Diabolique is a fantastic film with a simple premise. An abused wife (Véra Clouzot) and her husband’s mistress (Simone Signoret) plot his murder. The film is set in a run-down school with a swimming pool full of muck and a kitchen full of rotten fish. The children are rowdy and the staff is overworked. It’s no wonder so many people there are dying to get out.
The jilted duo carry out their murderous plans by drowning Véra’s husband (Paul Meurisse) in a bathtub, and before you cry ‘Spoiler!’ notice it’s depicted on the cover. The rest of the film is an excruciatingly stressful suspense tale teetering on the edge of realism and the supernatural. I didn’t think a dilapidated boarding school could be shot as beautifully as the one in Diabolique, it would be an odd thought to think without cause, no? But there it is. A gorgeously disgusting tomb that closes in on our characters. Surrounded by the decaying splendor of years long past they all seek to escape. The detritus of the school’s structure is nothing compared to the rotten and contemptuous relationship between the husband and wife. Clouzot really makes you understand why this poor woman would plot to kill her husband.
I’ve not yet seen Clouzot’s other Criterion masterpiece Wages of Fear, but I understand it’s the height of suspense. In my brief reading on Diabolique I learned that another master of suspense had nearly secured the film rights to Diabolique, but thankfully Clouzot beat out Hitchcock by a matter of hours. If you’ve read my reviews of Hitchcock’s films it’s probably no surprise to you that I’m grateful he didn’t get his hands on Diabolique lest he ruin it like he wanted to ruin Rebecca. 1955 does put us right in the middle of Hitchcock’s artistic pinnacle with films like Rear Window and Psycho a few years away. I say be thankful for small blessings. If Hitchcock had managed to violate Diabolique then we’d not only be denied Clouzot’s masterpiece but perhaps countless other Hitchcockian gems as well.
Somewhere out there is a master list of the most shocking and exhilarating twist endings in film. Verbal’s limp in The Usual Suspects, Malcolm Crowe’s fate in The Sixth Sense, the killer’s identity in Friday the 13th. These reveals impacted their first audiences so much that they’ve been become cliche’d from over discussion. I don’t need to tell you what happens at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers because you already know. I was lucky enough to watch Diabolique without foreknowing the ending. A title card at the end of Diabolique reads “Don’t be diabolical. Don’t destroy the interest your friends might take in this film. Don’t tell them what you have seen. Thank you on their behalf.” So in the spirit of the film I won’t tell you what I’ve seen. 65-year-old spoilers are still spoilers.