The Quarantine Stream: 'Les Diaboliques' is the Best Suspense Film Hitchcock Never Directed

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The MovieLes Diaboliques

Where You Can Stream It: Amazon Prime

The Pitch: An unlikely alliance is formed between the frail wife (Vera Clouzot) of a cruel boarding school headmaster (Paul Meurisse) and his mistress (Simone Signoret), who teaches at the same school. United by their hatred for the abusive man, they hatch a plot to murder him and seem to pull off the perfect crime. But when his corpse mysteriously disappears, strange occurrences — ghostly apparitions, contradicting trails of crumbs — plague the wife, who begins to unravel from her paranoia.

Why It’s Essential Viewing: “Hitchcockian” is a term that gets bandied around a lot, sometimes accurately, sometimes not. In the case of Les Diaboliques, it couldn’t be more accurate, as film trivia legend claims that the British auteur just missed out on the story rights before director Henri-Georges Clouzot snapped them up. Based on the French psychological thriller novel by writing duo Boileau-Narcejac, Les Diaboliques feels like a classic Hitchcock suspense film crossed with the sordid soap of French cinema. That’s the one aspect that Clouzot brings to the story that Hitchcock and his favored themes of repressed sexuality could not — the slightly lurid, brazen sexuality that the French do best.

Les Diaboliques is a murder thriller, a whodunit, and a ghost story wrapped up in one film that keeps you guessing right up to the bone-chilling, knock-the-breath-right-out-of-your-body twist at the climax. It’s the kind of double reverse plot that seems years ahead of the 1955 suspense genre in which Clouzot was operating, though one that through a modern lens, could seem predictable. But even so, man, does this movie work.

The movie takes place at a French boys’ boarding school run by a cruel and sadistic headmaster who is hated by the boys and staff alike, even the stunning teacher Nicole (Signoret) who until recently had been his mistress — until a black eye swiftly makes her change her mind. The headmaster’s sickly wife Christina (Clouzot) meekly accepts his abuse and sheepishly watches by as he doles out his latest punishments. But both she and Nicole have had enough. Nicole proposes the extreme action: a murder plot with the perfect cover-up that will make it seem like a suicide or accident. Christina reluctantly goes through with it, and they seem to pull it off — until the body disappears from the pool that the two of them had dumped it in. And that’s where the plot really kicks in.

Ghostly apparitions appear to pop up throughout the school, students swear they had seen their headmaster around the grounds, and strange deliveries made just the day before start to poke at Christina’s deeply Catholic guilt, and the poor, sickly women starts to unravel. The feelings of dread build and build, up to that shocking climax.

The story behind Les Diaboliques and its tense, terrifying twist would end up coming full circle — inspiring Hitchcock’s Psycho, with Psycho author Robert Bloch even citing Clouzot’s film as his all-time favorite horror film. It’s a fitting legacy for the film that Hitchcock just missed out on.

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