It’s a well known legend in film history that Alfred Hitchcock was only hours away from securing the rights to Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s novel She Who Was No More before Henri-Georges Clouzot beat him to it. It’s understandable why the Master of Suspense was after the novel. He had recently adapted one of their other novels, D’entre les morts (From Among the Dead) into Vertigo with great success and She Who Was No More seemed the perfect material for the prolific filmmaker to work with. Yet Clouzot beat him to it, resulting in 1955’s Diabolique, perhaps the greatest suspense film up to that point.
Diabolique is set at a strict boarding school run by the tyrannical Michel (Paul Meurisse) and owned by his wife, the timid and literally faint-hearted Christina (Véra Clouzot – Henri-Georges’ wife). She tolerates her husband’s dictatorial run of the school, taking solace in her grievances with none other than Michel’s mistress, Nicole (Simone Signoret). The two women share a mutual hatred for Michel, so much so that Nicole devises a plan to murder him. Christina is hesitant at first but eventually gives in, agreeing to lure Michel miles away from the school to a secluded house, using a divorce threat as bait. Once he arrives, Christina sedates him and the two women drown him in the bathtub. They bring his body back and dump it in the school swimming pool in hopes to make his death look like an accident. However, they soon discover that the pool has been drained and Michel’s body is nowhere to be found.
This sort of suspenseful murder plot is exactly what Alfred Hitchcock established his career on. It is obvious that had been provided the opportunity to adapt the Boileau-Narcejac novel that it would undoubtedly rank among his many classics. However, he never got the chance, instead being forced to take a seat and watch how Clouzot worked the genre. In this, it is evident that Hitchcock was taking diligent notes. Hitch’s upcoming film would be 1960’s Psycho and the influence Diabolique had on it is extremely clear.
What Clouzot does so masterfully is his ability to surprise the audience by giving them an inciting incident in the middle of the film. The viewer watches in suspense as they know the murder is to be carried out, they witness it happen, and wonder what will happen next. Yet, mysteriously, the body completely disappears. In this, Clouzot not only shocks his audience, but makes them think. Was Michel actually killed? Was the murder simply imagined in the women’s heads? The viewer is thrown off and unaware of what to expect, ultimately changing the entire film and taking it in a whole new direction – much like a certain shower scene that would follow in 1960.
From then on, Diabolique’s mood is filled with a sense of dread; the audience is well aware that the “murder” has gone wrong, but they have no idea what will come of it. Clouzot is well aware that he has the viewer in the palm of his hands and takes advantage of it. Instead of feeding us satisfying clues until it is solved, he makes us dive deeper and deeper into the mystery, teasing us as the plot crawls. In this, Clouzot keeps our investment. We’ve come this far into the film, we’re not going to give up now.
Making an audience wait for the climax of a film is nothing new. But the way Clouzot handles it is superb – he keeps viewers’ anticipation up for half the runtime, dropping the most subtle of hints as to whether Michel is present in the school or not. This suspense could be a risky move if the scene it’s leading to did not have the outcome to make the long wait worth it. Diabolique, however, does. In one of the greatest horror twists ever put to film, an extremely paranoid Christina has fled to hide in the bathroom after hearing footsteps following her. Once inside, she finds Michel’s body once again submerged in a bathtub. His body rises, eyes white as sheets, sending Christina’s frail heart into a frenzy as she collapses. It’s no ghost/zombie/living dead/etc. Michel and Nicole had a plot of their own, planning to kill Christina from the start.
The payoff is well worth it, yet, it is far from the greatest aspect of the film. What truly sets Diabolique apart from anything else like it is its uncanny ability to grab a tight hold on its audience and keep it until the film is finished. It’s a slow-burn, but it never feels daunting. It teases the audience, but they never resent it. It’s one of the best uses of suspense in a film that undoubtedly struck a chord with Mr. Hitchcock. In response – and perhaps a bit in protest – he would release Psycho five years later; a similar suspenseful murder film in which another inciting incident occurs halfway through. Hitchcock’s offering, as well as his other work, may be better remembered than Clouzot’s, but it’s hard to imagine him taking a deeper step into the genre if it weren’t for Diabolique.