Saturday, July 7, 2012

How Christina and Nicole Spent their Weekend Vacation

This post is part of The Best Hitchcock Movies (That Hitchcock Never Made) Blogathon, running from July 7th through July 13th, 2012. On July 7th, please wish Sir Alfred Hitchcock's lovely and talented daughter Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell a very happy 84th Birthday!

Henri-Georges Clouzot, the director of French suspense films such as The Wages of Fear and Le Corbeau, premiered his 1955 thriller Diabolique in New York City at what was then The Fine Arts Theater. How ironic that this premiere was doubling as a benefit for the Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund, considering the moviegoers found themselves gasping for breath from terror!  Produced by Vera Films, named after Clouzot’s leading lady in real and reel life, Vera Clouzot (The Wages of Fear; Les Espions), Diabolique continues to haunt audiences not only because of its fear factor, but also for its moving characterizations and performances. Diabolique’s title translates variously as Les Diaboliques; The Fiends; and The Devils, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of cinema’s most suspenseful films in any language! (For those of us who don’t speak French, distributor Janus Films provided subtitles.)
You're witnessing a rare sight:
Christina DeLassalle smiling!
It’s been said that no less than Team Bartilucci’s favorite fearmeister Alfred Hitchcock was itching to get the rights to the source material, the French suspense novel She Was No More (Celle qui n'tait plus) by Pierre Boileau &  Thomas Narcejac, only to find Clouzot had just beaten Hitch to the punch. Either way, Hitchcock made darn sure he got the rights to another Boileau & Narcejac thriller pronto: D’Entre Les Morts, translated as From Among the Dead—or as Hitchcock and company more intriguingly titled it, Vertigo. In any case, for Diabolique, director Clouzot worked with co-writers René Masson, Frédéric Grendel, and Jérôme Géronimi to adapt Diabolique for the big screen.

Over Diabolique’s opening credits, there’s a tight close-up of already-brackish water, accompanied by a quote from French author Barbey D’Aurevilly, who specialized in tales of mystery and suspense exploring hidden motivations, hinting at evil without being explicitly concerned with anything supernatural:

“A painting is always quite moral when it is tragic, and it gives the horror of the things it depicts.”

D’Aurevilly is starting to sound like the French granddaddy of film noir to me! Heck, even Armand Thirard’s saturated black-and-white cinematography plunges us viewers into a sense of eerie foreboding without even trying. Just watching a lady walking with an open umbrella primed me to get ready to flee, or at least duck!

Our story begins at Institution DeLassalle—or as the subtitles I.D. it, DeLassalle Boarding School, which has clearly seen better days.  It’s bad enough that Headmaster Michel DeLassalle (Paul Meurisse of Army of Shadows; The Truth; Le deuxième soufflé) is sadistically cruel to his lovely but sickly wife, Christina (Ms. Clouzot), who has a serious heart condition. Michel’s idea of kindness and sympathy is to cruelly tease Christina about being a “cute little ruin.” But Michel doesn’t stop there; he even mistreats his mistress and fellow teacher Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret, Oscar-winner for Room at the Top and nominee for Ship of Fools, among her other triumphs).  Indeed, when we first meet teachers Christina and Nicole, they’ve long since bonded over their mutual love-turned-hatred for Michel, to the amazement of the rest of the school’s mostly male staff. On top of that, Christina is paying for the school in every sense; she’s not only footing the bills (it’s clear Michel married Christina for her money), but she’s also paying in emotional abuse, including her sorrow for the way the schoolboys have to eat lousy food, and how she has to beg for every little thing, as if she was some kind of servant instead of being the head of the school.  No wonder she and Nicole have joined forces to put Michel’s lights out—and we’re not talking about the school’s electric bills! The murder plot has poor Christina even more jittery than usual, since she’s a staunch Catholic, and she takes the whole “Thou shalt not kill” thing seriously.  (Sadly, those were the only three films Vera Clouzot made; ironically enough, it turned out that like the character she played in Diabolique, she really did have a weak heart, and she died in 1960.) 

Anyone can have a love triangle,
but these three have a hate triangle!
Although Christina is glum and/or fearful more often than not, when she’s walking and talking with her fellow teachers early in the film, we briefly see her as the bright, happy young woman she must have been before Michel wormed his way into her heart and bank account in her native Brazil. The holiday weekend has begun, and Christina is wearing a perky little outfit and twirling her parasol.  Her lovely smile almost breaks my heart, because life with Michel gives her so few things to smile about. Let this be a lesson, all you headstrong movie romantics: Get to know your sweeties before you decide to make a life with them!  Heed the lessons learned the hard way by Christina, Audrey Hepburn as Reggie Lampert in Charade, and so many others! Oy!

You know, if the DeLassalle Boarding School was a real place and its shabby conditions were discovered today, some hotshot news team would make it a cause célèbre even before anyone got wind of the murder plot Nicole and Christina are hatching!  I can see it all now: muscular, no-nonsense Robert Irvine of The Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible storming in to kick the entire staff’s collective butt while overhauling the menu big-time, then force-feeding Michel DeLassalle his own disgusting rotting fish. Meanwhile, the equally tough-as-nails Anthony Melchiorri of The Travel Channel’s Hotel Impossible would overhaul the kids’ shabby dorms, too!  Do the boys’ parents ever actually visit this neo-hellhole? If Diabolique took place today, there would be lawsuits galore!  By the way, fans of Michel Serrault, perhaps best known to us Yanks as the star of La Cage Aux Folles and its two sequels, as well as Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud and Deadly Circuit, plays one of the teachers, Monsieur Raymond. He and the other teachers mostly put-up and shut-up; I guess they figure a job in a crummy boarding school with a nasty headmaster and unappetizing food is better than no job at all. And don’t get me started on that nasty, brackish swimming pool; the best use for it would be for a remake of Creature from the Black Lagoon…or an ingeniously wicked murder plot which ultimately pulls our gals into a murderous game in which death is only the beginning of their nightmare! I can say no more!

Nobody will be seated during
the disgusting rotting fish scene
As is the case with Hitchcockian thrillers such as, say, Stanley Donen’s 1963 thriller Charade, Clouzot’s Diabolique is one of the (say it with me, people) Best Hitchcock Movies that Hitchcock Never Made! The crucial difference is that Charade and other playful Hitchcockian thrillers (as opposed to genuine Hitchcock films by Big Al himself) recall Hitchcock’s polished, soignée-yet-cheeky side a la North by Northwest, while Diabolique is more like a precursor of Hitchcock’s darker, more sinister thrillers such as Psycho; Shadow of a Doubt; The Wrong Man; Strangers on a Train; or Frenzy. I’ll admit it would have been fascinating to see how Hitchcock would have approached Diabolique. Darkly magnificent as Psycho is, Diabolique’s gloomy, misogynistic take on the story sinks into your gut and haunts your dreams, especially with the film’s taunting suggestions that perhaps there’s a touch of the supernatural in all this that nobody can escape. Even Diabolique’s opening credit sequence immediately makes us uneasy with that merciless close-up of the rainy, run-down DeLassalle Boarding School’s murky swimming pool, accompanied by children shrilly singing Georges Van Parys’ music off-key and off-screen. The film starts out at a leisurely pace, but as it goes along, the tension tightens like a noose, helped by skillful use of shadows and light. Without giving away its twists, I’ll only say that Diabolique gives new meaning to the phrase “cruel to be kind.”

“First I add a generous portion of gasoline. Then some nitroglycerine… a goodly amount of gunpowder…some Uranium 238…shake well, strike an ordinary match, make Michel drink it, and voila!”
"Do you have Prince Albert in the can?"
Has Michel come back to life just for
the school picture? Now that’s school spirit!
"Here's looking at you, kids!"
Vera Clouzot and Simone Signoret are electrifying as partners in suffering and murder. As the women plot to kill the bastard, Ms. Clouzot’s delicate loveliness and her anxious air plays beautifully off Signoret’s sexy, smoldering intensity and streetwise demeanor. As Christina and Nicole try to act like nothing is wrong after Michel takes his final dip in the DeLassalle School’s pool, weird things keep happening that make them wonder if Michel is somehow still alive after all their efforts. Michel’s suits unexpectedly turn up from the local cleaners, and in the school picture, there’s a shadowy figure who looks unnervingly like Michel!  Is the creep still alive and messing with the women’s heads, or is it karma, or could there really be something supernatural going on? (*GULP!*)  

On top of that, Inspector Fichet (Charles Vanel of Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear and Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, as well as several Tintin movies!) has been trying to help Christina in his kindly Columbo-esque way, but is this likable shaggy dog of a man actually a bulldog hot on the scent of the women’s guilt? That’s not to say there aren’t touches of comedy, albeit of the pitch-black variety. I especially got a kick out of of the scenes earlier in the film, when Nicole and Christina come to town for the next phase of their murder plot. As Christina and Nicole lure Michel to come to town for a permanent dip in the bathtub, their upstairs neighbors, Monsieur and Madame Herboux (Noel Roquevert and Therese Dorny) are unable to hear whether or not they won a prize on the radio show, because the tub the women use to weigh Michel down gets noisy when they have to drain the tub!  Diabolique is even darker than Hitchcock at his darkest! Which is scarier, the water sports in Diabolique or in Psycho? Watch them and decide for yourselves! :-)

I won't spoil the big shocker ending for you; I'll just repeat the request from the filmmakers:

"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."
Trust me, your patience will be rewarded!