• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:June 27, 2021

Diabolique: The Missing Corpse


In a 1983 interview, Robert Bloch, the man who wrote the novel ”Psycho”, named Diabolique as his favorite horror movie, partly because it terrified audiences with very little bloodshed. The same feat was achieved by Alfred Hitchcock when he turned ”Psycho” into a movie in 1960. It’s been said that he wanted to film Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s 1952 novel ”She Who Was No More”, but Henri-Georges Clouzot beat him to the deal in mere hours. Clouzot got an amazing movie out of it, but Hitchcock certainly recovered. A few years later he landed the rights to film another one of Boileau-Narcejac’s novels, ”The Living and the Dead”. The title of Hitchcock’s movie? Vertigo.

A boarding school run by an unpopular man
That’s not to take away anything from Diabolique. The story begins at a boarding school in a Paris suburb. It is run by Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) who is not a popular man. He doesn’t treat the students with respect and the two women in his life are hatching a plot behind his back. They are his wife Christina (Véra Clouzot), who actually owns the school, and Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret), one of the teachers who has a relationship with Michel. This fact does not prevent the two women from also sharing a mutual bond, an intense hatred of Michel. The time has come to set their plan to get rid of him in motion.

They head to Niort, a town far away, and come up with a reason for Michel to join them: a phone call where Christina threatens to divorce him. When he arrives in Niort, the women have a sedative and a bathtub ready for him…

Finding the right role for VĂ©ra Clouzot
It was Clouzot’s wife Véra who suggested that her husband should read the novel. After doing so, he wanted to turn it into a movie, but he also wanted to find a role for Véra. It had to be right though, which made a few changes necessary. Véra came to play a character with a weak heart, which wasn’t far from the truth; she would die five years later from a heart attack while shooting another movie. She’s fine in this film, but Clouzot knew her limitations and needed a more experienced actress to play her partner-in-crime. He didn’t have to look far. He was friends with one of the most talented performers around, Simone Signoret, wife of Yves Montand with whom he had recently made Wages of Fear.

There’s a traditional power dynamic between Signoret and Véra Clouzot – the former is the one in charge, her authority obvious already in her first scene, and the latter is the one who needs more convincing and would easily spill the beans. That’s where Charles Vanel comes into the picture, as a Columbo-esque retired detective who becomes intrigued by Michel’s disappearance and the odd behavior of his wife. He’s amusing, and Meurisse quite effective as the principal who treats Christine cruelly; sometimes his actions become a little over-the-top, but there are other moments where his manipulation of her makes us believe in the mechanics of that relationship.

We’re quickly drawn into the plot whose mystery is skillfully constructed, making us question what’s real and what’s not. Robert Bloch wasn’t wrong when he called Diabolique a horror movie; at first, the tension is straightforward as we wonder if the women will get away with murder, but as events take us down a stranger path, much like Christine we begin to expect a ghostly visit. The final twist is terrifyingly staged by the filmmakers, even if that very last scene feels somewhat tacked on.

The music theme by Georges Van Parys is raw and foreboding, but after that sinister opening the film has a sense of humor that makes it a lighter experience.

Diabolique 1955-France. 114 min. B/W. Produced by Henri-Georges Clouzot, Georges Lourau. Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. Screenplay: Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jérôme Géronimi. Novel: Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac (”She Who Was No More”). Music: Georges Van Parys. Cast: Simone Signoret (Nicole Horner), Véra Clouzot (Christina Delassalle), Paul Meurisse (Michel Delassalle), Charles Vanel, Jean Brochard, Michel Serrault.

Trivia: Original title: Les Diaboliques. Alternative running time: 107 min. One of the students is played by a young Johnny Hallyday. Remade as two TV movies, Reflections of Murder (1974) and House of Secrets (1993), and a theatrical feature, Diabolique (1996); the film also inspired The Corpse (1971). 



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