There are movies that tell riveting stories on screen, and then there are movies with legendary tales both on and off the big screen. Les Diaboliques (The Devils) – released in 1955 – is a highly successful French black and white mystery thriller spiced with elements of horror. A movie with a double-twist plot for the audience and a famous story behind it for the history buffs.
The movie centers around a French boys’ boarding school owned by the wealthy but frail Christina Delassalle (played by Vera Clouzot) who is married to Michel Delassalle (played by Paul Meurisse).
Despised by teachers and students alike, Michel runs the school as a headmaster in a manner befitting that of a wicked stepmother from a Grimms’ fairytale, feeding rotten food to children and handing out overly strict punishments. At the same time, he openly flaunts a seemingly abusive relationship with his mistress, Nicole Horner (played by Simone Signoret), and does not shy away from slapping his wife who suffers from a heart condition.
Early into the film, Nicole is seen pushing Christina to partner with her in a plot to murder Michel. The scheme involves visiting Nicole’s home in Niort in Deux-Sevres during the school vacation, luring Michel over, drugging and drowning him in a bathtub, and then bringing his body back to the school where it would be dumped in a murky swimming pool to make it appear as an accident or a suicide.
However, this is only the stage being set up for the mystery and not the mystery itself. That comes in after the two women discover the body has disappeared from the swimming pool, raising the questions of who, how and why. Strange incidents begin to occur like the laundry delivery of the same suit Michel wore the night he died and a hotel room being booked in his name. Did somebody move the body? Are the women being blackmailed? Is it a ghost? The questions run through the movie, tormenting both women to the breaking point.
As director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s message at the end of the movie states, I will not play the devil here and spoil the ending for you. However, I can say the movie – as a classic mystery – is worth a watch. It’s not what the movie says so much as what it doesn’t say that makes it enthralling. The subtlety adds to the movie’s dark and suspenseful atmosphere.
This environment of suspense is especially enhanced in the climax scene by the use of sounds like heavy breathing, footsteps, and opening and shutting of doors, and visuals of a lonely Christina perspiring as she tip-toes through the dark and empty passageways of the school.
While the big reveal will take many by surprise, for those who have watched or read a sufficient number of modern mysteries, it may not have a feeling of newness, obviously because it’s an old movie. But it was the first of its kind at the time it was released and inspired many similar modern mystery plots. It is the subtle hint at the end – a final twist – that makes it all the more worthwhile.
Readers familiar with the history of the movie are aware it’s famously known as the movie Hitchcock never made.
The director, Clouzot, adapted the story from the novel, Celle qui n’était plus (She Who Was No More), the first collaborative work of the dynamic duo, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who later went on to producing many more successful books.
Hitchcock and Clouzot were both on the prowl for novels to adapt to film. According to the French film guide book by Susan Hayward, Clouzot’s wife, Vera, who plays Christina in the movie, persuaded him to obtain the screenplay rights for Boileau and Narcejac’s novel, which he did, preventing Alfred Hitchcock from making a movie on it.
But maybe it was for the best, as it is believed that Les Diaboliques was one of the reasons Hitchcock made his thrilling masterpiece, Psycho, in black and white, and also used Clouzot’s “no late admission” policy when the movie was showcased in theaters. The movie Psycho was adapted from the novel of the same name written by Robert Bloch, who himself is on record as citing Les Diaboliques as being his favorite horror movie.
Furthermore, after missing out on gaining the screenplay rights for Boileau and Narcejac’s first book, Hitchcock managed to obtain the rights to their third collaborative novel, D’entre les morts (Among the Dead), to adapt to the thriller movie, Vertigo.
Coming back to Les Diaboliques, Clouzot may have bought the rights for Celle qui n’était plus, but the stories for the book and movie are quite different. According to Susan Hayward’s guide book, Clouzot reworked the story in order to give his wife a much bigger role. The original story had the mistress Nicole playing the main role, but the character’s tough and masculine personality was not compatible with Vera’s more feminine look.
Also, in the novel, the mistress, Nicole, is eventually revealed to be a lesbian, and while there is no direct revelation of any such relationship between Nicole and Christina in the movie, there are subtle hints throughout the movie, including the contrastive personalities of the two women and the protective care and concern for each other.
One other character in the movie that is somewhat underplayed and almost seems unnecessary until the climax is Alfred Fichet (played by Charles Vanel), a retired senior policeman working as a private detective who takes on the case of finding Michel. Fichet comes off as a slow, elderly gentleman with a disarming mannerism, but don’t be fooled by the charming grin, there is sharpness in those old eyes and wisdom. He plays a crucial role in unearthing the truth.
All-in-all, a classic mystery thriller to watch, and since the movie is in the public domain, it’s available online for free. I managed to find a youtube video of the movie with English subtitles. So, if you’re in the mood for a little late night mystery, check out the movie below.