Second Time Around

Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1955 exercise in terror is the dankest movie of all time, and one of the creepiest. Water in mudholes, bathtubs, sinks, and a swimming pool, medicines dispensed from eyedroppers and needles, doctored whiskey, and even photo developer and news ink -- they all form an amniotic fluid that succors evil. Clouzot doesn't wallow in metaphor. He lucidly works out a startling murder plot involving a boarding-school headmaster (Paul Meurisse) and two teachers: his long-suffering wife and benefactor (Vera Clouzot), and his mistress (Simone Signoret). The wife is an ex-nun with a heart condition, and Signoret is a shady lady. When they team up to kill Meurisse, a charismatic brute, the odds seem stacked in the man's favor. But you can't judge by appearances. "Two words, three lies" -- that's how Meurisse describes Signoret's character. The phrase also sums up this deceptively straightforward adaptation of the novel Celle Qui N'Etait Plus by Boileau and Narcejac.

In Diabolique, the mischievous deviltry of schoolboys can't compare to the life-and-death fiendishness of adults. A couple of the characters use children to further their goals; just allowing the kids to witness violent, kinky marital tension is unsettling enough. All the sex is sadistic. The film is peppered with malicious yet peculiarly charged touches: For example, Signoret never looks sexier than when she wears sunglasses indoors, even if they're meant to hide a black eye Meurisse has given her. Clouzot begins with a quote from Barbey D'Aurevilly: "A painting is always quite moral when it is tragic and it gives the horror of the thing it depicts." If the movie's tragic stature is debatable, Clouzot doesn't stint on the horror. Despite the flood of imitations that followed (including the amateurish 1996 American remake), Diabolique hasn't lost its clamminess or its fright quotient.

-- Michael Sragow

A new version of Diabolique, complete with nine minutes of footage left out of the original American release, screens Monday, Dec. 23, at 5 and 9:35 p.m. (with Rene Clement's Purple Noon at 2:40 and 7:15 p.m.) at the UC Theater, 2036 University (at Shattuck) in Berkeley. Tickets are $6.50; call (510) 843-6267.

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