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Cult Movies: Henri-Georges Clouzot’s effortlessly creepy Les Diaboliques influenced Hitchcock’s Psycho

A black and white shot of Véra Clouzot as Christina and Simone Signore as Nicole in Les Diaboliques
Les Diaboliques Véra Clouzot as Christina and Simone Signore as Nicole

LAST week, in these very pages, I was singing the praises of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s splendid psychological drama The Wages Of Fear: this week, I’m turning my attention to his equally brilliant 1955 thriller, Les Diaboliques.

Last time, I mentioned that the French director was often referred to as a Gallic Hitchcock, and it’s this film that earned him that cultural connection with a true cinema great. However, while Clouzot’s work is undeniably influenced by the master of cinematic suspense, it’s fair to say that the inspiration also worked the other way round with Les Diaboliques.

Made five full years before Hitchcock shocked the world with Psycho, it’s a film that bears more than a passing resemblance to the English director’s famous foray into full-on horror, both in terms of its visuals and its cold-hearted ambiance.

There’s also the small matter of an elaborately staged bathroom murder to consider, but we’ll come to that in a moment.

The director’s wife, Vera Clouzot, is Christina, a timid and troubled woman who is being openly abused by her awful husband, Michel (Paul Meurisse), a nasty headmaster at a rundown prep school.

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A black and white still of the bathtub murder scene from Les Diaboliques
Les Diaboliques The film features an elaborate bathroom murder scene

He is openly having an affair with a teacher by the name of Nicole (Simone Signoret), whom he treats almost as badly as his poor put-upon wife. Finally, tiring of Michel’s behaviour, the two women come together to plot his demise, although their carefully laid-out plans to murder their tormentor swiftly unravel.

Having drowned Michel in a bathtub, they then dump his body in the school’s dirty old weed-infested swimming pool, hoping his demise will be written off as a drunken escapade gone wrong.

When the pool is subsequently drained, though, the corpse has miraculously vanished, and when sightings of the dead headmaster start to crop. up the two women are driven to distraction trying to work out what has really happened.

The poster for Les Diaboliques
Les Diaboliques The poster for Les Diaboliques

There’s a particularly chilling sequence in the bathtub that foreshadows Psycho’s shower scene, and everything builds to a spectacular – well, spectacular for 1955 at any rate – twist-ending that doubtless sent contemporary audiences home with eyes wide open and jaws firmly ajar.

For a black and white French film, Les Diaboliques did great business at the box office in the UK and America: rumour has it, Hitchcock was so impressed by Clouzot’s coldly efficient storytelling and way with an audacious jump-scare, that he fashioned Psycho to reclaim his title as the ‘King of Suspense’.

Hitchcock echoes aside, Les Diaboliques remains a remarkable thriller. Stark to look at and so tightly wound it almost becomes unbearable at times, this is masterful film-making from a director who fully understands how to pace a superior thriller.

A scene from Les Diaboliques
Les Diaboliques .

The central performances from Meurisse as the deeply unlikable headmaster, Vera Clouzot as his brow-beaten wife, and Signoret as the strangely sensual lover are all superb, and the setting of the fifth-rate school is suitably sleazy and perfect for a such a sordid tale of murder and mystery to unfold.

Odd, uneasy and effortlessly creepy, this is a stunning slice of cinema and one that still feels almost perfect even today.

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