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  Diaboliques, Les They Shalt Not Kill
Year: 1955
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Stars: Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot, Paul Meurisse, Charles Vanel, Jean Brochard, Thérèse Dorny, Michel Serrault, Georges Chamarat, Robert Dalban, Camille Guérini, Jacques Hilling, Jean Lefebvre, Aminda Montserrat, Jean Témerson, Jacques Varennes
Genre: Horror, ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  9 (from 2 votes)
Review: At this rather impoverished, rundown boy's boarding school, one of the teachers, Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret), and the headmistress, Christina Delasalle (Véra Clouzot), have an unusual arrangement concerning the headmaster Michel Delasalle (Paul Meurisse), who happens to be Christina's husband. Although he is brazenly carrying on an affair with Nicole, his wife remains best friends with her as they both have the same problem, which is him, since he is violently abusive to each woman, but Christina being a staunch Catholic cannot divorce him, and Nicole frankly needs the job and would not leave her pal to the mercy of Michel. To that end she has a plan, and lets Christina in on it: how about they get the source of their trouble to a boarding house out of town, and put him to sleep... forever?

You cannot underestimate the power Les Diaboliques had when it was first released in the mid-nineteen-fifties, for the ingenious twist ending may not have been invented here, but it was undoubtedly popularised by it. The Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock was a great admirer, though that may have been tempered by the fact he had been seeking the rights to the original novel himself and was beaten to them by Frenchman Henri-Georges Clouzot, something of a master too in the field of thrillers; as compensation, the writers penned the book that became Vertigo for Hitch, a film that is even better thought of than this. Yet this is significantly more fun, a macabre romp through murder and subterfuge with a deceptive sense of flair.

Deceptive because it's only when you reach that final act that you realise how well you have been drawn in to the plot. Until then it may seem as if it has been dragged out too long, yet Clouzot knew what he was doing, and by tormenting the two ladies at the heart of it he was crafting what amounted to a cruel, almost blackly comic parable of how there is no such thing as justifiable homicide. Christina's piety is referenced often, and arguably it is she who suffers the most as guilt becomes the overriding sensation the director was playing with, therefore no matter how much it appeared as if her absolute cad of a husband deserved what was coming to him, could she really tell us she had done the right thing in preserving her small fortune and sanity by bumping him off?

The killing wasn't even her idea, and right up to the point the deed is carried out she isn't sure whether she'll allow Michel to drink the poison-laced whisky. Nevertheless, we are pointed in the direction of believing he got his unavoidable fate thanks to his bullying behaviour, beating up Nicole and raping his wife (offscreen) in a manner suggesting these are not isolated incidents: we're in no doubt something has to be done, but once Michel has been drowned in the boarding house bathtub, Clouzot begins to needle both us and the ladies with the nagging feeling there had to be another way. One with less murder, basically, since there is patently some stern deity glaring down at Nicole and Christina and set to punish them with the hard to shift thought they are being haunted by a now-vengeful spectre, one who is determined to get his own back.

The atmosphere was sleazy from the get go, with the school populated by children more like the nastier side of Zéro de Conduite than obedient little boys, plotting away for vandalism or taking money to see sisters naked in the bathroom. The teachers are under the thumb of Michel, and obviously there because nobody else would have them, they're certainly not much good at keeping order and you imagine their lessons are useless, but the headmaster allows it since he has a very comfortable set up here. Once he is out of the picture and dumped in the swimming pool (or is he?) his killers try to carry on, but the burden of murdering even a despicable individual brings down an unearthly wrath upon them, most blatantly in the hauntings, but also in the person of the proto-Columbo Inspector Fichet (the much-respected Charles Vanel) who sniffs about after the dead body and seems to have everyone sussed. Alas, this was so influential these days you may be in the same position, those imitators having dulled the impact - ah, but that final sequence commands undeniable force. Music by Georges Van Parys.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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Henri-Georges Clouzot  (1907 - 1977)

French director, responsible for some now classic thrillers. Originally a screenwriter, Clouzot's debut film was L'Assassin Habite Au 21 in 1942, which he followed by the controversial The Raven. Its harsh portrayal of small-town France was considered unpatriotic, and Clouzot was barred from working in France for five years.

Clouzot returned with the thriller Jenny Lamour and powerful Manon, before 1953's brilliant white-knuckle-ride The Wages of Fear became a big international success. Les Diaboliques, two years later, proved even more popular, and is still considered one of the greatest psychological thrillers ever made. Inevitably Clouzot's subsequent work paled in comparison to these masterpieces, and ill-health dogged the director throughout the rest of his career. However, the likes of The Spies, The Truth (with Brigitte Bardot) and his final film La Prisonniere remain distinctive, often disturbing movies.

 
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