Diabolique, or Les Diaboliques, is a 1955 black and white French suspense film directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, starring Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot and Paul Meurisse.
The title translates as 'The Devils'. It was called The Fiends when released in the UK, and the US release is titled Diabolique. It was remade in 1996, with Sharon Stone & Kathy Bates.
In 2007, Time magazine placed Les Diaboliques in their top 25 horror films, although it’s really a murder mystery, not a horror movie.
The film is based on a French novel and director Clouzot reportedly beat Alfred Hitchcock to the film rights by a matter of hours. Hitchcock considered Clouzot a serious rival for the title of “Master of Suspense”, and Hitchcock’s Psycho was specifically intended to outdo Les Diaboliques.
The movie was an international hit and when the film opened in the US, people waited in lines at theaters that sometimes went around the block. And the message during the credits at the end was one of the first examples of an "anti-spoiler message", requesting the audience not to disclose the plot.
In fact, one of the posters for the movie said “See it...beamazed by it... but……....be quiet about it!” And once the film started, theaters weren't supposed to let anyone else in.
You’ll notice that director Clouzot puts in a little plug for his hometown because Niort, the town to which the two women drive, was his birthplace.
Vera Clouzot, playing the abused wife, was the daughter of one of Brazil’s most notorious political figures and writers, Gilberto Amado, who once shot and killed another writer during an official ceremony because the writer disagreed with Amado’s opinions on literature. (He was acquitted.)
Vera only appeared in 3 films and all 3 were directed by her husband Henri-Georges. In 1960, 5 years after Diabolique was released, at the ageof 47, Vera died suddenly of a heart attack, giving added publicity to the already famous film.
Simone Signoret, the mistress, was born Simone-Henriette-Charlotte Kaminker in Germany in 1921. Her father was Jewish and fled to England in 1940 to join General Charles De Gaulle. The rest of the family stayed and it was during the Nazi occupation of France that Simone took up acting.
After adopting her mother’s maiden name, Signoret, to help hide her Jewish roots, she began appearing in bit parts and was able to earn enough money to support her mother and two brothers.
Signoret married her second husband, singer Yves Montand, in1951, and wanted to try Hollywood but both were refused visas to enter the United States. Their progressive political activities didn’t sit well with the McCarthy-era mentality that gripped the US at the time.
They finally got visas in 1960 so Montand could perform in New York and San Francisco. They stayed in Los Angeles on so Montand could play opposite Marilyn Monroe in Let's Make Love (1960).
Simone was the first French person to win the Best Actress Academy Award, for her role in Room at the Top in 1959. She was also the first woman to win the award appearing in a foreign film. She was nominated for an Academy Award again in 1965 for her role in Ship of Fools.
Nina Simone, the legendary American jazz musician whose real name was Eunice Kathleen Waymon, took part of her stage name from Signoret.
Charles Vanel, playing the seemingly befuddled private detective, had an 80-year career in films, from 1908 to 1988, one of the longest of any European actor. He appeared in over 175 films and the same year as this movie, he had a role in To Catch A Thief, with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn.
When you watch him, see if you don’t think another seemingly befuddled detective from a 1970s TV series was patterned after Vanel’scharacter.
What little comic relief there is the film is provided by one of the teachers at the boarding school, M. Raymond, played by Michel Serrault. Serrault originally wanted to be a circus clown…..but his parents had other ideas and, at the age 14, sent him to a seminary to study for the priesthood.
But after a short while in the seminary, he fell in love with a girl and decided that he wasn’t cut out for priesthood…...or the celibacy that went with it. He then moved to Paris and studied drama, making his stage debut in 1948 and his movie debut in 1954.
Diabolique was only his third film, but he went on to appear in over 150 movies.
In 1978, he starred in his most famous role as an over-emotional drag queen in the original smash hit La Cage aux Folles. Nathan Lane played the same role in the later US version, The Birdcage.
Serrault’s performance in La Cage won him a César, the French equivalent of the Oscar. In fact, during his long career he was nominated for 8 Césars and won 3 but, because he worked almost exclusively in French film, he never achieved much recognition in America.
In 1999, French President Jacques Chirac awarded him the Legion of Honor for his contributions to French art.
Director Clouzot has a good eye for light and shadow, and he creates an eerie mood of menace that is more typical of supernatural horror movies than straight murder mysteries.
Diabolique requires viewer patience but the tension builds, slowly and steadily until it reaches a climax that really threw audiences for a loop in 1955, and still has power.
Even if you’ve seen it and know how it ends, the film can still send a shiver down your spine and give you goose bumps.
The surprise ending has been copied too many times in the last 50 years to be especially surprising to most, but Diabolique could be the most suspenseful movie ever made without background music.