“Diabolique” is a French word meaning “diabolical” or “devilish,” though the 1955 movie title Diabolique is generally translated as The Devils.
I have read online that Alfred Hitchcock very much wanted to buy the rights to the novel that Diabolique was based on, but missed out by days or—in some versions—mere hours, as the French director Henri-Georges Clouzot bought them out from under him. Investigating further, though, I wonder if that’s not a myth or at least an exaggeration, as I subsequently read that Hitchcock made an offer long before Clouzot but for a very low amount that was turned down. (Perhaps he was calling back with a higher offer when he found out the rights had been sold? But even if that’s the case, it certainly doesn’t sound like he was desperate to make this movie, just that he had at least some interest in doing so.)
But the connection between Diabolique and Hitchcock goes beyond that. Clouzot was a Hitchcock fan and his film was very much influenced by Hitchcock’s style. In turn, when Hitchcock subsequently made Psycho, he was influenced by Diabolique. Furthermore, Robert Bloch, the author of the novel Psycho that the film was based on, actually deemed Diabolique, not Psycho, his favorite horror or suspense film.
Anyway, Diabolique is set at a French boarding school for boys, run by the creepy Michel Delassalle, who is the dominant figure in a romantic triangle.
As best I could piece it together (it’s possible I missed or misinterpreted some subtitles), Delassalle was married to Nicole Horner, a teacher at the school. I think she says at one point that for religious reasons their divorce was never finalized, but in any case, Delassalle subsequently married Christina, a younger, and richer, woman, who is also a teacher at the school. So he’s married to at least one of them, and seems to still have some kind of a hold on both.
Evidently it is Christina’s money that is keeping the school afloat (and keeping Delassalle in the manner to which he has become accustomed).
Nicole and Christina are naturally not entirely comfortable with each other and rather resentful of each other, but in time draw closer together as they develop sympathy for each other as victims of Delassalle, who is decidedly a cad. Delassalle is at the very least emotionally abusive toward them both. It’s not clear—at least I didn’t pick up on it—if he “had something” on either of them that compelled them to put up with him; I interpreted it more as the kind of psychological weakness or habit that sometimes keeps a spouse in an abusive relationship long after you would think a sane person would leave.
But their resentment of him grows so strong that eventually Nicole proposes that they murder him, for which she has concocted an elaborate plot. Christina goes along with the idea, though with considerable reluctance, as she is a more conventionally religious person concerned about sin and guilt, not to mention she has a weak heart and is wary of anything emotionally unpredictable and upsetting.
They carry out Nicole’s plan, but soon there are complications and oddities, which I can’t go into in any detail without ruining the movie for those who haven’t seen it. But it’s all mysterious and suspenseful, with a missing body, growing panic and mutual recriminations between the murderesses, alleged sightings of the dead man (or the dead man’s ghost), a retired police inspector who takes an interest in the case (which may or may not be for reasons beyond an opportunity to lasciviously hover inches away from Christina at every opportunity), possible double crosses, and numerous peripheral characters who may turn out to be involved in some unexpected way or another. Plus, there’s always the chance that some of what we’re seeing is the fantasy of Christina or Nicole or some other character, maybe delusions brought on by a guilty conscience.
I enjoyed the movie, and it’s all quite well done, but I didn’t find it particularly scary or unnerving. Not that I routinely do experience this kind of movie that way, but once in a while I find a movie pretty creepy and it gets to me at a deeper level than Diabolique did. (The obscure Home Movie is the first such film that comes to mind.)
Mostly it hangs together well enough, though I’m sure if you want to nitpick you can find some things that aren’t very plausible. (I’ll nominate the scene where a policeman lurks in the shadows so that he can stride out at just the right time to deliver a triumphant line, rather than bothering to prevent a crime.)
I’m pretty sure this deserves a place among the best films of this genre, and I can understand why people rank it right up slightly above or slightly below Hitchcock, but it’s a genre that I only like modestly. For example, as far as the four or five Hitchcock films I’ve seen in my life, only The Birds did I like a lot (and some of that may be a sentimental attachment because I saw it multiple times in childhood), I liked Rear Window pretty much, and I liked the others a little less. Granted, there are none that I’ve disliked, but I’m not a huge fan of Hitchcock and Hitchcock-like movies.
Diabolique is a worthwhile, suspenseful study of the psychology of murder (the motives, the overcoming of internal resistance, the guilt, etc.) which I enjoyed, and I suspect connoisseurs of this type of movie would appreciate it even more.