Christina (Vera Clouzot, "The Wages of Fear") is the beautiful and wealthy wife of Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse, "Army of Shadows"), who runs the boys' boarding school she funds with no regard for anything but profit. He's cruel and it is common knowledge he's having an affair with another teacher, Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret, "A Room at the Top"). When Nicole appears one day with a black eye, she takes Christina aside and suggest they murder her husband during the school's Christmas holiday in "Diabolique."
Cowriter (with Jérôme Géronimi)/director Henri-Georges Clouzot, adapting the novel (Thomas Narcejac's "Celle qui n'était plus") Hitchcock had wanted, comes up with the best of his twist endings in yet another of his tales where a love triangle circles a crime. This one also features the detective (Charles Vanel, "The Wages of Fear") many think inspired 'Columbo,' although his characteristics appear in earlier films like "Quai des Orfevres"."
Christina, we learn early on, suffers from a heart condition. While there's no love lost for her husband any longer, her religious beliefs deny divorce. But when Nicole leaves early in the morning for her home town some hours' drive away, there's Christina. Nicole's plot involves an expensive bottle of whisky spiked with sedatives, a full bathtub, a plastic tablecloth and wicker basket. She's also got tenants, M. and MMe. Herboux (Noël Roquevert and Thérèse Dorny), to provide an alibi and, in typical Clouzot fashion, black humor. Nicole dials Saint Cloud and hands the phone to her betrayed patroness to announce her intention to divorce - bingo, the bait is snatched and Michel arrives after dark. But is Nicole really concerned about Christina's best interests? Why should this fragile bird of a woman (her pigtailed braids, joined together by a ribbon, add a childlike quality) be tasked with helping to carry a corpse or sent to fetch a bronze ornament to weigh it down? Christina's condition worsens, her fearfulness intensifies.
Back at the school, when no one finds Michel in the pool as the women had planned, Plantiveau's (Jean Brochard, "Le Corbeau") tasked with draining it. There is no body. Then Michel's distinctive suit is delivered from the cleaners. When Christina sees an article about a man's body dragged from the Seine, she makes posthaste to the Paris morgue.
Saint Cloud's school is like a post-war spin on a Dickinsonian institution where boys are fed rotting fish and made to stand in the corner, but there's also that classically French anarchic spirit among these students. One of them, Moinet (Yves-Marie Maurin), is observant about the goings on around him. And so as other professors note Nicole's dark sunglasses and the school's maintenance man controls comings and goings, no one thinks to listen to the kid, even after a class photo lends him credence. Clouzot's noirish images can still be traced to his German expressionistic influences with shadows, ghoulish faces and white nightgowns and his watery murder trickles liquidly throughout his film.
Clouzot's dark delicate wife is beautifully contrasted against the earthy blond Signoret and while their relationship is curious to outsiders they seem comfortable in each other's company. Vera went on to star in her third film, again directed by her husband, "Les Espions," again as a fragile woman committed in an asylum. Ironically given her heart condition here, Vera died of heart failure just five years after the release of "Diabolique."
The film was remade, dreadfully, in 1996 with Isabel Adjani in the Clouzot role and Sharon Stone as Nicole.
Robin gives "Diabolique" an A-.
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