The conception and reputation of Les Diaboliques, arguably the most influential psychological horror film of its time, are as suspiciously intriguing as the film is itself. The screenplay blends subtle psychosis and realistic suspense. Focusing on a woman and her husband's mistress who conspire to murder the man who has shamed them both, it reads as a perfect script for suspense-thriller wizard Alfred Hitchcock to direct.
A couple years prior to the creation of Les Diaboliques, Hitchcock was in his creative prime, pumping out the early classics of his career such as Stage Fright, Strangers on a Train and I Confess. The year Dial M for Murder was commercially released, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac put out Celle qui n'était plus (She Who Was No More), the novel from which the screenplay for Les Diaboliques’ was based on. The timing couldn’t be any more ideal for Hitchcock to take on this screenplay for his next film; it almost seemed too good to be true. Which is the funny thing: because it was.
The master of suspense was indeed originally approached to direct Les Diaboliques. However, Hitchcock was also known for paying low sums for the rights to stories and novels, which may or may not be the reason the screenplay’s rights eventually got snatched up by French director/screenwriter, Henri-Georges Clouzot. Ironically enough, Hitchcock deeply influenced Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, but more interesting was how this influence was reciprocated as Diaboliques served as an inspiration for Hitchcock’s later and profoundly influential suspense-horror film masterpiece, Psycho. Even further, Robert Bloch, the author of the novel Psycho, which was adapted into the Hitchcock film, has professed Les Diaboliques to be his favorite horror film of all time. This unlikely turn of events and peculiar game of influence plays out similarly and thematically in Clouzot’s suspenseful-yet-weirdly-not-as-popular-as-Hitchcock’s-horror-classic-but-honestly-should-be work of subtle genius.
Les Diaboliques, or Diabolique, as it was known in the States, variously translates to The Devils or The Fiends. The title itself holds a connotation of Biblical evil, yet through the film’s careful execution, Clouzot assures us that its title’s meaning is not so predictible. The film initially opens itself up to the audience with an indirect sense of iniquity: three members of an apparent love triangle are in the aftershock phase of their very aware, tumultuous circumstance.
The wife, Christina Delassalle, played by director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s real-life spouse, Véra Clouzot, is the victim of an unashamedly disloyal husband (Paul Meurisse) who happens to be the principal of an all-boys boarding school, funded by the wife herself. To make things more peculiar, the mistress of the principal, Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret) works as a teacher in the boarding school on Mme. Delassalle’s own dime. The premise is then turned immediately on its head when the legal wife is seen consoling the freshly introduced mistress before the film even has time to let this uncomfortable premise settle. Before you know it, the two are plotting hand-in-hand -- or more appropriately, backhand-in-backhand -- an instinctual plan to silence the man who lives just a bit too comfortably in his own libido. The rest is unworthy of spoiling, but the meaning of ‘diabolique,’ the thematic centerpiece, truly comes to light in the film’s final seconds.
What makes Les Diaboliques all the more compelling are the creator’s intentions behind it, as well as the preservation of these intentions. After the release of his film, Clouzot confessed that his aim was to make a picture that would “amuse myself” and please a young girl who hid under the covers and asked her father to frighten her with a bedtime story. What improbably failed in appealing to children ended up being his greatest triumph as an adult terror masterwork. However, this ‘failure’ could be debated. While this specific work is not and should not be intended for children, the enduring quality of this movie dubiously continues to haunt generations of adults whose children will grow up to be equally haunted in their place. This brings us to the preservation of these intentions to “please young girls” who implore for that late night bedtime story.
Not quite a spoiler, the ending-behind-the-ending of this movie materializes in a brief anti-spoiler message from the filmmaker. “Don’t be devils, don’t ruin the interest your friends could take in this film. Don’t tell them what you saw. Thank you for them.” This statement was a successful ploy to preserve the thrill of the audience’s experience. Diaboliques became a hit at the box office, going on to be the top 10th grossing film in France the year it was released while pulling in 3,674,380 admissions. Apparently where more than enough people kept the film’s ultimate secret to themselves. Alfred Hitchcock himself took this idea further, famously insisting that no one was to be admitted into the theaters in which his films were screening the moment they had begun.
With Les Diaboliques, Clouzot’s creative stamp on cinematic horror is cool, unsuspecting and twisty. Whether his idea is indirectly taken in the form of story twists, suspense devices, shocks, and colorfully suspicious characters from other, suspense-thriller films, or interpreted abstractly elsewhere, his cold film leaves you warmly appreciative of the genre itself.