Diabolique: The Film Hitchcock Missed Out On

 


The story of how the French horror meets psychological thriller film Diabolique got made is really amusing, apparently, the wife of director Henri-Georges Clouzot (who directed the highly acclaimed 1953 film Wages of Fear) drew his attention to the novel She Who Was No More by Boileau-Narcejac, and after he read it that very night, he raced to the author the following morning and bought the rights to it, beating Alfred Hitchcock by just a few hours. There are many other funny stories about the making of this horrifying picture, from the director focusing more lighting on his wife in the film so she wouldn’t get outshined by the other actors, to him radically changing the original story so his wife could have a more sizeable role, but what sounds like a whimsical pre-production ended up with an incredibly tense and scary film, and one still worth seeking out and watching 65 years later.

The film takes place in a French boarding school run by the tyrannical Michel Delassalle, but owned by his wife Christina, and the story revolves around her and her husband’s mistress, Nicole, as they get tired of his abuse and together plot his murder. After the murder is carefully planned and executed, the husband’s corpse curiously disappears and Christina and Nicole attempt to relocate it and save their necks in a third act filled to the brim with one intense plot twist after another, so much so that the final image the film closes with is a warning to the audience not to spoil the events of the story.

Although it could be characterized as more of a thriller than anything else, Diabolique’s setting and characters induce an eeriness throughout the whole first half of the film which allows it the title of a horror film, that is before it jumps into nightmarish realms in its second half and more than earns the aforementioned title. A boarding school that feels more like a haunted mansion than anything, shot in an old castle in France for that very same purpose, is where the story takes place, and every shot tries to establish it as such, even from the opening sequence which resembles something made in Universal Studios in the early 1930’s. A feeble feeling of tranquility is established for a few minutes before it is shattered by the facts regarding the school’s headmaster, a tyrannical, abusive and violent man who’s as hurtful to the women around him as he is to his students. Facts that allow Christina and Nicole, who would otherwise be archenemies, to bond over their shared hatred of him, and together, plot and execute his murder.

The scenes depicting the crime bring to mind the thirty minutes long segment in Rififi (Jules Dassin, 1955) but instead of theft, here it is murder, shown in its most bare, bone-chilling and detail-filled way, with nothing but silence and the occasional gasp to accompany it. The film afterwards switches from being a good ol’ thriller to a full-fledged horror as the corpse mysteriously disappears, and Nicole and Christina are subjected to the psychological torture of the potential aftermaths of what happened. The film in its second half is so hard to define just because it goes in a bunch of different directions, dipping into the surreal, into mystery, into the ethereal, a whodunit in different realms.

Part of what makes Diabolique such a frightening experience is the fact that throughout the film and by the end of it, it constantly offers explanations for the mysterious events happening, but at the same time, hints at bizarre and otherworldly potential reasons that could be the cause of everything, and it never lingers on either, the choice is up to the audience.

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