Sunday, April 13, 2014


After wrapping filming in London, the company of Goodfollies jetted off to France to film some scenes on the Riviera in stunning Monaco. It was lovely to be in Monte Carlo again. I hadn't been back since the weekend of Grace's wedding, all those years ago when my invitation seemed to have gotten lost in the mail. I was able to get inside the church but my seat in the belfry did not have the best sight lines. Grace never did thank me for the lovely table lamp in the shape the David I sent her. On my off afternoon, I took the palace tour, hoping to see it in one of the state rooms, but it seems to have been sent out for cleaning.

The sequence we were filming occurs early in the picture and involved my character, Toni Soprano and her loyal henchwoman, Carmelina 'Big Pussycat' Coloratura, fixing the Grand Prix de Monte Carlo in a complicated scam. I'm a little unsure why New Jersey mobsters would be involved in European auto racing but the director told us the scene was integral to the picture. The production company is having a bit of a budget crunch so they were unable to rent actual Formula One cars for the race scenes. Instead, they used electric golf carts with a fiberglass shell mock-up. I am told they'll look quite real on film and that their speed can be enhanced digitally. Filming was uneventful, other than that little brat of Chris MacNeil's wandering out into the middle of the road during a climactic race scene and being struck by one of the carts. Little Reagan was uninjured. The cart was totaled and could not be returned to the rental firm.

While in Monaco, I took the opportunity to practice my French and wandered into Le Blockbuster Video looking for Une filme Francais to view. My first thought was Gerard Depardieu in an Asterix and Oubelix adventure but, instead, I emerged with Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1955 suspense classic, Les Diaboliques, better known by its American title of Diabolique. It has recently been re-released on DVD by Criterion in a restored cut, which is the full 116 minute original French release. Nine minutes were originally cut for the American release to remove some implied Lesbianism and to speed up the tempo for American audiences.

Diabolique takes place in a third rate provincial boys boarding school. The headmaster, M. Delasalle (Paul Meurisse), is a petty tyrant, bullying his minimally competent staff and his adolescent charges. The school is decrepit and failing, in every sense of the word, and this is underscored by Armand Thirard's evocative black and white cinematography. Delasalle has built the school on funds belonging to his wife, Christina (Vera Clouzot), one of his teachers. He treats her cruelly and is physically and verbally abusive. On top of that, he's carrying on with another teacher, Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret), right under her nose. He beats Nicole as well and she hides her black eyes behind a chic headscarf and cool shades. Nicole and Christina, instead of loathing each other, are more or less pushed together by the indignities visited upon them by Delasalle (and an intimate relationship is implied, but not explicit). They hatch a plot to free themselves from Delasalle by luring him secretly out of town, drowning him in the bath, and dumping him in the school swimming pool, making it look like an accident and giving them an alibi as they were away from the school at the time of death. They go through with their plan and dump the corpse. In short order, the pool is drained and the body is missing. Then things start to get weird. Delasalle's suit turns up dry-cleaned. A student claims to have spoken to him. His face is seen at a window. Has he returned to life or is he a ghost? To top it off, a police inspector (Charles Vanel), starts making inquiries.

The film is tightly plotted and, unlike most thrillers, has no obvious plot holes. The famous twist ending, which won't be too much of a surprise to viewers of modern thrillers, still works and basically created this pattern of filmmaking. No one had ever brought off anything quite like it before and its influence shows in the dozens of films that have slavishly copied it since. The film has been remade three times in America, a 1974 TV version with Sam Waterston, Tuesday Weld and Joan Hackett, another TV version in 1993 with Melissa Gilbert, Kate Vernon and Bruce Boxleitner and a 1996 big budget Hollywood remake with Chazz Palmienteri, Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani. They could not improve on perfection and all underwhelm.

Much of Diabolique's power is in the rhythms of its construction. It builds its suspense in slow, methodical ways, not relying on the cheap shock tricks so popular these days. It also makes very sparing use of music. There's barely any underscoring, unsettling to minds used to watching their film with musical accompaniment. There is also much use of imagery, particularly of water. The usual use of water is as a metaphor for purity and cleansing, but here water is evil. The first shots under the credits are of the scummy water in a dirty swimming pool and whenever water reappears, there's murder, mayhem or dirt of both the physical or metaphorical kind.

Simone Signoret, as Nicole, creates a sensational character. She drips malevolence like slime from behind her Foster Grants and there's a palpable miasma of discomfort that surrounds her whenever she's on screen. It's an incredible effect and one that no other actress in the part has been able to duplicate. Vera Clouzot, the director's wife, as the histrionic Christina, must be more repressed for the film to stay on balance and she succeeds in being both easily manipulated and masochistic as well as maintaining the audience's sympathy, not an easy task. Paul Meurisse has less to do, but his early scenes establish his evils with aplomb.

It's rather astounding that Clouzot was able to hold audience attention with three deeply unpleasant and diabolical characters in the central roles. We keep attempting to find someone to root for, and he keeps confounding our expectations. Some plot developments proceed as we would assume. Some are completely out of left field. He was working with strong material; the original novel, Celle qui n'etait plus was by Boileau and Narcejac who also penned the source material for Vertigo.

The DVD has the film in original theatrical ratio with picture and sound in as good quality as this older film will allow. It's not possible to discern what is restored footage. There are some production notes but no other major extras.

Spoiled fish. Lugubrious gatekeeper. Radio quiz show. Knock out drops. Contact lenses. Drunk soldier. Large pannier. Schoolboy shower room.

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