Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Henri-Georges Clouzot, the French director who rivalled Hitchcock as the master of suspense

I'm even slower on the uptake these days than I used to be, so it wasn't until after I'd watched the splendidly nasty...

...1943 French mystery film, Le Corbeau (translated as The Crow or The Raven) that I realised it was by the director responsible for possibly the greatest thriller/suspense movie of all time, The Wages of Fear (which I recently wrote about here), and for possibly the greatest "gaslighting" film of all time, Les Diaboliques. Not only was Henri-Georges Clouzot responsible for that trio of unpleasant masterpieces, he also directed Quai des Orfèvres (1947) a superbly atmospheric police procedural I watched for the first time six weeks ago. What a talented chap!

The plot of Le Corbeau concerns a spate of poison-pen letters sent to just about anyone who is anyone in a sunlit French provincial town. As with all successful campaigns of this sort, the allegations are either spot on or contain a grain of truth. The chief target appears to be a doctor suspected of deliberately killing babies during childbirth, of conducting a number of affairs, and of not being who he claims to be: the first charge is entirely false, but the next two are accurate. The atmosphere throughout is unsettlingly febrile, and reminded me strongly of the later classic British murder mystery, Green for Danger (1946), but without the presence of Alastair Sim to lighten things up, and with a lot more sex. Judging by all the '40s and '50s French films I've seen recently, the contemporary British view that the French were obsessed with sex and were all bonking away like billy-ho appears to have been accurate. Le Corbeau got Clouzot into trouble: it was made during the German Occupation with backing from a German company. While the film's themes are evidently universal, it doesn't present a particularly flattering view of French provincials, who come across as a bunch of vindictive hypocrites. There were (unsubstantiated) claims that the film was shown in Germany in order to demonstrate France's lack of moral fibre, and, after the liberation, Clouzot was convicted of being a collaborator and banned from making films for the rest of his life (ironic, considering that he'd been sacked from his job as a scriptwriter at UFA Studios in Berlin for having Jewish friends). Following a campaign by other French directors and public intellectuals, the ban was reduced to two years.
Quai des Orfèvres is set in the world of Parisian music halls. An ambitious singer married to a jealous husband/accompanist visits a rich businessman who fancies her, and can help her career. He is later found dead. Who killed him - wife or hubby? A cynical, weary, crumpled-looking police detective (a single parent with a mixed-race son) hunts the culprit. But the plot barely matters - again, atmosphere and attitude are everything: you can smell the cheap perfume, the body odour, the stale wine, the Gitanes, the desperation and the moral corruption. I can't find any clips with subtitles on YouTube, so if, like me you can't understand French, you'll just have to soak up the atmosphere in this one, in which the flic interviews his chief suspect:
Les Diaboliques is simply magnificent. The setting is a provincial school, and the main characters are an unpleasant headmaster (Paul Meurisse), his mistress (Simone Signoret, naturally) and his wife (who has a weak heart and who was played by the director's own wife, Véra Clouzot). The question is - who's trying to kill who? It contains one of the creepiest scenes in all cinema, involving a fully-dressed, supposedly dead man rising like a zombie from a bathtub filled with water: once seen, impossible to forget. Here's a trailer for the film:

If your interest has been piqued, you can see the whole wonderful thing, with subtitles, here. It's interesting to see that the trailer ended with the warning that nobody would be admitted after the start of the film - a device which Alfred Hitchcock used five years later when advertising Psycho. After the release of The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques, film critics started referring to Clouzot as the Master of Suspense - a title they'd previously conferred on Hitchcock. As the latter entertained the world with a series of what he called "technicolor baubles", critical acclaim for the two Clouzot films grew, and it's widely believed that Hitchcock made Psycho partly in order to regain the suspense crown from his rival, the French Pretender. (I've no idea if this is true, but it's a nice story, and the two directors were certainly great fans of each other's work.)
Clouzot's reputation suffered for many years following the arrival of the Nouvelle Vague - but having recently forced myself to watch Jules et Jim and Godard's ghastly Vivre sa vie, Clouzot's movies (and those of Jean Renoir and the films directed by the German-born Max Ophüls in France) strike me as superior to anything produced by the pseuds of the New Wave.

Clouzot spent nearly five years bedridden in a Swiss sanitarium after being diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1935, and suffered from ill health for the rest of his life. On the one hand, it's sad to think how many more films he might have directed had his health been more robust - on the other, as  he spent those five years reading, learning, and refining his storytelling techniques, his ill health may have actually contributed to the sheer brilliance of the handful of masterpieces he did manage to produce. 

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