Rumor has it that the film rights for Diabolique were purchased by director Henri-Georges Clouzot mere hours before Alfred Hitchcock had a chance to snap them up. And while I am a fan of Hitchcock’s work, I don’t feel he could possibly outshine Clouzot with the material, as Diaboliqueis an absolute classic and stunning movie.Set in the French countryside at a private boys school run by an abusive headmaster, Michel (Paul Meurisse) and his gorgeous wife Christina (Véra Clouzot). As the school year comes to a holiday break, Christina talks with her husband’s mistress and fellow teacher at the school (how awkward is that?) about how she cannot stand to be with her husband any longer and a plan is hatched to get rid of him. Leaving the schoolhouse on holiday Christina and Nicole (Simone Signore) head to Nicole’s summer house to establish an alibi, as they prepare for Michel’s inevitable arrival where they proceed to drug him and drown him in a tub. It’s not until they return to the school and dump the body in the pool that things take a turn for the worst. When the investigation by the police begins, a more sinister plot reveals itself. Over the course of its run time we’re treated to a complex and thrilling story that takes several unexpected and spooky turns.
What’s striking to me about Diabolique, watching it as a horror fan more than half a century after it’s been made, is just how lasting some of its set pieces are. This is a film that plays with one’s expectations and turns them on their head, something filmmakers struggle to succeed with today. When Michel’s body turns up missing from the swimming pool from where he was dumped, it’s quite a surprise. Hell, dead bodies don’t just get up and walk away. And at that point, all bets are off in the movie. Was it moved by someone more diabolical? Is Christina going to be framed somehow? Was he not dead? Is the guy a walking dead or vampire? A whole world of questions opens up and the reaction from Christina, a woman so beautiful it’s pretty breathtaking to watch her from scene to scene, is one of remarkable shock. Then we get the scene wherein the young boy claims he had talked to the headmaster, an evil game changer that also brings more questions to the table. These twists are well concocted and, while I have no proof they watched them before making their own films, you’d think something like this would easily be an influence for people like the Coens, De Palma, Fincher and yes, even Shyamalan.
Diabolique really is a movie that anyone who is a fan of horror or thriller movies should sit down and watch. Yes, it’s longer than most thrillers nowadays with a 114 minute run time, but it flies by quickly and I can’t imagine someone not finding it a compelling and beautiful watch.