Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 1080p AVC codec Running Time: 117 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 French
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: May 17, 2011
Review Date: May 8, 2011
How amazing that Henri-Georges Clouzot’s masterful 1955 thriller Diabolique was indirectly responsible for two of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpieces: Vertigo and Psycho. When Hitchcock failed to secure the screen rights to the novel Celle qui n’était plus by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac which served as the basis for Diabolique, he commissioned their next book which turned out to be the novel on which he based Vertigo. After spending much money on the glossy color adventure North by Northwest, Hitchcock remembered how much Diabolique had thrilled him with its low cost and black and white imagery adding layers of suspense to the story, so he was determined to do something similar leading to Psycho. Two masterpieces born from a masterpiece, and all three movies became films which writers and directors for television and movies have stolen from for decades. It might be possible to see Diabolique for the first time now and be ahead of the director’s game, but one can certainly imagine that audiences in 1955 had never seen anything like this dazzling house-of-mirrors chiller where nothing is ever quite what it seems. Like the best films with twist endings like Psycho, The Usual Suspects, and The Sixth Sense, Diabolique continues to be a fun film to revisit on multiple viewings to see how carefully and expertly the director has laid out his mine field waiting for us to step on each carefully placed little trigger.
After eight years of enduring marriage to the brutish, selfish Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse), boarding school proprietress Christina (Véra Clouzot) summons up the courage to plot with Michel’s one-time lover Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret) to do away with him and rid themselves of his torment and abuse. They dose a bottle of whiskey with a powerful sedative and drown him in Nicole’s bathtub. After packing his body in a wicker basket, they dump it into the school’s unused swimming pool filled with stagnant water. However, when the body doesn’t float to the surface after a couple of days, they have the pool drained only to find that Michel’s body isn’t there. Christina, who has a serious heart problem and is in very fragile health, lets her imagination run away with her until she reads that an unknown man’s body has turned up drowned in the Seine. Heading to the morgue, she finds that the body isn’t her husband’s, but a police inspector (Charles Vanel) who notices her distress makes it his job to find out where her husband (whom he doesn’t realize has already been killed) has disappeared to.
Clouzot’s control of the interior and exterior scenes throughout the movie is something of a miracle with the noisy school students bursting into the frame regularly with their foolishness only adding to the jangled nerves and intense anxiety being experienced by the film’s primary protagonist. And he plays up the suspense by using low key lighting, close-ups, and specific sound effects (a dripping faucet, a creaking door) to maintain suspense from first to last. He’s smart to get the audience on Christina’s side, despite her murderous actions, by showing us the crude, cruel treatment Michel dishes out to everyone (his former mistress sports a black eye, the children all despise him, even the staff teachers must jump when he says) (Hitchcock uses much the same technique when we transfer identification from Marion to Norman in Psycho). The murder itself isn’t played so much for fright value as it is a means to get to the film’s real heart: the lengthy middle section where the mystery of the vanishing corpse just gets more and more convoluted. And, of course, the film’s final quarter hour finds the director really ratcheting up the tension as shadows on curtains in an abandoned wing of the school, a clattering typewriter, slowly twisting doorknobs, and squeaky hinges on a door combine with the moody, heavily shadowed corridors lead to the film’s shock climax.
Véra Clouzot gives a detailed and studiously believable performance as the jittery, frail Christina (ironically in view of the film’s plot, the actress died of a heart attack only five years after the film was released). Paul Meurisse is every bit the monster he needs to be to get the plot to work effectively while Simone Signoret as the brittle, somewhat caustic mistress with her own agenda scores as the film’s mover and shaker. Charles Vanel’s commissaire offers a soothing respite from the snide, sometimes thoughtless behavior of Christina’s male school teaching staff played by Pierre Larquey and Jacques Varennes. As the groundskeeper, Michel Serrault offers a starchy but effective performance.
The film’s theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1 is faithfully executed in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Film school prints and television broadcasts of the movie have often been unwatchable with their numerous scratches and milky contrast, but apart from a couple of small scratches, the transfer here taken from the original camera negative is blissfully clean. The opening credit sequence appears a bit soft, and there are occasional other shots that aren’t as consistently crisp and detailed as the majority of the transfer, but most of the presentation is excellent. Grayscale is wonderfully rich with blacks containing a surprising amount of depth and whites very solid. The white subtitles are very easy to read. The film has been divided into 28 chapters.
The PCM (1.1 Mbps) 1.0 audio track is gratefully free from age-related artifacts like hiss, pops, crackle, and flutter. Since music only appears during the opening credits and at the very end, the soundtrack is either dialogue-rich or silent apart from ambient effects which the director has specifically placed for maximum impact. All come through clearly in the track, by far the most expressive presentation of this film I’ve ever experienced either in or out of the home environment.
All of the video featurettes are presented in 1080p.
An introduction to the movie is provided by director Serge Bromberg who gives fascinating details about the production and about the director’s life and career in a very interesting 14 ¾-minute piece.
Film scholar Kelley Conway offers an excellent scene specific audio commentary which has been divided into three sections including the lengthy opening scenes and then shorter segments detailing the middle and climactic scenes of the movie. Each section can be accessed individually or can be viewed together in one 44 ½-minute grouping.
Film critic Kim Newman offers his video critique of the film and its place among genre thrillers which both preceded (Gaslight) and followed (Psycho, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte) it. His remarks filmed in 2010 run for 15 ¾ minutes.
The film’s theatrical trailer runs for 2 ½ minutes.
The enclosed 18-page booklet features the chapter list, the cast and crew credits, some intriguing stills from the movie, and critic Terrence Rafferty’s think piece about the career of the master director Henri-Georges Clouzot.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc and the title of the chapter you’re now in. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
4.5/5 (not an average)
Henri-Georges Clouzot's Diabolique was the filmmaker’s next film following the masterwork The Wages of Fear offering a one-two punch of suspense thrillers that have both handily stood the test of time. Criterion’s Blu-ray release offers Diabolique’s best-ever home video presentation and combined with some thoughtful bonus material constitutes a strong recommendation for one of the true classics of the genre.