Les Diaboliques

Christina and Nicole

Les Diaboliques is the film that Alfred Hitchcock missed out on making after getting pipped to the post by another master of suspense, Henri-Georges Clouzot. If the story is true, Clouzot stayed up all night reading the original novel, Celle qui n’était plus, and then called writers Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac the next morning, desperate to have the rights. By the time Hitchcock rang a few hours later they were sold.

Hitchcock did not walk away entirely empty handed. Boileau and Narcejac went on to write D’Entre les Morts for him, which he turned into Vertigo, currently ranked at number one in the Sight & Sound 100 Greatest Films of All Time poll. Boileau and Narcejac also wrote the adaptation of Eyes without a Face for Georges Franju, so clearly between 1955 and 1960 all their guns were firing.

Les Diaboliques is the story of two female teachers – wife Christina (Véra Clouzot, wife of the director) and mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret) – who decide that the best way to deal with Michel (Paul Meurisse), the bullying brute of a husband/lover who is also their boss at their school, is to kill him. The film isn’t so much about the killing, which comes fairly early on, but about dealing with the body and the psychological effect the murder has on the two women.

Complicating things slightly in Boileau and Narcejac’s original story was the fact that girlish, pigtailed Christina (Clouzot) and worldly, coiffed Nicole (Signoret) were also lovers. That’s gone in the adaptation, though a hint of a relationship is hinted at. It adds transgressive spice but HG Clouzot isn’t really interested in that side of things. Instead, Hitchcock style, he’s keener on tormenting his characters, and by extension the audience, as Michel, a bastard while alive, proves to be even more of a problem when dead. Spiriting his body away from the scene of the crime isn’t easy. Then it somehow disappears entirely. Then suggestions start to emerge that Michel isn’t really dead at all, even though we’ve seen the man drugged, drowned overnight in a bathtub and then deposited for several days at the murky bottom of the school’s swimming pool.

Nicole weighs down the body
Nicole weighs down Michel’s body

There is a shock reveal at the end, which won’t shock modern audiences because it’s been borrowed and re-borrowed so many times since, but at the time it was considered so crucial to the enjoyment of the film that there’s an entreaty to the audiences in the closing credits asking them not to be “devils” (“diaboliques” in French) and ruin the film for people who hadn’t seen it.

The plot is great fun but actually much of the enjoyment comes from HG Clouzot’s control of his actors and the gothic mis en scene. There’s no music. The school where much of the action is set is austere in the extreme, and populated with shady characters, and regular Clouzot DP Armand Thirard underlights it the entire way through, so that in one dark room after another the women’s faces, lit ghoulishly from below, loom out of the murk, first as scheming conspirators, later as guilt-ridden sinners.

It’s all very Catholic, emphasised by the arrival of Commissaire Fichet, a retired policeman dressed in dark clothes like a cleric, who has a Columbo style faux naive approach to detective work, as much father confessor as cop on the case.

Much of the burden of the acting falls on Véra Clouzot, who only made three films, all of which were directed by her husband, and though he’s obviously instructed his DP to light her as flatteringly as can be managed, Véra needs no following wind and comes up with the goods as the trembling, religiously-minded soul who’s having second thoughts now the deed is done. Signoret, as the tough-nut mastermind, takes great care not to stand in Mme Clouzot’s light. She can do this sort of thing in her sleep, and in several different languages.

Les Diaboliques – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Le Deuxième Souffle

Gu in a car pointing a gun

The title of Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1966 gangster drama Le Deuxième Souffle is often translated as The Second Wind, though The Last Gasp would also work pretty well, since it’s a story about a career criminal breaking out of jail and trying to get out of France with his woman. Stuck for cash, the fugitive takes part in a “one last job” heist, which does indeed turn out to be his one last job.

Lino Ventura plays the criminal Gu, short for Gustave, so ruthless a character that Melville puts up a disclaimer before the film that he personally does not condone any of the actions that the audience are about to see on screen – it’s just a story, he’s saying, more or less. It’s great casting, Ventura being a former wrestler and exactly the sort of man’s man that Melville liked to use in his films, the better to explore codes of masculinity, and particularly of criminals.

If that first paragraph is a bit spoilerish, in my defence I’ll just point out that there is a doomed aspect to Gu from the start. That’s perhaps the film’s greatest attribute, its atmosphere of fated inevitability. Gu, far from a good guy but in some way an existential hero Jean Paul Sartre would recognise, is determined to live his life according to his own lights, and if that means death, then so be it.

Opposite Gu, and the only character who really has full use of their face – Melville keeps the rest of them under rictus-tight control, a smile rendered as a flick of the corner of the mouth, anger as a tiny flash of the eyes – is Commissaire Blot (Paul Meurisse), the cop on the case and an avenging angel who’s charming, suave, a bit of a ladies man, clever and hugely sarcastic. When Blot arrives at the scene of a shooting early on, he goes from one “I saw nothing” witness to the next, not even bothering to question them, and instead telling them the story they’re about to tell him, detailing exactly how they saw nothing.

Christine Fabréga as Manouche
Femme fatale Manouche

Melville was known for his love of American movies and this is a 1960s movie with the ambience of a 1940s American one – hats and macs, cars and bars, and a femme fatale (in the shape of Christine Fabréga) with only a totemic function. Manouche (Fabréga) has little to contribute to the plot but is there because… well, that’s the way these things are done.

Detail is the other thing that Melville is famous for and his command of a fetching location. Le Deuxième Souffle is screengrabbable in the extreme. Especially when it gets to the moment of the grand heist, when tightly claustrophobic interiors suddenly give way to the wide open expanse of a windy, hairpinny road where a bullion van containing platinum is about to be jumped by Gu and his new brothers in crime.

Atmospheric, impeccably filmed in rich monochrome (this was Melville’s last black and white film) and beautifully edited, this film is a delight for lovers of craft and technique. But it’s also a long, slow film and, considering that its plot can be sketched in half a sentence, can be a frustrating watch if you’re not in the mood to bask in the locations Melville has so painstakingly chosen – a swish nightclub, a grotty hideaway, a lush apartment where Paul Ricci (Raymond Pellegrin) is organising the heist Gu will eventually join, the heist panorama itself – and the tightly controlled actors Melville has chosen to play his characters. Was any film better cast? Every face tells a story, from that of Fabréga, the blonde floozy, to Marcel Bozzuffi, who plays mastermind Paul Ricci’s crooked brother, to Michel Constantin, a noble henchman with a doomed thing for Manouche.

There is honour among thieves in Le Deuxième Souffle… until there isn’t. Melville’s story isn’t really about criminal justice catching up with Gu, but about the criminal code of honour failing him when it matters, and in Lino Ventura he has an actor who wears the realisation that his time might be up on his face from the first frame.

Le Deuxième Souffle – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021