Posted by David Kalat on October 26, 2013
I was gonna call this week’s post “2 Girls, 1 Swimming Pool” but decided against it. But inspired by TCM’s upcoming screening of one of my all-time favorite thrillers, Henri Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique (AKA Les Diaboliques), I’m taking the opportunity to celebrate the twisted artistry of this gloriously macabre picture–and taking stock of one of its many knock-offs.
Clouzot’s is a dark and cynical cinema, devoid of hope and happy endings. Which is unsurprising, since that is an equally apt description of Clouzot himself. “All his work has been surrounded by an air of scandal and affront,” writes Roy Armes, “and the shooting of all his films is conducted in an atmosphere of bitterness and recrimination. His own urge to dominate is perhaps reflected in his urge to dominate is perhaps reflected in his characters who seek outlets for their lust, hatred, and violence.”
It was with his 1943 thriller The Raven that Clouzot established his reputation as a suspense master of the highest order. His 1953 masterpiece Wages of Fear featured sustained sequences of high suspense taut enough to make Alfred Hitchcock green with envy.
Well, actually, Hitchcock was jealous. He recognized in Clouzot a formidable competitor. Seeing Clouzot’s awesome Diabolique inspired Hitchcock to plan his own back-to-basics low-budget thriller—a plan that culminated in Psycho. Not only do Psycho and Diabolique share many ideas and images in common, but Hitchcock’s celebrated refusal to allow latecomers into screenings of Psycho already underway was a strategy first employed by Clouzot in promoting Diabolique.
For that matter, the Clouzot/Hitchcock rivalry started with Diabolique. The film is based on the novel Celle qui n’était plus (She Who Was No More) by the writing team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Hitchcock had wanted to buy the rights to the book for his own use, but was beaten to the punch by Clouzot by one month. When the two writers heard of Hitchcock’s interest in their work, they took to writing with Hitchcock specifically in mind. The tactic paid off, and their book D’entre les morts was purchased by Paramount to form the basis of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
Meanwhile, Clouzot made Diabolique using his wife Vera in the lead role as Christina Delasalle, headmistress of a rundown boys’ school. Her cruel husband (Paul Meurisse) exploits and maltreats both her and the students. Weirdly, Madame Delasalle becomes close friends with her husband’s not-especially-secret lover (Simone Signoret). Ironically, they bond over a shared hatred for their shared man. They concoct an elaborate plan to murder him—and the scheme is a wickedly ornate “Perfect Crime” designed to give them both impeccable alibis.
The two women put their scheme into action. It goes off without a hitch (no pun intended). But then evidence starts to mount that the victim hasn’t remained dead, and that’s where the fun begins.
More than any other French thriller before it, Diabolique sets as its program nothing more or less than the terrorization of its audience. Clouzot pulls none of his punches. The result is literally breathtaking.
To fully track the enduring influence of Diabolique means looking beyond Hitchcock—there was another thrillmaker in the 1950s and 60s who was profoundly shaken by the film and set about recreating its effect. Again and again and again.
Thanks to a clever ad campaign, England’s Hammer Studios and their partners at Columbia Pictures had one of the most profitable hits of 1961. It was devastatingly simple: the face of Susan Strasberg, screaming her fool head off, and the legend “Management and staff of this theatre have been pledged to an oath of secrecy concerning the electrifying climax! For maximum excitement, we earnestly recommend that you see this motion picture from the start!”
In other words—yup, the same gimmick that both Clouzot and Hitchcock had exploited.
Like Psycho and Diabolique, Scream of Fear had genuine secrets to protect—multiple twists that defied logic but delivered emotional satisfaction and riveting drama. The extent to which Hammer’s Scream of Fear (that’s Taste of Fear for all you Brits) mimics Psycho is debatable: Psycho hit theaters in the US in July of 1960, and didn’t make it to England until the fall. Scream of Fear went before cameras in October of the same year, which doesn’t leave much if any time for Jimmy Sangster to have seen Hitch’s film, written his own screenplay, then shopped the thing and made his deal and gotten production underway… Indeed, some sources claim that Sangster had written the script years before Psycho came down the pike, but Sangster’s autobiography is vague on that count.
What we do know is this: Sangster had been the primary go-to screenwriter for Hammer’s gothic horrors. Eventually all those Draculas and Frankensteins start to take their toll, and being billed as “Jimmy ‘Frankenstein’ Sangster” in ads for The Trollenberg Terror didn’t help either. He wanted to break out of the gothic horror mold, and noted that most professional screenwriters didn’t work on commission as he was, but wrote original works on speculation of being able to sell them to producers. Sangster wrote a spec script of his own, about a fragile young woman who fears her step-mother has killed her father and hidden the body.
It closely followed Diabolique‘s pace car: a scheming couple decides to scare an invalid to death, even down to hiding a corpse in a swimming pool. Still, Sangster punched up his take on the idea with enough distinctive touches and razor-sharp suspense to confidently stand in the same ring as the French champion.
Looking to escape Hammer and the Carreras family that ran the studio, Sangster sold his script to producer Sidney Box, who generously offered to let the neophyte produce the film. Sadly, Box suffered a heart attack almost immediately and Sangster was obliged to buy his film back to keep it from vanishing into obscurity. To get it made, he sold it to the producer most willing to give it a home—yes, Hammer’s Michael Carreras!
(Well, it was a good idea while it lasted, right?)
At the time, Hammer was forging an alliance with Columbia Pictures. The scrappy little British upstart got production financing, access to better stars, and superior American distribution. In turn, the Hollywood megastudio got impeccably crafted low-budget profit-makers. Columbia agreed to let Sangster cut his teeth as producer, but dictated the lead be played by Susan Strasberg.
As studio mandates go, that wasn’t so bad. Susan was the daughter of venerated acting teacher Lee Strasberg, “Hollywood royalty,” even if her experience had been almost exclusively on the Broadway stage. She was talented, beautiful, and a rising star—and Sangster’s lunatic nutball script gave her plenty to do to.
More than happy to invite comparisons to Diabolique (that was the point, after all), Sangster demanded that cinematographer Douglas Slocombe shoot the picture in B&W—he did, and rendered images so crisp you could eat them with milk. And notorious skinflint Michael Carreras certainly didn’t object to the savings.
In the director’s chair sat Seth Holt, then a prodigious thriller director often compared favorably to Hitchcock—but in ten years’ time his alcoholism would cost him first his career and then his life. As Sangster said, though, “But that was later.” For now, Holt showed off why he was so well-regarded—and occasionally popped next door to Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita set to snag a little inspiration.
Sangster had not managed to leave Hammer, but he did succeed in breaking out of the Hammer Horror mold. He was now a producer, on a fairly prestigious project of his own devising. Cannily trading on audience expectations, he cast Christopher Lee in a small supporting role, knowing the man’s mere presence would serve as a red herring.
Over the next ten years, Sangster returned to the well, and wrote numerous other psychological thrillers in the same vein (all of which copied the same narrative formula), but none were as popular or as memorable as the first.
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