IMDB #178 Les Diaboliques

Today we take a look at a 1955 French film that I've actually seen before- thanks, film studies minor!

Les Diaboliques, or The Devils, is part thriller, part light horror, with a dash of huge shocking twist.

The Key Players:

Director Henri-Georges Clouzot was a Frenchman most famous for The Wages Of Fear (coming up rather soon on the countdown itself) and the documentary The Mystery Of Picasso. He never bridged the Atlantic to work in Hollywood, though several of his films have become remake fodder, including this one.

Simone Signoret was one France's greatest actresses, becoming the first French person of either gender to win an Academy Award for Room At The Top

The director's wife Véra Clouzot co-stars, in one her scant three film roles, all directed by Henri-Georges.

And Paul Merisse also puts in the most famous role of his long career- he also starred in Clouzot's La vérité.

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The Story:

Our plot is pretty simple: Merisse is a cruel, domineering schoolmaster- Clouzot is his wife, and English teacher with a heart condition that actually owns the school, and Signoret plays his mistress, another teacher.

You'd think they might not care for one another, but Signoret and Clouzot have become friends by mutual hatred of Merisse's brutish ways- they hatch and successfully execute a plot to drug him and drown him in the bathtub.

There are a few tense moments as they move the body in a wicker trunk, but they manage to dump in the school's pool without being seen- this way it will appear he drowned while swimming. Open and shut, right?

Nope- the body seems to have sunk, and doesn't float to the surface for a few days. Signoret arranges to have the pool drained by "accidentally" dropping her keys in there, but the body's missing. Soon Merisse's suit is delivered back to his wife, freshly dry-cleaned, and a student claims the headmaster appeared to punish him for using a slingshot.

A body is found in the river, but when Clouzot goes to the morgue it's not her husband- and a retired police detective takes a freelance interest in her case.

The Artistry:

You really have to stay to the end of Les Diaboliques to know why it's set apart from the countless other 50s thrillers that are clearly Hitchcockian in origin and influence.

The acting is unremarkable, with Signoret's cold conniving and Mrs. Clouzot's conscience-ridden overacting the best and worst parts.

It's paced slowly, and stolidly, and until the big reveal you might wonder why they couldn't whittle it down to an hour for an episode of "Hitchcock Presents."

But then...


The increasingly frail Clouzot is ordered to rest in bed, and tells Signoret it's best if they part- both are suitably freaked now that all rumors point to a ghost coming to haunt them.

Clouzot wakes to the inspector at her bedside, with his own tidings of her live and well husband- she tells him what happened, hoping that penance for her crime will stay the ghost's ire, perhaps. He assures her she'll wake up acquitted, for some reason, and sets off to investigate further on the schoolgrounds.

Then in the film's best sequence, Clouzot sees lights in her husband's office through the window, and nervously creeps down a dark hallway to find his name typed over and over on a paper in the typewriter- then the lights go out suddenly and she runs back to the bathroom, struggling to breath.

And who should be in the tub but Merisse, his hair matted and his eyes rolled back- he stands and silently points at Clouzot as she holds her chest, chokes, and dies of fright, her heart finally given out.

After a beat, Merisse removes the large false irises from his eyes, and lets Signoret in the room- it was all a plot! Now Merisse is rich, and can live with Signoret in the open. What struck me most here is the way the film portrayed Clouzot is wide-eyed and innocent, and then had the two schemers describe with total vitriol here- as in, "now that bitch will finally leave us alone" and so forth.

Of course, crime doesn't pay, and the one-step-too-late inspector steps out of the shadows just as they think they're home free.

The next day, as everyone packs to leave, the same kid that say the "dead" schoolmaster claims that Clouzot appeared to give him his slingshot back, and told him to cause mischief.

The film ends with a title card imploring the audience not to ruin the ending for other film-goers, an early anti-spoiler message.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Perhaps a little lower- it's hard to say. Les Diaboliques is certainly well-made, and the big reveal was great fun the first time I saw it, but overall rewatchability is a pretty big factor for me. Did I really feel the need to watch this again? No, but I did anyway, and that made it seem a little perfunctory. (Note: Dave told me in an email this morning that it's an "awesome film. I think it is spectacular. The mood, the twists, etc." So perhaps he will rebut this in the comments)

The Legacy:

It was remade for American audiences in 1996, with Sharon Stone in the mistress role and Chazz Palminteri unbelievably cast as a guy who scored two chicks at once.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Hey, it's the end! Lots of spoilers, naturally.

Leftover Thoughts:

-In a sad parallel, Véra Clouzot would die of a heart attack at age 46.

Coming Up...

177. Grave Of The Fireflies

176. The Gold Rush

175. Casino

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