So the story goes, at the peak of his powers, none other than Alfred Hitchcock decided he’d like to direct Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s 1951 novel Celle qui n'était plus (She Who Was No More). But Hitch lost out on the rights. Instead, Henri-Georges Clouzot gave us the French-language film Les Diaboliques (or Diabolique as it was known in the States). Not only did it turn out to be a bit good, it was one of the most influential thrillers ever made and even managed to get Hitchcock himself to up his game.
Christina Delassalle (Clouzot) and Nicole Horner (Signoret) are the long-suffering wife and mistress (respectively) of headmaster Michel Delassalle (Meurisse). They’re also teachers at his boarding school and, somewhat surprisingly, best friends. Well this is 1950s France. But, of course, Michel is a world-class git who regularly beats and humiliates the pair of them. He’s not very nice to the staff or pupils either. So there’s only one solution: Christina and Nicole have to murder him in an elaborate perfect crime that involves getting him drunk, drowning him in a bath and dumping his body in the school’s filthy swimming pool to be discovered later. Beyond that, we can say no more but it’s probably not too much of a spoiler to say that things don’t quite go as planned.
If Diabolique has a flaw, it’s that the first half an hour spent setting up the reasons for the murder are ever so slightly boring. But on the other hand, the change of gear from the murder onwards is actually all the more thrilling because of it. It’s rather hard to explain without all sorts of spoiler-horror but let’s just say the plot twists and turns like a twisty turny thing. This is edge of the seat stuff with some real surprises along the way but it probably won’t have quite the impact it had in 1955 because some of the conventions in the movie have become relatively commonplace today. Even Hitchcock was influenced by it. And although we can’t mention what happens, Diabolique has, at its climax, one of the most memorable scenes in cinema.
If all that isn’t enough, you might get a sense of familiarity with the retired police commissioner (Vanel) who takes an unwelcome interest in the case. That’s until you realise he’s actually Columbo. Not actually Peter Falk but apparently Columbo was based on the French inspector and we can confirm that they are uncannily similar characters.
Basically, what we have here is the greatest Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never made. He might have handled some of it better (Hitch would have made more of the opening 30 minutes) but we doubt he’d have come up with anything quite as good as it’s legendary climatic scene.
Point knocked off for the first 30 minutes but then we’ve added it back on for innovation. Oh, and you’ll be pleased to know Hitch got to direct a Boileau/Narcejac’s story in 1958 with Vertigo. That wasn’t too shabby either.
Special Features: Selected-scene commentary by French-film scholar Kelley Conway / Video interview with Serge Bromberg / Video interview with Kim Newman
DIABOLIQUE (1955) / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR: HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT / SCREENPLAY: HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT, JÉRÔME GÉRONOMI / STARRING: SIMONE SIGNORET, VÉRA CLOUZOT, PAUL MEURISSE, CHARLES VANEL / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW