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Criterion releases DIABOLIQUE today

Henri-Georges Clouzot is often overlooked as a leading director of the world’s best mysteries and thrillers, but with the release of DIABOLIQUE ( available today), Criterion is seeing to it that one of cinema’s great original masters is getting his due. “Before PSYCHO, PEEPING TOM and REPULSION, there was DIABOLIQUE (1955),” which Clouzot directed right after his 1953 blockbuster thriller THE WAGES OF FEAR (starring Yves Montand, Peter van Eyck and Clouzot’s wife, Vera). Its resounding success with audiences in Europe and the U.S. solidified Clouzot’s reputation as one of France’s premiere directors. Dubbed “the French Hitchcock,” Clouzot’s films became known for their psychological depth and nuance and their refreshing unpredictability. Clouzot beat Hitchcock to the punch more than once in terms of film technique and storytelling, but one thing the two directors have in common is their tireless dedication to craft. Clouzot obsessed over the smallest of details and was notorious for the demanding work ethic he required of his actors. He frequently took dozens and dozens of takes of a single shot, often for seemingly unimportant reasons. In DIABOLIQUE, for instance, Clouzot wasn’t happy with the way Simone Signoret turned to leave the room in one scene. Though the shot was just of her back, Clouzot insisted that her anger wasn’t real; Her hands were in her pockets but he could tell they weren’t clenched into fists.

Hitchcock was also well-known for his intense relationships with and requirements of his actors, and the rivalry between the two directors has fascinated fans and aficionados for decades. It’s worth noting that while Clouzot had two back-to-back hits with THE WAGES OF FEAR and DIABOLIQUE, Hitchcock’s follow-up to the well-received STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951) was the drastically less successful Montgomery Clift vehicle I CONFESS (1953). The story goes that around that time Hitchcock had his eye on the Pierre Boileau novel that DIABOLIQUE was based on, but he passed on doing a film adaptation. Then Clouzot picked up the project and made not only one of the best films of his career, but one of the best of the genre – period. It’s probably not a coincidence that Hitchcock promptly made plans for his next major project, VERTIGO – based on a book by Boileau.

All Hollywood gossip aside, DIABOLIQUE did things no other film had yet. For starters, it was the first major film with a twist ending, one that was followed by an on-screen warning to audiences to not reveal the ending to anyone who hadn’t yet seen it, a tactic Hitchcock used seven years later when he was promoting PSYCHO. It’s also one of very few films that stars a man’s wife and his mistress. Indeed, it’s the dynamism between the God-fearing and much-maligned Christina (Vera Clouzot) and the confident, blonde mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret) that drives the film forward and keeps you guessing. They’re uneasy with one another, unsure of the other’s limitations, and that makes the audience even more uneasy and more on edge until all is revealed in the final, and truly shocking conclusion.

Criterion’s always excellent release is available today in Blu-Ray special edition, with all the usual bells and whistles: an introduction by Serge Bromberg (codirector of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s INFERNO), scene commentary by French film scholar Kellye Conway, an interview with film critic Kim Newman and an essay by film critic Terrence Rafferty (and more).