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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The Drowning Pool Is Empty
by Donald Levit

Filming Psycho in 1960, Hitchcock showed Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique/Les diaboliques/occasionally aka The Devils or The Fiends, to his crew. Shock-mystery-suspensers more than horror, the two indisputable classics share a symbiotic kinship. Both black-and-whites keep up mind games till final frames; both play on stagnant bogs, puddles and pools and suggest the erotic in spaces and in water -- and caused dread of showers and bathtubs. Aside from swirling chocolate syrup substitute they splash no blood, and excepting TV’s Reflections of Murder begat three inferior sequels or remakes each.

Further, his career restricted by wretched health and political hot water, the Frenchman beat the Englishman to the punch on the novels from which, as usual, he did screenplays for The Wages of Fear/Le salaire de la peur and Diabolique, the original for the latter being The Woman Who Was/Celle qui n’etait pas by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the pair who also did the source novel of Vertigo. These two French thrillers figure among sixteen Clouzot features in a Museum of Modern Art bonanza that adds in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno/L’enfer d’Henri Georges Clouzot , a 2010 documentary that reconstructs from raw footage of the director’s unfinished Inferno/L’enfer.

True, Hitch injected puckish if mordant humor, while pessimistic Clouzot’s world is unrelieved amoral characters tormenting one another in dank dreary profitless settings. The sole light in Diabolique, nosey morgue-haunting retired Police Inspector Alfred Fichet (Charles Vanel), appears late as though an afterthought forcing himself upon others and into the story and is played as Barry Fitzgerald recycled in Detective Columbo.

Even the stock teachers and concierge at seedy Delassalle boys boarding school cannot be called humorous in their eccentricities. Messrs. Drain, Raymond and Plantiveau (Pierre Larquey, Michel Serrault, Jean Brochard) are at the end of any road, caught in the miserliness of headmaster Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) with nowhere else to go except, as one remarks with Gallic gall, the dole.

That disagreeable principal-owner pinches centimes on gasoline and telephone calls, waters down the staff’s cheap wine and shortchanges students. He manipulates, beats and browbeats wife Christina “Cricri” (the director’s Brazilian wife Véra Amado Clouzot), whose dowry bought them the rundown place to begin with, and it is not very secret that he enjoys the favors of teacher Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret).

Emotionally and physically frail -- a bad heart -- Christina, too, has a relationship with icy Nicole. This is France and Brigitte Bardot literally just around the corner, but their love dare not speak its name here. Taller and more robust than her brunette companion, the shorthaired blonde mistress as well has had enough of the man they share. Likely the ladies’ plan originates with her and in any case is pushed by her when the other flags.


During a short holiday, the two escape in the only vehicle around and head for a house Nicole owns in Niort, to which the wife is to lure hubby with a threat of divorce. He rushes there by train, downs drugged alcohol, is drowned in the tub and packed into a wicker hamper.

The dead body dumped into the algae’d school pool, the lady killers wait for it to float up. It doesn’t, and they have the water drained out. Still no corpse. Christina’s nerves frazzle, her heart palpitates, as the murdered man’s suit is delivered from the cleaners, his gloves type messages, student Moinet (Yves-Marie Maurin) claims to have seen him, and his face appears in the background of a school photograph, while a suicide fished from the river proves a false hope.

The women bicker and turn on one another, but neither corpus delicti nor explanation shows up. The audience is hooked and, when all is later (re)solved, asked by printed titles not to be devils in revealing the truth to others. Unnecessarily, a last-second twist of the supernatural knife hints at yet some new mystery to ponder.

So dependent on visuals, many horror films do not wear well except as kitsch. But crafted fright films like Diabolique maintain their power. Such masterfilms work by creating atmosphere through what is not seen and, more, confounding their characters’ and their viewers’ misplaced expectations. Despite audible relief at the conclusion, people emerged with bravado but nonetheless shaky.

(Released by Kino Lorber; not rated by MPAA.)

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