Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique is a haunting and increasingly terrifying meditation on the strategy of murder.  It is also a portrayal of the bleakness of the female situation, and the lengths to which a woman will go to emancipate herself from an abusive husband.  Interestingly, Clouzot’s own wife, the unassuming beauty Véra Clouzot, takes on this role of battered spouse with a deft mix of fragility and desperate abandon.  Véra Clouzot plays Christina Delasalle, the wife of tyrannical principal Michel Delasalle (Paul Meurisse) at the upper-crust boys’ Delasalle School.  The school is founded and monetarily funded completely by Christina, who comes from a wealthy background and who is a language teacher at the school.  Christine is fully aware that Michel—who is one of the great loathsome monsters of French cinema—is having an extra-marital affair with another of the school’s teachers, Nicole Horner (a coolly jaded Simone Signoret).  Christina also knows that Michel occasionally beats Nicole, as evidenced by Nicole’s choice of sunglasses while indoors, and Nicole is aware that Michel inflicts worse punishment on Christina.

Nicole approaches Christina with a plan—a plan that involves a bathtub full of water and Michel’s bug-eyed head submerged in it— and Christina is horrified.  But when she realizes that her horror of conspiring to murder her husband is outdone by the domestic horrors she faces on a daily basis, she agrees to Nicole’s proposition.  And so, over the course of a long weekend, the two women lure Michel out to Nicole’s rural hometown, drug him, hold down his head in bathtub water, and then stuff his body in a large wicker trunk and return with it to the school after their little holiday.  To create the look of an accidental drowning, Christina and Nicole dump the man’s body into the school’s swimming pool, and let it sink limply to the bottom.  With the exception of Christina’s jangling nerves, the crime seems to have gone off without a hitch.  Yet something is strange.  Days go by, and still no one discovers the principal’s corpse in the murky swimming pool.  Anxious to have the body found and the verdict claimed as accidental death, Christina demands the pool be drained for sanitation purposes.  It is, and the body is no where to be found.  Christina begins to unravel, her shiny eyes peeled open with paranoia and her braided head quivering, and even the unflappable Nicole seems worried.  Where is the body of Michel?

This question is not so easily answered, but the appearance of Michel’s ghostly face in the background of a school photo, and the claim by a young student that he spoke with the principal, only build terror in the two women.  Christina, always having been a sickly woman with a heart condition, can feel her health begin to give way to the stress of a corpse seemingly returned from the dead.  It was the ardent wish of Clouzot that viewers of Diabolique not be little “diaboliques” themselves and give away the ending for others.  Yet the brilliance of the film is fully manifested with knowledge of the finale, and the nightmare of monstrous people does not diminish with the twist being given away.  It will suffice to say that an increasingly enfeebled Christine has a heart-stopping encounter with what she believes is the ghost of Michel Delasalle.  Because this encounter is one she never recovers from, she does not see Nicole slip out from a hiding place nearby and passionately embrace Michel, nor does she hear Nicole’s cooing voice fret about Michel being stuffed uncomfortably in that wicker trunk for hours at a time.

Clouzot is a master of the graphic match.  When Nicole shoves the cavernous trunk—soon to stow the body of Michel– down a staircase leading from the school’s attic, the wicker coffin barrels down the stairs with a tremendous force and a thunderous rumble.  A cut later, the rambunctious boys of the Delasalle School also come barreling, thundering down the school’s main staircase for recess.  The downward momentum of the trunk and the students, and the hefty noise that accompanies both, are matched perfectly.  Hauntingly so, because this simple cut reminds us that plans of murder and childhood frivolity occupy the same space in the world of Diabolique.  Perhaps the most disturbing recurring image from the film is Michel’s lifeless eyes, rolled over white, after he has been “drowned.”  Those eyes, framed by a soaked mop of stringy hair and a chalk white complexion, shock us initially and then keep us uncomfortably tense every time Michel’s unmoving body is in frame.  It is impossible to look away from those eyes.  And when Christina sees them again in the final minutes of the film, resurrected from the open grave of the drained bathtub, her small, fragile body collapses to the floor and heaves its last agonized breath.  It is a horrid joke that it is ultimately Christina’s rolled-back eyes, not Michel’s, that leave us terrified.

Diabolique, a marvelous crime-horror hybrid, has been acknowledged as an influence on Hitchcock’s Psycho and seems to have had an impressive effect on at least one other director who has excelled in both the crime and horror genres.  In Diabolique, in the final sequence inside the dark corridors of the school, a horrified Christina enters a lit room from which she has heard a typewriter being maniacally typed upon.  Despite the rat-a-tat-tatting of keys, the room is empty, with only the gloves of Michel left upon the machine, as if poised for a composition written from the afterlife.  If this is not gnawing enough, when Christina dares to approach the typewriter, she discovers a single page clenched in it, with “Michel Delasalle” written in varying sizes all over the page.  She flees the room, hysterical with fear.  It is very interesting, then, that a few decades later in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Shelley Duvall (also playing the role of an abused wife tormented by her own fear) would approach her husband’s typewriter and discover, to her emotional undoing, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” written on a sheet slung through the machine.

The crime film has always had a troubled relationship with female characters.  Some films of the genre have excluded women’s presence completely, while the majority sideline women as either deceitful seductresses or concerned spouses.  There are exceptions to this rule (The Big Sleep, Silence of the Lambs, Thelma and Louise), and there are many masterful films that are not exceptions to this rule (The Red Circle, Out of the Past, Gun Crazy, Heat, and again, The Big Sleep).  Diabolique is fascinating because it is a film seemingly about two women concocting and then committing a heinous crime. Yet it is a film actually about a man and a woman committing a heinous crime against another woman.   The idea of the perfect murder (which very rarely proves to be perfect) is upended by the question, “The perfect murder of whom?”

Many of the scenes in Diabolique consist of Christina and Nicole alone together and discussing with one another, conspiring and sometimes arguing.  Not only is this an unusual visual motif in the crime film, where the women who do exist in the plot tend to be isolated from one another, but it is also a surprising (and very French) plot device given the status of the two women.  Christina is Michel’s wife, and Nicole is Michel’s mistress.  Each has complete knowledge of the other’s relationship to Michel, and yet their communication never dissolves into hysterics or jealousy.  Rather, they have rational, honest, even sympathetic conversations with each other.  Despite Nicole’s ultimate betrayal of Christina, this fact remains and shades Diabolique with unexpected nuance.  It is also worth noting that quite a few of these sequences between Christina and Nicole involve one other horrifically eerie presence: the body of Michel.  While many contributions to the crime genre (particularly the police procedural) involve men discovering, examining, or defiling the dead body of a woman, in Diabolique we return again and again to these two women situated in a frame with Michel’s pasty, waterlogged corpse.  Yet one confounding detail fully reaffirms Diabolique’s complexity: the corpse is still alive.