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Thursday, April 20, 2006


Another movie from my VHS-liquidating buddy is "Diabolique," the Hitchcockian black-and-white French thriller of 1955 directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot and starring Simone Signoret. I've certainly read about this movie all my life, and I saw some of it on PBS a few years back, but I'd never viewed it from start to finish until now.

Wow, what a film. CREEPED ME OUT. Unfortunately, the print I've inherited is dubbed in English. (We true movie buffs prefer the original dialogue, which is half the performance, and we're more than happy to read subtitles.)

I'll only refer vaguely to the plot, in order to avoid "spoilers." (In fact, there's a tag at the end asking viewers not to be "diabolical" and blab the film's ending to other potential viewers.)

"Diabolique" is a story of murder and betrayal set at a boy's boarding school, where Signoret is a chain-smoking teacher with a sturdy chassis and an "up 'do" who gives the impression that she prefers female company. Paul Meurisse is the sadistic, self-centered principal of the school. Vera Clouzot (beautiful real-life wife of the film's director) is the principal's wife, who owns the school and keeps it afloat financially, but is buckling under the strain of her husband's cruelty and philandering. There are some wonderful supporting performances, especially that of Charles Vanel as a retired detective who hangs around the morgue in his dotage, but springs back to life once he gets on the scent of a juicy case, which this is.

The first half-hour of the film is grim and unsettling -- an intimate, fly-on-the-wall view of a murder being plotted and executed. "Diabolique" then veers into themes of paranoia and (potentially) the supernatural, losing a bit of steam until Vanel materializes with his trenchcoat and notebook to reign the film in.

"Diabolique" is not a horror film per se, but one scene in particular ranks up there with the great shocks of the genre (such as Lon Chaney's unmasking in 1925's "Phantom of the Opera" and Tony Perkins' climactic wig-out in 1960's "Psycho.") I won't tell you which scene that is. I'M not diabolical.


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