Clouzot: life in the shadows

Times Staff Writer

Alfred HITCHCOCK was the undisputed “master of suspense” of cinema’s first century, but France’s Henri-Georges Clouzot was a serious rival to the title. Though Hitchcock turned a simple shower into an unforgettable exercise in horror in his 1960 classic “Psycho,” five years earlier it was Clouzot who brought murder into the bathroom. In Clouzot’s hands, a bathtub filled with water became a weapon of unrelenting terror in “Diabolique,” his masterpiece, which has been described as the scariest movie Hitchcock never made.

His circus of horrors examined the baser instincts of average people who were caught up in murder, intrigue, sex, obsession, desperation and violence -- and the brilliance of his claustrophobic and sordid touch has never been duplicated.

American Cinematheque this week offers an extended foray into his art and sensibility with “Black on Black: The Diabolical Cinema of Henri-Georges Clouzot.”


The retrospective kicks off Friday with a rare screening of 1960’s “The Truth,” with Brigitte Bardot as a hedonistic young woman on trial for murder, and “Diabolique,” in which the director’s wife, Vera Clouzot, plays the long-suffering wife of a vicious schoolmaster. His tough mistress (Simone Signoret) is also tired of his abuse, so the two women team up to murder him -- and their plans go awry.

The protagonists of his landmark 1953 suspense film “Wages of Fear” (screening Saturday) are four down-on-their-luck men: Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Peter Van Eyck and Folco Lulli. Dying a slow death in a small South American village, they volunteer to drive nitroglycerin-loaded trucks over rocky terrain and winding roads to help extinguish a raging fire.

Clouzot begins “Fear” at a snail’s pace, then kicks the film into high gear and doesn’t let up for more than two hours.

Born to a middle-class family in 1907, Clouzot began his career as a critic in the late 1920s and segued to screenwriting in 1931. In a sanatorium from 1934 to 1938 with a tuberculosis-related illness, he began reading crime fiction, and when he resumed his screenwriting career after recovering, he concentrated on crime films.

He directed this first film, 1942’s whodunit, “The Murderer Lives at 21,” during the German occupation of France. But it was his next film, 1943’s superb study in paranoia, “Le Corbeau,” that nearly ended his promising career. The thriller revolved around the narrow-minded citizens of a small rural town who begin getting letters from someone in their midst known as “Le Corbeau” that reveal their darkest secrets.

After “Le Corbeau” was attacked by the right-wing Vichy regime, the left-wing Resistance press and the Catholic Church, Clouzot found himself blacklisted for four years. When the war ended, such writers as Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre spoke up for him. Finally, in 1947, he returned from exile with the crackling film noir murder mystery “Quai des Orfevres,” starring Louis Jouvet as a dogged police inspector.

Known as a perfectionist who demanded complete control, Clouzot was regarded as a tyrant on the set. He was not above driving actors to exhaustion to get exactly what he wanted. In fact, Clouzot referred to his actors as “instruments.”

He turned down several offers to come to Hollywood because he was not given the creative control he wanted, and Hollywood’s attempts to remake “Diabolique” and “Wages of Fear” were panned by critics and ignored by audiences. He died in 1977, leaving a body of work infused not simply with suspense but with an unflinching view of the darkness in human nature. As Geoff Andrew put it while introducing a recent British Film Institute Clouzot retrospective, Clouzot was “unafraid to show the truth as he saw it, however unattractive; it may not be sweet, but that in no way diminishes its power.”


‘Black on Black: The Diabolical Cinema of Henri-Georges Clouzot’

When: Friday to May 4

Where: Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

Price: $9, general; $8, seniors, students with ID; $6, Cinematheque members

Contact: 323-466-FILM or go to


Friday: “The Truth” and “Diabolique,” 7:30 p.m.

Saturday: “Wages of Fear,” 5 p.m.; “Quai des Orfevres” and “The Truth,” 8:15 p.m.

May 2: “Le Corbeau” and “The Murderer Lives at 21,” 5 p.m.

May 4: “The Mystery of Picasso” and “Manon,” 7:30 p.m.