Was M. Night Shyamalan conceived after a bottle of Thunderbird and a midnight screening of "Diabolique" (1955)? If so, don't blame director Henri-Georges Clouzot. As "Jaws" and "Star Wars" ushered in an era of blockbuster bilge, so did Clouzot's "Diabolique" condemn us all to a hell of big twist endings, with serial rug-pulling the highly marketable substitute for actual storytelling. But just as "Jaws" and "Star Wars" distinguished themselves from their thalidomide progeny by actually being good, "Diabolique" offers much more than cheap gotchas that pass for clever.
Make no mistake. "Diabolique" was contructed from back to front, with each interlocking piece fit neatly together for the big reveal. Since the film ends with a title card beseeching audiences to "not be devils" and ruin the ending for other viewers, I will respect this 55 year old injunction and not provide any spoilers save to say that the butler didn't do it and nobody turns out to be a ghost the whole time. I will also admit that, heretical as it may be, I do not care for the film's legendary ending at all. I find it both obvious and irritating, not as much as the ending of "The Village" or as the beginning, middle, and end of "The Happening," mind you. But, to my taste, it still ends on a sour note. Two, actually. But no more on that subject.
For a puzzle film, this should be a deal breaker, but "Diabolique" is a showcase for its talented director. Clouzot was often compared to Hitchcok, and while this may have been a bit of facile marketing or critical shorthand, both directors were indeed masters of cinematic tension. Audiences had just white-knuckled their way through Clouzot's trip-wire tour-de-force "Wages of Fear," and the director dished up more of the same for his next film.
"Diabolique" opens at a ramshackle boarding school where the tyrannical principal Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) lords it over both his students and his shrinking violet wife Christina (Vera Clouzot, the director's wife). There's no doubt of Michel's status as a villain. He forces the children to eat rotten fish in order to save money (money that, crucially, belongs to his wife, not to him) and humiliates the sickly Christina both in public and in private; if only he could grow a mustache he would surely twirl it. Michel has hired toadies to do his bidding, but fortunately there's one person who is man enough to stand up to the bully, his one-time mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret) who, like Christina, is a teacher at the school.
We soon realize that Nicole and Christina have hatched a plan to dispose of their troublesome wretch. In his typical fashion (and counter to the film's more opaque denouement), Clouzot (working with three other screenwriters and loosely adapting a novel) ratchets up the tension by cluing viewers into the scheme from the start. Through bits of exposition and a good deal of concrete action, we learn about their plan. They drive up to a retreat in the country. Nicole has brought a large tablecloth and a giant wicker trunk. They place a drugged bottle of wine on the table, and Christina makes a taunting phone call to her husband. Nicole fills the bathtub. We know exactly what's going to happen, or at least what's supposed to happen, but the fascination comes in watching the literal execution.
Their plan succeeds in large part because of its simplicity, and they return to the school to dump the body in the murky pool and wait for it to be discovered. The problem is, there's nothing to discover. The body is gone. Was Michel really dead? Has this become a supernatural tale? Is a corpse-stealing criminal planning to blackmail them? Paranoia strikes deep, and when even the hard-edged Nicole begins to crack, it seems just a matter of time before fragile Christina, she with the congenital heart problem (wink wink), will collapse altogether.
The heretofore entirely pragmatic and plausible script begins to teeter under the weight of a few contrivances, including a conveniently-placed retired police inspector (Charles Vanel) who begins to poke around, but the anxiety is palpable, especially in the hothouse locale of the schoolhouse. Signoret is absolutely brilliant as the tight-lipped, stiff-backed Nicole, exactly the kind of gal you want to have around if you ever need to butcher a calf. Vera Clouzot (who suffered from a real-life heart condition which killed her in 1960) is somewhat less substantial as the frail Christina, but she is well suited to the role.
"Diabolique" was not the first film to rely on a major plot twist at the end ("Caligari" at least, and no doubt before that), but it was such a huge commercial and critical success, and flaunted its ending so openly, that it spawned many imitators. Hitchcock was a great admirer of the film, and many consider "Psycho" to be his ultimate response. Many others would follow, of course, though the latest sickly flowering of twisters is probably more attributable to the runaway success of "The Sixth Sense," another example of a good film that shouldn't be blamed for its dimbulb successors, not even the ones by the same director.
"Diabolique" was originally released by Criterion more than 10 years ago (Spine Number 35) on abare bones SD. While I don't have it as a point of comparison, there can be no doubt that this new transfer and new collection of extras is a major upgrade over the earlier release.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The image quality is a bit softer in this 1080p transfer than we might have expected. This is most noticeable in close-ups as the level of detail in facial features is clearly not as sharp as in many Criterion high-def transfers. Some of this may owe to the film's lighting scheme, but faces simply don't "pop" the way they do in, say, a more recent Criterion Blu-Ray like "White Material." Shadows aren't as rich either. This is still a very solid transfer and the black-and-white photography looks beautiful, but this is at the lower end of Criterion's high-def offerings. The transfer is pretty clean with very minimal instances of damage and debris visible.
The LPCM 1.0 audio track is crisp but unremarkable. The film's sound design is fairly straightforward and many sequences are very quiet. I didn't hear any hiss or distortion. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.
The full-length commentary track continues its gradual disappearance, at least from the Criterion lineup. As they did with this month's release of "Pale Flower," Criterion has included a Selected-Scene Commentary (44 min.) with French-film scholar Kelley Conway. Conway's commentary sounds like it had been a full-length effort that is pared in half for the Blu-Ray release, but I can't be sure about that. You don't access it from the movie via the Audio button, but as a separate feature. Storing the video twice seems like a less than optimal use of storage space when we're talking about 44 minutes worth. I wonder if this will become more standard for the studio. In any case, Conway's commentary is very assured and informative. Like many Clouzot admirers, she feels the obligation to defend him against the attacks he experienced 50 years ago at the hands of the "Cahiers du cinema" critics.
An introduction by film preservationist and historian Serge Bromberg (15 min.) provides brief thematic and visual analysis, and once again mounts a defense against the "Cahiers" criticisms. Bromberg co-directed the 2009 documentary "Henri-Georges Clouzot's ‘Inferno.'"
Novelist and critic Kim Newman (16 min., London 2010) discusses the film's influence on movies such as "Psycho" and many others.
The Blu-Ray also includes a Theatrical Trailer (2 min, 20 sec.)
The 16-page insert booklet includes an essay by critic Terrence Rafferty.
Clouzot's tightly-controlled, classical mise-en-scene fell out of favor during the transitional period of the French New Wave. He was a bit too "audience friendly" to certain esoteric sensibilities, but that's also the reason his films have had little trouble attracting new audiences over the years. While I greatly prefer "Wages of Fear" (a genuine edge-of-the-seater if there ever was one), I appreciate "Diabolique" despite my distaste for its celebrated ending.
The Criterion Blu-Ray is a slight disappointment by the studio's high standards, but any upgrade of Criterion's earliest releases is always welcome.