Diabolical Suspension

 

Henri-Georges Clouzot is a master of suspense. His Wages of Fear, about four men hired to drive two trucks of nitroglycerin 300 miles on roads full of dangerous pitfalls, is the definition of suspense.

 

Like in Strangers on a Train, where Hitchcock forces you to watch the back and forth volley of a tennis match that stalls the action in its place, suspense is exactly what it sounds like. It is an Acme anvil tied to a fraying rope, dangling over your head. It is not the opposite of action, it is the impending threat of action to come.

 

Clouzot has been called the French Hitchcock, but, to be fair, Hitchcock cribbed a few notes from Clouzot. He acknowledged the debt for such movies as Psycho and Vertigo to 1955’s, Les Diaboliques.

In Les Diaboliques, Michel Delasalle is the virtueless headmaster who is cruel both to his own wife and to his new mistress. Christina is Michel’s wife and the owner of the boarding school. She is a former nun and the only teacher the boys seem to genuinely like. She has a good heart but a bad heart condition. Nicole is the mistress who has recently been sporting a black eye underneath those sunglasses. She is cool, strict and calculating. It is her idea to solve everyone’s problems by enticing Michel up to Niort (the director’s home town), sedating him, drowning him in the bathtub and then dumping him in the school’s pool.

It is a very tenuous line that keeps the audience on the edges of their seats. You have to give them something to fear, but it must always be just out of sight, waiting.

 

Christina is teaching English and we watch her pace back and forth in front of the window overlooking the pool. One of the caretakers stops at the pool as she recites verbs to be conjugated by her class: “To be, to bear, to beat, to begin, to break, to choose, to fall, to find…” And there is this pregnant pause as she watches the caretaker rake the scummy pool. But he only drags up leaves.

 

“Your punishment is lifted, for now,” a teacher tells one of the boys who claimed to have seen the director after he disappeared. And that is the exact way Christina feels. Her punishment has been temporarily lifted above her head where she waits for it to fall.

There is always the risk that what they have done will be found out. They want to hide in the darkness, but a light always seems to get turned on them. Clouzot presents multiple opportunities for discovery. It serves to place the audience on the side of wrong. We want them to get away with it.

Any time the viewer doesn’t know exactly what is happening, it triggers something in his or her brain. The viewer is obligated to fill in the missing bits, and the director relies on his audience’s imaginations to be even more base than his own.

This is why horror movies take place in the dark. The Blair Witch Project wasn’t scary because of a witch – it was at its most frightening when the screen was completely black and there was the threat of a witch creeping up on you.

At the climax of the movie, all of the elements of suspense come together. It is dark. The floor boards creak and doors let out shafts of light. There are close-ups of gloved hands. Empty corridors, the sound of frightened breathing, blind corners, the staccato tapping of a typewriter, a door that opens of its own accord, the shadow of a hand, an empty desk, discarded gloves, Michel’s name typewritten over and over. And then the lights go out. Christina screams and runs through the darkness into the safety of her own room – where the denouement awaits her.

In the end, although there are some answers, there is still left a question. One door closes and another opens. Clouzot can’t help but leave us tantalized.

By Brian Warfield

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