‘Don’t be diabolical,’ a title card says at the end of the film. ‘Don’t destroy the interest your friends might take in this film. Don’t tell them what you have seen. Thank you on their behalf.’ This kindly instruction must refer to the tricky ending rather than the whole movie. It can’t spoil things if we say we have just seen Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, soon to be shown in a new print at the British Film Institute and around the country; or that this is one of the great murder movies; or that France has never looked seedier on film. It’s also a bit late to be worrying about such an instruction, since it belongs to a work first released in 1955. But I am going to keep quiet about the ending because it is one of the film’s great pleasures, and not everyone will know what’s coming.
It’s not its greatest pleasure, though. That lies in the extraordinary cunning that leads up to the tricky ending, the oblique ingenuity devoted to a task that many people find quite simple, namely causing the death of another person. This is murder as one of the fine arts, as De Quincey called it, and here as in the films of Alfred Hitchcock it can only mean an unholy conspiracy between the criminals and the moviemakers, especially the writers, in this case Clouzot and three others. Only an artist, in life or in the cinema, could be so much more interested in staging death than having a person dead. The very meaning of the word ‘diabolical’ shifts as a consequence of this interest. If it means unkind on the title card, and evil or monstrous in the murderous premise of the film (one of the characters says: ‘We are monsters’), by the end it means unnaturally, hallucinatingly clever, and in love with one’s own cleverness. The Hitchcock connection is not casual, since this film, like Vertigo, is based on a novel by Boileau and Narcejac. This time the title is Celle qui n’était plus, literally ‘The One Who Was No More’, but the title of the book Hitchcock worked with might be even better: D’entre les morts, ‘From among the Dead’.
I can describe the first half of the film without destroying anyone’s interest, and indeed the way the two halves seem to separate only to come magically together is another of the film’s pleasures. The setting is a boys’ boarding school in Saint-Cloud, on the edge of Paris, a fine, crumbling mansion with an improbable swimming-pool in the front yard. It is the sort of place where the headmaster buys yesterday’s fish to save money while keeping up appearances: at least it’s fish, not gruel. In one of the film’s many fine lines one of the servants says: ‘Not fish again.’ Another says: ‘No, it’s not fish again, it’s the same fish.’ The headmaster, one of the suavest, most amiably loathsome sadists you are ever likely to see, is played by Paul Meurisse, who also appears in Melville’s Army of Shadows and Renoir’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. His pious and petrified wife – Meurisse describes her as ‘a pretty little ruin’ – is played by Véra Clouzot, the director’s wife; his intrepid mistress is Simone Signoret in especially authoritative form. The two women, having sampled how far Meurisse’s pleasure in bullying and beating them will go, decide to kill him, and the plot doesn’t thicken, it turns gothic on the spot.
They take off for a brief mid-term holiday – in Niort, Clouzot’s birthplace as it happens – equipped with a large wicker trunk. They lure Meurisse into coming after them by telling him Mme Meurisse is seeking a divorce: this is not appealing to him because apart from his joy in tormenting her, she is the one who has the money and owns the school. They spike his whisky, immerse him in the bathtub, then make a terrific racket so that the lodgers upstairs will know they are still in Niort. The next day they take the body back to Saint-Cloud and drop it into the pool. Sooner or later the body will be found; they will have been away at the time of Meurisse’s disappearance from the school. The film brilliantly creates a great sympathy for the women. Our only worry is whether the crime will come off properly, and there are some suspenseful moments on the way back from Niort when it seems as if the contents of the trunk may be revealed. All is well, though. I mean, all is ill in just the way we want it. So far.
Then it turns out there is no body. The pool, drained on a trumped-up pretext, is empty. A promising corpse found in the Seine is not that of Meurisse. His suit appears, delivered from the cleaners. One of the boys in the school says he’s seen him. What may be his face appears in the shadowy background of a new school photograph. The impossibility of what’s happening is equalled only by its air of nastiness, compounded, as the atmosphere is from the beginning, by the disreputable staff on hand at school, the grumbling caretaker and the two male teachers, who look like graduates of an institution for sharks and molesters rather than any sort of college.
Here I can leave the murder plot and turn safely to the detective who now makes his appearance. This is a retired policeman played by Charles Vanel, and said to be the model for Peter Falk’s Columbo: he smokes a small cigar perpetually, pretends not to understand half of what he hears, and has a habit of popping up magically everywhere. He wears a dark old woollen coat, though, instead of the crumpled mac. When we meet him he is hanging out at the morgue, where Véra Clouzot goes in the hope of identifying the body found in the Seine as that of her husband – she wouldn’t know how he got out of the pool, but she would know he is dead. Is Vanel just looking for any old job, or parked at the morgue because he has nowhere better to be, or does he already know something about the doings in Saint-Cloud? The last possibility is the most unlikely, and also more or less irresistible as a thought. Vanel resembles one of those policemen in Kafka who follow the trail not of clues but of crime itself, as if it could be divined like water. Part of the beauty of the ending is not only the solution of the mystery but what Vanel’s presence does to the solution.
By 1955, Clouzot (born 1907, died 1977) had made a number of films, the most famous of them being Le Corbeau/The Raven (1943) and The Wages of Fear (1953). Le Corbeau, depicting a plague of poison-pen letters in a small French town, got him into all kinds of trouble: because it portrayed the French in a bad light, because it spoke indirectly about the Occupation, because he made it at all – he was working then for Continental, a German-run French film company. The film was banned during the war by the Germans, and after the war Clouzot was suspended from moviemaking for two years by the French. His comeback film was Quai des Orfèvres (1947) with Louis Jouvet and Suzy Delair. All of this must have seemed some way behind him when he was making the later thrillers. But it’s often interesting to connect works that seem safely tucked away behind the walls of genre to the messier, undefined world of other fictions and facts, and it’s possible to think that Clouzot never really changed his dark, shadow-lined subject. The man who made a great film noir before the term was even invented was an expert not in the dark and diabolical underside of the human soul but in shabby secrecy and the terror of accident or discovery. You know a lot but you are not telling; you are driving a lorry that could blow up at any minute; you have committed a murder and are bound to be caught. The present moment is filled with the thought of what may come next, and nothing is but what is not, as Macbeth cryptically but cleanly puts it. This is one of the great engines of crime and adventure stories, and a large part of why we care about them. In the imagination everything has already happened and keeps happening again. And again.