Alfred Hitchcock’s “Les Diaboliques”

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955) is often referred to as “the greatest Hitchcock thriller that Hitchcock didn’t direct.” One Hollywood folktale has Hitchcock scrambling to secure the rights to its source novel, Celle qui n’était plus (She Who Was No More), only to be beaten out by the Clouzot by mere hours. Another version asserts that Hitch missed out on the Boileau-Narcejac novel because of his tight purse strings. Whichever (if either) version of the story is true, many continue to believe that while Clouzot created a masterwork of suspense cinema, we have been denied Hitchcock’s masterpiece. Clouzot himself seemed to know that he had snatched something special from the jaws of the master, as he paid homage to the master – while at the same time offering him inspiration.

In 1953 Clouzot released The Wages of Fear, a masterpiece of suspense That follows drivers hired to transport trucks full of nitroglycerin over rough South American roads. Hitchcock asserted that the definition of suspense is an ordinary scene inter-cut with the repeated showing of a bomb under a table; The Wages of Fear is two hours of men with bombs strapped to their backs. For maintaining this tension, the film became the first to win the Palme d’Or and the Golden Bear at the Cannes and Berlin Film Festivals, respectively. Knowing what’s to come in Les Diaboliques, Wages appears to be an open shot – or nod – at the British master.

In Les Diaboliques, Clouzot asserted that he simply “sought only to amuse myself and the little child who sleeps in all our hearts— the child who hides her head under the bed-covers and begs, ‘Daddy, Daddy, frighten me!” He may have been being modest, or he may have wanted to scar that little girl for life. The format of Les Diaboliques is now a familiar one – the first half (two women plotting and executing a murder) plays like a film noir, the second (the women dealing with the aftermath of their actions) is pure psychological thriller. Knowing (or suspecting) that Hitchcock would eventually see Les Diaboliques, Clouzot played even further with the famous “Hitchcock formula”.

Hitchcock believed in what he called ‘Pure Cinema’. This asserted that a story could be told completely through visuals, without the aid of dialogue or music. In the film’s final moments, Clouzot puts this on display, leading to a famous “Hitchcock twist” that Hitch himself would have been proud of. He even went so far as to throw in a nod to Hitch’s famous cameos, bringing in an actor who closely resembled the Master for a small role.

Hitchcock was so taken with the film that he was known to own a print. He reportedly held multiple screenings of the film, especially when preparing production for his own masterpiece, Psycho. He even lifted two of the film’s most famous marketing gimmicks. Theaters would not to admit anyone after Les Diaboliques had started, and the film’s final title cards urge theater goers not to “be devils” and divulge any information about the film’s twists and turns, Hitchcock’s ad campaign for Psycho revolved around these two premises. Shortly after Les Diaboliques’ release, Hitchcock would secure the rights to another Boileau-Narcejac novel – D’Entre les Morts. He would move the story from the streets of Paris to San Francisco and re-title it Vertigo.
BY Vincent DiCostanzo

Les Diaboliques screens Wednesday June 8th at 7:30PM, L’Etage (624 South 6th Street, Philadelphia, PA): $5.00

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