We all have fond memories of movies from our past that we loved. But what if they didn't either age well (or perhaps we did)? Maybe then we would see and understand things we didn't notice the first time....just ask David Churchill about Diabolique.
The movie? Doctor Dolittle, a movie considered terrible on almost every level (even at the time). And, yes, it is. About 13 years ago, I tried re-watching it with my young niece and nephew; I couldn't make it through an hour. And yet, this loved-it-yesterday-but-not-today experience is not confined to films considered bad. In the 1970s, I finally saw on television a 1955 French thriller by Henri Clouzot called Diabolique. I adored the twists and turns this film took. A month ago, the DVD company Criterion released a pristine version of the film as part of their exemplary collection. I had not seen the film since that night in the 1970s, so I jumped at the chance to see it again. Imagine my surprise when I ended up finding it dull, emotionally icy, dated and on some levels reprehensible. However, to this day, the picture is considered a masterpiece of thriller film-making. It influenced not only Alfred Hitchcock (his film Vertigo is based on a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, authors of the book that was the source for Diabolique), but also, in the current era, Brian Singer's The Usual Suspects and much of the work of M. Night Shyamalan (God help us!), amongst others. Diabolique's plot is pretty simple.
|Simone Signoret & Véra Clouzot|
Anyway, why I found the film so dull in 2011 is that because, as with so many thrillers, one of the biggest problems they all face is that once you know its thrills, the movie doesn't have much left to hold you unless the filmmaker finds ways to keep you entranced. With The Sixth Sense, for example, once you knew its surprise, there really was no reason to see it again (though many did), because even though it was well-acted it was often painfully slow-moving. Diabolique is almost 2 hours long and it feels it. Frankly, this material only needed about 90 minutes to tell its tale.
The documentary also revealed another troubling fact about Clouzot. There was a scene in the film that illustrated Delassalle's cheapness when he purchased half-rotten fish to feed to the staff and students. Again, for authenticity, Henri supposedly used real, half-rotten fish. The only performer we see eat the fish, in close-up, is Véra. It was monstrous. It makes you think Henri identified a bit too much with Delassalle. Véra Clouzot died in 1960 from her heart condition. She was 47. You begin to wonder if his cruel treatment of her had anything to do with it.
|Mystery of Picasso|
Endnote: The Criterion Collection of Diabolique is an absolutely stunning remastering. The black and white photography shimmers. The DVD also includes, as I said, a fine essay career overview of Henri Clouzot by the respected critic, Terrance Rafferty. There's also the previously mentioned short documentary about Clouzot and the film featuring Kim Newman. On top of that, Criterion features an entertaining introductory video with Serge Bromberg, co-director of a documentary on Clouzot about his unfinished film, Inferno. It's a good doc too, but do not watch it before you see the film as there's way too many spoilers in it for an 'introduction.' There's also a commentary track on selected sequences that I've not yet had a chance to listen to.
- originally published on June 10, 2011 in Critics at Large.
David Churchill is a film critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death.