Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Twenty-Seven

#27 — Diabolique (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953)
Well before “spoiler” became a word that loomed almost larger than any other for moviegoers, Diabolique was a film that urged viewers to keep its secrets hidden from those who hadn’t yet bought a ticket. It did so directly, including an actual message to that effect at the end. There was good cause, as the plot was uncommonly twisty, especially for an era in which movies were far less likely to engage in daring upending of expectations (yes, even more so than now), and trailers often spelled out the happy endings to assure potential ticket buyers that, whatever travails might fill the screen, they were going to head home pleased with the outcomes for the characters they’d committed to. Even audiences that had, by this point, been well-trained by Alfred Hitchcock to expect darker outcomes and deceptive plotting must have reeled before the grim tidings offered up by director Henri-Georges Clouzot. Based on a French novel that Hitchcock himself was supposedly keen to turn into a film (by some accounts, getting beaten to the rights to it by mere hours), Diabolique is dazzling piece of murderous gamesmanship.

As with the best thrillers that carry major surprises, the impressive narrative trickery still trails in importance behind other, more foundational elements of filmmaking. The film takes place at a unpleasant boarding school presiding over by a mean-spirited headmaster (Paul Meurisse). His miserable wife (Véra Clouzot) watches passively as the headmaster openly romances a pretty young teacher (Simone Signoret). Eventually the two women begin to plot a shared revenge against the headmaster involving a combination of drugs, alcohol, and tub full of water. While things initially go largely according to plan, worries begin to pile up for the women when the expected discovery of the body, in a manner that would have make the death look like an accident, is delayed and then entirely upended. The impact of the film depends less on the shocking revelations and more on the psychological wringer the characters, and by extension the audience, are yanked through without mercy. Clouzot has some nifty tricks–and one of two that strain plausibility in a devilishly entertaining ways–but it’s his pointed attention to the emotional agony the characters have submerged themselves into.

Shot in a nicely musty black and white, the film is suffused with mood. It also have a beautifully bleak sense of humor, exemplified by the sour fate of a student who has an unfortunate penchant for breaking windows with a slingshot. As with the very best films of Hitchcock, Diabolique exhibits a clear understanding that a pronounced sense of play–specifically the pure joy to be found in poking around at the clever deceits that are built right into the mechanics of cinema–is what truly makes a dark-blooded thriller work. The secrets of the film are grand, but it’s the showmanship behind the tricks that makes it into an enticing spectacle.