Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Ben Wheatley’s take on Rebecca in theaters and en route to Netflix, we’re singling out other Hitchcockian thrillers—ones that explicitly recall the master of suspense.
According to various sources—none of them definitive, but the legend lives on—Alfred Hitchcock attempted to option Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s novel She Who Was No More, only to discover that French filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot had beaten him to it by a matter of hours. If that’s true, it may have indirectly led to the greatest movie ever made (per the most recent Sight & Sound poll, anyway), as Hitch subsequently made a point of securing the rights to Boileau-Narcejac’s D’Entre Les Morts, from which he created Vertigo. Still, it must have pained him a little to watch Clouzot’s adaptation of the earlier novel become a cultural phenomenon. “An extraordinary new motion picture by Henri-Georges Clouzot, France’s master of suspense” read the American ads, explicitly positioning Diabolique as Hitchcock with subtitles. That same campaign included a plea for viewers not to reveal the ending to their family and friends, along with a stern warning that nobody would be admitted to the theater after the movie had begun—ploys that Hitchcock would borrow a few years later for the release of Psycho. It’s as if not being able to make this particular movie fueled his creative drive for much of the next decade.
Whatever the reality may have been, it’s hard to imagine a better Diabolique than the one we actually have. (For a far worse version, just watch the 1996 American remake, starring Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani.) From the outset, Clouzot emphasizes this scenario’s moral rot, superimposing his opening credits over a shot of filthy, stagnant water. This turns out to be a little-used swimming pool at a Paris boarding school run by Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse), a petty tyrant prone to physically and psychologically abusing both his wife, Christina (Véra Clouzot, actual wife of Henri-Georges), and his most recent mistress, Nicole (Simone Signoret). Having recently formed a post-traumatic friendship of sorts, the two women decide to murder Michel and make it look like an accident: After drugging him and then drowning him in the bathtub, they dump his corpse into the aforementioned swimming pool and wait for it to be discovered. When the pool is eventually drained, however, it proves to be empty. And there are various strange indications that Michel might somehow still be alive and plotting revenge, even though he appeared, on multiple occasions over many hours, to be extremely dead.
To say anything more about the direction of Diabolique’s all-time-classic of a narrative would be a disservice. Decades’ worth of thrillers inspired by it have inevitably dulled the impact of its surprises a bit for a modern audience, but the brutal efficiency with which events unfold remains hugely pleasurable, albeit in a dank and shivery sort of way. It’s established early on that Christina suffers from a heart condition, and Véra Clouzot (who, sadly, suffered an actual fatal heart attack not long afterward) does a magnificent job of conveying the character’s learned helplessness, making it clear that she sees no other way out of her misery while simultaneously providing suggestions of how ready she is to forgive Michel despite his constant cruelty (which at one point implicitly extends to rape). Signoret, by contrast, comes across like a tougher variation on the Hitchcock “icy blonde,” brooking zero nonsense and serving as the scheme’s primary motor. There’s also some unexpected, quasi-Hitchcockian comedy involving minor characters—most notably Nicole’s tenants, one of whom gets very angry that he can’t hear his favorite radio quiz show over the sound of the murder tub being filled downstairs. Mostly, though, Diabolique is just one of the very finest vise-tighteners ever made. Hitch should have welcomed the comparison.