Did a Frenchman scare Hitchcock into making "Psycho"?

By Michael Sragow
Published August 31, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
Starring Simone Signoret, Vira Clouzot
The Criterion Collection; original aspect ratio of 1.33:1
Extras: Transferred from a 35mm fine-grain composite master and made from a restored negative; French audio, with English subtitles

In the liner notes to the Criterion edition of "Diabolique" -- and bless the Criterion Collection for insisting on liner notes even in the compact DVD format -- Danny Peary proclaims that "prior to Hitchcock's 'Psycho,' [Henri-Georges] Clouzot's eerie masterwork was considered the most frightening and artistic horror picture ever made. In fact, just as Hitchcock was a major influence on France's master of suspense, Hitchcock admitted an equal debt to Clouzot." Peary notes that "Psycho" shares many of the "plot elements and story twists, suspense devices, shocks, quirky characters and morbid humor" of "Diabolique," that "Hitchcock even borrowed Clouzot's successful ploy of insisting no one be admitted to theaters once the film began," and that Hitchcock had turned another work by the authors of the "Diabolique" source novel into his earlier "Vertigo." Stephen Rebello, in his book "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of 'Psycho'" goes further than Peary, arguing that Hitchcock was running scared of Clouzot as a rival for his fright-king crown, and scrutinized Clouzot's 1955 movie "as if with a jeweler's loup."

"Diabolique" deserves to be seen not just as a goad to Hitchcock and a precursor to "Psycho," but as a suspense milestone in its own right. The Criterion edition is the best way to see it. The misbegotten 1996 Hollywood remake, starring Sharon Stone, sullied the film's reputation instead of spawning new prints for revival houses. And this film requires precise visualization -- it is, hands down, the dankest movie of all time, as well as one of the creepiest. Water in mudholes, bathtubs, sinks and a swimming pool; medicines dispensed from eyedroppers and needles; doctored whiskey and even photo developer and news ink -- they all form an amniotic fluid that succors evil.

Yet Clouzot doesn't wallow in metaphor. He lucidly works out a startling murder plot involving a boarding-school headmaster (Paul Meurisse) and two teachers: his long-suffering wife and benefactor (Vira Clouzot) and his mistress (Simone Signoret). The wife is an ex-nun with a heart condition, and Signoret is a shady lady. When they team up to kill Meurisse, a charismatic brute, the odds seem stacked in the man's favor. But you can't judge by appearances: "Two words, three lies" -- that's how Meurisse describes Signoret's character.

In "Diabolique," the mischievous deviltry of schoolboys can't compare with the life-and-death fiendishness of adults. A couple of the characters use children to further their goals; just allowing the kids to witness violent, kinky marital tension is unsettling enough. All the sex is sadistic. The film is peppered with malicious yet peculiarly charged touches: For example, Signoret never looks sexier than when she wears sunglasses indoors, even if they're meant to hide a black eye. Clouzot begins with a quote from Barbey D'Aurevilly: "A painting is always quite moral when it is tragic and it gives the horror of the thing it depicts." If the movie's tragic stature is debatable, Clouzot doesn't stint on the horror. Despite the flood of imitations that followed (including Hitchcock's), "Diabolique" hasn't lost its clamminess or its fright quotient.

Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

MORE FROM Michael Sragow

Related Topics ------------------------------------------