Criterion’s sterling AVC transfer comes via an AVC encode that is remarkably clean and stable and boasts excellent clarity, detail and contrast. Well, that's summed it all up then, hasn't it?
Seriously, this hi-def presentation offers us a terrific image that retains its grain and clings on to the luminous faces of both Clouzot and Signoret as each becomes increasingly isolated amid a sea of shadows.
Detail can be fantastic. You can plainly see the individual leaves on the trees, the rucked-up tyre-tracks and foot-scuffs in the dirt, even going back beyond the middle-ground of the shot. Décor and furnishings are also more than reasonably well-delineated, and the exterior structure of the school and the various buildings is keenly apparent, from brick to tile to mortar. Close-ups are often incredible, with the eyes – so prevalent a subject for Clouzot's camera to settle upon – really sharp, crisp and detailed. The two “big” shots that come at the finale are actually very uncomfortably detailed in this respect. But even things such as the pattern on Michel's Prince Of Wales suit, or the dots on Christina's dressing gown come across with pin-sharp clarity. And with all of this small patterned detail to deal, it is reassuring to note that the transfer suffers from no aliasing or edge enhancement.
Essentially, the black levels are quite stunning. The shadows slide off into impenetrable darkness with convincing élan. The entire climactic sequence is a perfect marriage of light and dark, with shafts of light cutting through the shadows from doors slightly opened with the skilful sharpness and clinical clarity of a scalpel. The contrast between the two opposing forces is smooth and reliable and consistent. When Christina greets Michel at the place where the two women have lured him to his death, the pair walk through light and then intense shadow, whilst Clouzot, through art direction and set-up, has the frame almost irised with black – it is a striking composition in a film that seems to have no end of such visual devices. The characters move through pockets of darkness and into light with a steady and very natural ease. Watching this, I become hugely optimistic that the old Universal horrors and Val Lewton's RKO chillers, as well as titles like Them!, The Thing From Another World and Night Of The Demon are treated as exactingly as this when they eventually make the transition to Blu-ray.
This is a truly wonderful transfer, folks. I haven't yet been able to view Arrow Video's UK release of Diabolique yet, so I don't know how the two compare. But Criterion’s would be very hard to beat.
There's no errors to be found in the disc's LPCM mono track either. In French, though with some awkwardly-worded English subtitles, the dialogue is clean and sharply rendered with some slight positioning within the limited mix. The babble of the kids at the school is never a muted background noise – it always seems relevant and well integrated. The ringing of the class bell is particularly sharp and clangorous, coming through well – even I almost ran outside to play! There is little to no hum or hiss, the track sounding restricted, yes, but not hampered by its vintage.
With virtually no music to be heard, except at the very beginning and at the end, this is a film that relies on voices, effects and the lingering and pregnant silences that dwell in-between. A great moment comes when the lights all go and poor Christina is engulfed in darkness – her resulting scream of terror goes on for a bit and genuinely seems to lift higher and higher and to carry across the soundfield. The thundering of the pipes as the pivotal bath is filled and emptied is nicely exaggerated. The sound of one of the boys breaking a window in the school is actually very realistic and doesn't have any of the peculiar hollowness that effects in films of this period seem to possess.
As with Criterion's audio transfer of Robinson Crusoe On Mars (see separate BD review), I was impressed with the amount of depth that could be derived from a mono track. This definitely helps to provide a unique quality of unnerving precision and involvement in the film.
This Criterion release offers some different supplements to the recent BD release of the film from Arrow. Here we get a couple of great featurettes and a scene-specific commentary, as well as the customary collectible booklet which, in this case, contains just the one essay from film critic Terrence Rafferty.
The introduction to the film features Serge Bromberg, who was co-director of Henri-George Clouzot's “Inferno”, and he delivers a fine assessment about the value of Les Diaboliques and how it came to be, with regards to the cinematic trends of the time and the impact that it had.
In his 15-minute video interview Kim Newman, as always, is wonderful value, his eccentric appearance belying a quick and witty mind that is extremely movie-savvy and mystery-literate and his opinionated style is typically jovial and wide-ranging. He covers the ideas and the storytelling flair that govern Clouzot's film, as well as the many influences it has rippled through the genre since its debut. Interestingly he covers the film-noir aspects as well showing how Clouzot was vested in the vogue of mystery novel construction, something that most filmmakers, with a different bag of tricks at their disposal, are not. He makes a compelling argument about how the success of Diabolique then informed the way that Hitchcock would make his films in the future. As ever, expert knowledge coupled with a genuine charisma shine through to make this a terrific little piece.
The scene specific commentary comes from Clouzot expert and academic, Kelley Conway, and lasts for forty-four minutes, chronicling three key areas of the movie with depth, insight and attention to production detail.
We also get the film's theatrical trailer.
I'm surprised that there wasn't more features for a film with such Clouzot clout, but the modest supplements here are still worth your while.
One of the classics not only of French Cinema, but of the thriller genre, itself, Henri-Georges Clouzot's skin-prickling Diabolique set the standards for such subsequently controversial suspensers as Psycho, Peeping Tom and Polanski's Repulsion. It's icy fingers have reached out and touched all manner of other chillers too, and it is pivotal in turning the once safe-haven of the bathroom into a trap of nightmarish vulnerability.
With excellent performances all-round, but most notably from the director's own wife, Vera Clouzot, Diabolique becomes a cloyingly tense exercise in paranoia and suspicion. Combining the essential qualities of the horror movie and the film-noir with a seemingly haunted schoolhouse and souls that have backed themselves into a dark psychological corner via treachery, deceit and murder, Clouzot's movie taps into the moods of the era in which it was made whilst still evoking the clammy sense of mystery and isolation from all the best “skeleton-in-the-closet” pictures from the 30's and 40's. Yet as deeply fascinating and darkly enjoyable as it all is, the very fact that its tricks are now so well ingrained into the fabric of the genre mean, inevitably, that its spell may not prove so mesmerising for modern audiences. Although, ironically enough, it is with repeated viewings that the full magic of what Clouzot was up to really comes across.
Criterion’s Blu-ray release offers a typically excellent transfer from a faithfully restored print and if the extras disappoint in their lack of quantity they are still worth the effort.
This audacious and important 1955 thriller comes very highly recommended.
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