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

The Deadly Affair

Charles Dobbs on the phone

1966’s The Deadly Affair repeats the formula of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold – John Le Carré story, top British and European cast, London locations, great US director, ace British cinematographer, soundtrack by a big name – and if it isn’t quite up there with the 1965 film, it’s still one of the very best Le Carré adaptations.

It takes Le Carré’s first novel, A Call for the Dead, slaps a less sombre, more bums-on-seats title on it and also renames Le Carré’s masterspy George Smiley, as Charles Dobbs (Paramount, who had made The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, “owned” the Smiley name). Though in all important respects this is Smiley, an ageing, owlish penpusher with a wife called Ann (Harriet Andersson) whom he adores but who treats him like shit – she’s “a nymphomaniac slut” in her own words, and most of Dobbs’s colleagues would agree, since they’ve nearly all slept with her.

The plot hangs off the death of a ministry wonk. Suicide is the official explanation. Samuel Fennan (Robert Flemyng) was about to be outed as a former communist sympathiser, so the story goes, though Dobbs had quizzed Fennan on the very subject only that morning and Fennan had seemed happy to admit he’d been a Communist Party member in his university days – “Half the present Cabinet were Party men,” he points out. Unconvinced by the official line and suspecting murder, Dobbs sets about investigating, roping in Inspector Mendel (Harry Andrews), a cop on the verge of retirement, to help with the spade work. But first a trip to visit the dead man’s wife, Elsa. She is played by Simone Signoret, and let’s just say that you don’t hire Signoret simply to play the grieving widow.

James Mason’s mannered delivery works in his favour in The Deadly Affair. He’s a brilliant, silky Smiley (I mean Dobbs) – the silent but deadly quiet man whose unobtrusiveness is his secret weapon. The Dobbs character is of a piece with the shabby London settings captured by director Sidney Lumet. Far from the Swinging London of many mid-1960s movies, this is still the post-war world of damp rooms, electric fires and adultery, Lumet leaning in to Le Carré’s determination to present spying as a drab and morally ambiguous affair in much the same way Martin Ritt had in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.

Harry Andrews as Inspector Mendel
Harry Andrews as Inspector Mendel

Lumet also wanted to shoot in black and white, as Ritt did, but was prevailed upon by the studio to film The Deadly Affair in colour. Cinematographer Freddie Young gets Lumet half the way there, though, by “flashing” the film (exposing the negative to a controlled amount of light), a technique that drains out the colour, knocks back the contrast and increases shadow detail. This is a murky film that plays out in one underlit, beautifully photographed interior after another.

It’s also a superbly made film in terms of Lumet’s economical direction. From the opening shot, of Dobbs and Fennan already in mid-conversation in St James’s Park, Lumet does not hang about but drives the story forwards.

What a cast. As well as Signoret and Andersson – both greats of cinema – there’s the Austrian/Swiss actor Maximilian Schell, now amazingly almost a cinematic footnote but at the time about as big a star as a non-anglophone actor could be in Hollywood. One of Lumet’s fascinations is the way different actors work in different registers. Against the bluff, four-square Harry Andrews there’s puckish, nervous Roy Kinnear, for instance, and Lumet also stages several scenes at the theatre, where yet another different breed of actor, brother and sister Corin and Lynn Redgrave, play a camp director and his over-eager stage manager. We even get extracts from the plays they are supposedly working on – Shakespeare’s Macbeth and, particularly, Marlowe’s Edward II, where David Warner is playing the king and Timothy West is a witness to his terrible death (red hot poker where the sun don’t shine). Lumet is obviously indulging himself in a bit of “what I did on my holiday in London” postcard-writing with these scenes from Royal Shakespeare Company productions but they also provide a bit of contrast with the drabness of Dobbs’s milieu.

Quincy Jones’s lush John Barry-like score (title song sung by Astrud Gilberto) does something similiar, acting as a stark contrast to locations like semi-industrial Lots Road in West London, in the days before all of the Thames waterfront had gone upmarket. It’s where Dobbs finally unmasks his “traitor”, the dénouement playing out, grimly, quickly, in the dark and the pouring rain.

The years have been kind to this film, coating it in an allure it didn’t obviously have at the time. Mason is a superb Smiley (Dobbs, whatever) and this is a superb Le Carré adaptation.

PS: do yourself a favour and watch a restored version of the film, like the Amazon Blu-ray one listed below. It’s really worth it to see the results of the remarkable Freddie Young’s “flashing” technique. So much darkness, but so much detail.

The Deadly Affair – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Les Diaboliques

Simone Signoret and Vera Clouzot in Les Diaboliques




If you’re working yourself towards film-buffery, you really need to have seen something by master of suspense Henri-Georges Clouzot – “the French Hitchcock” he is often called, when Jacques Deray or Claude Chabrol aren’t using the sobriquet. You may already have seen the masterful The Wages of Fear, Clouzot’s 1953 tale of gelignite being driven across the South American jungle. It’s well worth adding Les Diaboliques, 1954’s tale of the murder most horrid – drugged, drowned – of a brutish husband by a fragile wife (Vera Clouzot) and his scheming mistress (Simone Signoret, none better). Job done, except the body keeps disappearing. Less a whodunit, more a wheresitgone, Les Diaboliques also strongly prefigures films like Thelma and Louise – where women do the dirty work and carry the drama. And watch out for the performance, as a shabby detective, by the brilliant French character actor Charles Vanel – pure Columbo, at least 20 years before Peter Falk ever fixed his glass eye on a suspect. Here in restored, silky monochrome glory and boasting a soundtrack heaving with pregnant silence, Les Diaboliques is the blueprint for so many suspense films to come.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


Les Diaboliques – at Amazon