Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955) is the follow-up to his superb suspense adventure The Wages of Fear, and while I didn’t enjoy it to the same degree, it’s easy to see why it possesses more notoreity. Set at a boarding school, the story involves a dysfunctional love triangle that escalates into murder and mayhem. The pivot is Michel Dellasalle (Paul Meurisse), the school’s toxic headmaster. His wife, the sickly, naive Christina (Véra Clouzot), is one of the teachers at the school. So is his mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret). The complicated romantic entanglements are basically an open secret at this point, especially once it becomes evident that Christina and Nicole appear to be on friendly terms. In fact, they’re equally unhappy with Michel’s behavior, and eager to get him out of their life forever. Together they conspire to execute Michel’s murder, enacting an elaborate plan that comes off brilliantly—or does it?
Les Diaboliques is an engaging, intricate mystery that mixes a perfect-crime narrative with slow-burning psychological suspense and moments of horror-infused shock tactics. While the disturbing twists and turns were surely more surprising in 1955 than they are now, they’re still devilish and satisfying, and it’s easy to see why Alfred Hitchcock coveted the property. In the end, I preferred the unusual backdrop and grim philosophical underpinnings of The Wages of Fear, but Les Diaboliques is deserving of its status as a classic, and definitely made me interested to see more of Clouzot’s output.