The year was 1955, and American audiences were riding the wave of suspense created by Alfred Hitchcock with Rear Window and To Catch a Thief. Little did most of them know that across the ocean in France, Les Diaboliques aka Diabolique had taken the country by storm and had audiences on the edge of their seats.
Based on a novel by Boileau and Narcejac and directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, Les Diaboliques would challenge Hitchcock’s finest works to date. In fact, it was rumored that the Master of Suspense had missed the opportunity to buy the rights to the novel by mere hours.
In the film, the wife (Vera Clouzot) and the mistress (Simone Signoret) of an abusive school headmaster (Paul Meurisse) have had enough and together they devise a plan to be rid of him once and for all. They drug him, drown him in a bathtub, and dump him in the school’s swimming pool, but when the pool is drained for cleaning, the body has disappeared.
In the following days, both women are haunted by strange, inexplicable events that terrify them and will bring them to the brink of madness with a twist ending you have to see to believe.
Is there any wonder why Hitchcock wanted the property?!
Upon its release, the film became one of the top grossing films in France that year, but it was not an easy film to bring to the screen. In fact, some of the drama going on behind the scenes nearly rivaled what made it to the screen.
For starters, the film’s star Vera Clouzot was the wife of the director, and their marriage was tumultuous at the best of times. He demanded realism from his actors, and at one point, when Vera’s character was forced by her husband to eat rotten fish, Henri-Georges actually served her rotten fish during the scene which she had to consume.
Needless to say, she was not pleased, and tensions rose on set.
Vera was also prone to bouts of depression and mania and when Henri-Georges and Simone Signoret would clash on screen she would either arbitrate or exacerbate the situation depending on her mood.
Speaking of Simone, her contract stated that she would be paid for an eight-week shoot. When the shooting schedule doubled in time, Henri-Georges hunkered down and refused to pay her for the extra eight weeks. She fought the decisions, unsuccessfully.
To add fuel to the flame, Signoret had agreed to a role in a stage version of The Crucible which was set to go into rehearsals well after the shoot for the film was supposed to end. Because of the scheduling issues and because the director would not work around the rehearsal schedule, she was forced to film all day, rehearse well into the night, and scrape together a few hours of sleep where she could.
By the end of the shoot, neither the director nor the two leading actresses were speaking to one another.
Despite what went on off-camera, the film was received well by critics and audiences alike. Today, it holds a nearly perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes, and has been included in the lauded Criterion Collection.
It is widely considered one of the greatest films of its kind ever made, and has appeared on numerous “Best Of” lists since its release.
Les Diaboliques is available for streaming on numerous platforms and is even free for members on Amazon Prime, and if you ask me, it’s perfect for a late night movie with the man or woman you love.
Then again, my sense of romance has always been a little different…
For more Horror in Black and White check out last week’s entry: The Bat.