Nicole comes to her with a plan to murder Michel, and make it look like an accident, Christina goes along with it.
In retrospect the scheme seems a bit ludicrous, as does the fact that the timid (and very religious) Christina would participate. But the tight script, and crisp direction make everything seem plausible. Another major factor is the element of surprise, which is a constant. Upon first viewing, Diabolique moves forward so quickly, and with so many unexpected plot twists, we find ourselves wrapped up in the intrigue immediately.
As critic Terrence Rafferty notes in the accompanying booklet: "It would probably be unwise, and certainly inconsiderate to reveal more here." The great joy of Diabolique is the various surprises embedded in the plot. As the credits roll, there is even a request to the audience not to give away the ending - apparently this is the first time such an appeal had been made.
The look of Diabolique is Clouzet's vision writ large. He mixes a number of different elements together - including a recurring water theme, bleak school landscape, and the even bleaker cheap hotel room where the crime is committed. Then there are the pure noir shadows and light used in the third act. While one can understand that men such as Truffaut and Godard wanted to set themselves apart by demeaning Clouzet's work, I find their criticisms hollow. This director was an artist, a bit commercial perhaps, but certainly no hack.
Their dismissal of Clouzet may have had a cumulative effect though, because the availability of this classic has been spotty over the years. Although it was regularly shown on Turner Movie Classics, the first Criterion Collection DVD edition was not released until 1999 - and it was not even widescreen. Criterion have now rectified the situation with this digitally remastered widescreen edition.
As ever, Criterion have added some valuable bonus materials. The first is an introductory 15-minute segment from Serge Bromberg, offering an overview of Clouzet's career. The primary focus is on Diabolique, and the Hitchcock connection - especially in regards to Vertigo (1958) and Psycho.
The 45-minute "Selected Scene Commentary" by French film historian Kelly Conway is spellbinding. In it she runs through the various components Clouzet utilized, which one may have overlooked at first glance. Particular mention is made of the lack of music on the soundtrack, Clouzet used ambient sounds often to emphasize the emotions being conveyed - very effectively I might add.
Critic Kim Newman discusses the influence Diabolique has had on the horror genre over the years. Vertigo and Psycho are again brought up, as is Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1962). Newman's main contention is that many of the elements introduced in Diabolique went on to become horror film conventions. This segment runs 15-minutes. Finally there is the original theatrical trailer, which I mention because it is really something special - definitely worth a look.
Diabolique is in black and white, runs 113 minutes, and features French dialogue with English subtitles.