It’s amazing just how many classic films you can fail to watch in a long life of film viewing. I’ve now managed to watch Les diaboliques which I thought I hadn’t seen but now I realise that I’ve probably seen the key scenes before without ever knowing the whole narrative. This means the ‘reveal’ in the final scenes was possibly less shocking than it might have been. There were many things I either hadn’t known or forgotten about the production. The first is that this is an adaptation of a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac and that missing out on this adaptation spurred Alfred Hitchcock into acquiring the rights of the same pair’s novel that he adapted as Vertigo in 1957. There was plenty of rivalry and perhaps some bad blood between Henri-Georges Clouzot and Hitchcock. They were each held in high esteem in their own countries and measured against each other. Hitchcock was the great showman, but Clouzot was no slouch either. At the end of Les diaboliques, Clouzot implored the audience not to tell their friends about the ending. Hitchcock did something very similar in his promotion of Psycho in 1960.
If you haven’t seen this film classic, I won’t spoil it either. I’ll just give the set-up of the narrative. Verá Clouzot (Clouzot’s beautiful Brazilian-born wife) is Christina Delassalle, the owner of a small private school outside Paris. Her dominant husband Michel (Paul Meurisse) is the sadistic ‘headmaster’ who treats the small group of staff and all the boys very harshly. But the staff have their ways of dealing with him, especially the science teacher Nicole (Simone Signoret) who has become his mistress. Surely no man could get away with dominating Ms Signoret? But she turns up in the first scene wearing dark glasses because he has hit her. It soon becomes apparent that Christina and Nicole are hatching an ingenious plan to murder Michel – and the plot thickens from there.
Apart from an interest in Clouzot’s work, my main interest in watching the film was in Simone Signoret’s performance at the point where her international career was taking off. I’ve been using both Signoret’s autobiography and Susan Hayward’s excellent study of Signoret as star and iconic figure in French cinema, Simone Signoret: The Star as Cultural Sign, Continuum 2004. Hayward splits Signoret’s career into four sections and Les diaboliques comes into the second, ‘Trajectory to International Stardom 1952-59’ – which culminates with her Oscar success as Alice Aisgill in Room at the Top. Signoret herself writes about the close relationships between Clouzot and Verá and Yves Montand and herself. All four were together for periods during the shoot of The Wages of Fear (1953) in which Montand appeared for Clouzot. Signoret speaks highly of Clouzot’s intelligence and capacity to learn new skills, but she also seems to have had a tempestuous working relationship with him and, to a lesser extent with Verá. She seems not to have enjoyed working on the film – but it went on to be her biggest commercial success at the French box office.
The film demonstrates some of the oddities about Simone Signoret’s status as the great French female star of the 1950s-80s. Hayward conducts various investigations involving close textual analysis. She considers, for instance, the number of close-ups and medium close-ups of Ms Signoret compared to those for Verá Clouzot and Paul Meurisse. Surprisingly, Signoret has significantly fewer. This seems to follow a pattern in her other films around this time, even when there is a different director/cinematographer. Although Signoret has top billing and the films are popular at the box office, the media (film magazines and newspapers and industry publicity) seem reluctant to treat her as a star. Hayward also notes that Signoret’s costumes are more conservative and less revealing than the more ‘girlish’ or feminine attire worn by Ms Clouzot. This might also suggest that Signoret is the older woman, but in fact she was several years younger than Verá Clouzot. Coupled with the different heights of the two women this gives the scenes involving the pair a possibly comic appearance as they attempt to deal with the practical aspects of murder – such as disposing of the body. However, as Hayward suggests, the presentation of the three central characters is partly explained by the changes Henri-Georges Clouzot made in his adaptation, changing gender roles so that it is no longer a lesbian narrative. This creates the odd situation in which Meurisse in effect adopts a role that corresponds to that of the femme fatale and Signoret is to a certain extent de-sexualised.
I want at this point to refer to what British critics thought about the film on its UK release. I’ve only recently realised that I have access to the archives of Monthly Film Bulletin and Sight and Sound online and they have provided a welcome diversion during lockdown. I started reading both publications in the early 1970s and I find that I disagree with reviews from the 1950s. Perhaps it just demonstrates that so much has changed in the way we think about films today. It’s not that the reviewers in the 1950s were necessarily ‘wrong’ or guilty of missing or misinterpreting narrative events, it’s more that they approach any film with sharply honed critical faculties ready to dissect each title rather than attempting to analyse what the film is trying to do. They also show little interest in who might watch the film and what they might take from it. The reviewers in both of the BFI’s journals adopt similar positions, acknowledging Clouzot’s cleverness and the shocking nature of some scenes but arguing that the films suffer from a lack of tension in the central narrative. But the lack of perspective on how audiences might react is striking. It was then less than two years since Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear had proved to be one of the most successful releases ever in the UK for a foreign language film. Presumably the reviewers thought that the new film would not create as much interest. They were both ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ since Les diaboliques did not get the same wide release in the UK, but it has endured and is now a classic, complete with a Criterion disc release. In 1956 UK critical interest in Hitchcock had not developed to the extent that it would by the 1960s but looking back the similarities between the work of the two directors seem very clear and the body disposal is also reminiscent of later films by Chabrol with their clear Hitchcock references.
I’ve not really given much detail about the rest of the narrative but two features stood out for me. One is the role of the boys in the school and I did wonder if their performances, especially in spying on the two women and potentially revealing evidence, had any influence on Truffaut’s presentation of Antoine Doinel in Les quatre cents coups (1959). I also note the appearance of the veteran actor Charles Vanel as the retired police inspector who invites himself to begin an investigation. The eccentric police inspector became a feature of some of the best French noirs and polars. Clouzot himself introduced such a character in Quai des Orfèvres (France 1947) and the character was known to the British critics who don’t seem to enjoy his appearance. I always enjoy an eccentric investigator and I note that some US-based comments suggest that he might have been an inspiration for Peter Falk in the creation of ‘Columbo’.
I started this post with a view to focusing on Simone Signoret but I think I’ll return to her performance at a later date. She is as good as she always is in this film which also has so many other interesting facets. I’m glad I managed to catch up with it.
Looking for the early starring roles for Simone Signoret I found this 1948 film which was not released in the UK. It has an English language title , ‘Dilemma for Two Angels’ which doesn’t make that much sense to me. ‘Impasse’ means much the same in French and English – a ‘dead end’. It’s difficult to categorise the film but we are clearly in noir territory, both in visual style and theme. This is the last film directed by Maurice Tourneur, a prolific filmmaker from 1913 onwards in France and in the US during the silent era. He returned to France in the 1930s and made over 80 feature films in all. He was the father of Jacques Tourneur. This film was written by Jean-Paul Le Chanois, photographed by Claude Renoir and with a music score by Yves Baudrier (also composer on La bataille du rail (1946).
The story is slight. Anne-Marie, a girl from a poor background, has become ‘Marianne’, the star of theatre and variety in Paris (Simone Signoret). She has decided to marry into wealth and accepted the proposal of Marquis Antoine de Fontaines (Marcel Herrand). He has brought her a family heirloom, a valuable necklace, to wear for the wedding, and placed it in the safe in her house. She holds a pre-wedding party after her last stage performance at which she meets Antoine’s family and aristocratic friends. The necklace has attracted the interest of a criminal gang who hire a ‘specialist’ to steal it. This turns out to be Jean (Paul Meurisse) who was Anne-Marie’s lover seven years earlier when he suddenly disappeared from her life. He crashes the party, suitably dressed in evening wear. Recognising him, Anne-Marie slips out to join him and they go to a café. Will she leave her fiancé on the night before the wedding and stay with Jean? What about the criminal gang who are watching Jean? The answers to both questions make up most of the rest of the narrative. The film’s title refers to a dead-end street where there was once a small hotel, a rendezvous for Anne-Marie and Jean. It is now closed and the whole area is being re-developed.
Most of the action takes place at night using studio sets. An unusual element of these scenes for me was the use of double exposure so that when we see Marianne and Jean together in various locations, we also see the ghostly presence of their former selves, dressed as they would have been seven years earlier in the same location. I thought this was quite effective. The overall lighting and camerawork produces a familiar noir image and at 85 minutes the film doesn’t outstay its welcome. Meurisse was a leading man of equal status to Signoret at the time and they would appear together again in future features.
Having just acquired a copy of Susan Hayward’s book Simone Signoret: the star as cultural sign (Continuum 2004) it’s worth noting some of her analysis of Signoret’s developing star image. Hayward identifies different ways of dividing up Signoret’s life and in particular her film career. For convenience, here I’ll just refer to a couple of her observations. She notes that in the period 1946-51 Signoret appears three times as a prostitute, twice as a gold-digger and twice as a woman who has risen from a lower class (one of these films is Impasse des deux anges). This is seven roles out of ten films in which her role is leading or significant. Ironically in the film discussed here, her assumed name of ‘Marianne’ is linked to the national symbol of French womanhood (and is referenced as such in the dialogue). Hayward begins her chapter by comparing Signoret with Anna Magnani in Italy during the same period. She suggests that Magnani is symbolic of Italian recovery and “the moral and ethical strength of the people”. Hayward notes that although Signoret had all the same attributes of Magnani (intelligence, integrity and authenticity), French films didn’t attempt to showcase such a character and instead Signoret represented “France’s economic underbelly”. (p 64).
But Susan Hayward does recognise that Signoret presents a ‘strong and independent woman’, perhaps a woman of the 1970s rather than the 1940s. She suggests that this strength comes from three aspects of her performances. First is her sheer ‘corporeality’. She is aware of the strength of her body, the way she stands and how she walks and how she smokes – with “an insouciant vulgarity”. Second she has reduced her gestures to the minimum, aiming to convey more with less, the raising of an eyebrow, a momentary flash of the eyes etc. Finally, she stands out as part of the ‘real world’ not the artifice of cinema. We know she is going to be a great star. This film was released in 1948, the same year as Against the Wind, the British film in which Signoret stars as an SOE operative helping the Belgian resistance. It appears that French audiences just couldn’t accept the British script (which was based on real events) and the film flopped in France where the various ‘myths’ associated with the résistance in France were not dispelled for many years. I’ve also been reading Simone Signoret’s autobiography, Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used to Be (1976). It’s very good.
This rather neglected Ealing drama is interesting for several reasons even if its poor box office performance might suggest otherwise. It is a relatively early post-war attempt at a resistance film and one which uses the possibility of location shooting in Belgium. In this sense it can be grouped with other British pictures of the period which attempt to deal with issues such as the ‘displaced persons’ in camps after the war and their back stories of wartime experience (e.g. The Captive Heart (1946) Frieda (1947), Portrait from Life (1949) and later The Divided Heart (1954)). This loose group of films focuses on social issues which are the consequences of war. Against the Wind is about action during the war, but the personal struggles and anguish it explores will have effects for a long time afterwards.
As well as the location shooting, Against the Wind, features a European actor who would go on to greater things. Simone Signoret plays an SOE (Special Operations Executive) operative in the first of her four British films. She had worked in bit parts in French cinema under the German Occupation (her part-Jewish background meant she couldn’t get an actor’s permit) and she was only just beginning to establish herself in lead roles in French films after the war. She had worked alongside Françoise Rosay in 1946 on the French feature Back Streets of Paris. Rosay had appeared in two Ealing films in 1944-5 and perhaps she made the connection with the studio possible? Simone Signoret was following Mai Zetterling who played a German young woman in Frieda and again, later, in Portrait from Life as a European actor giving more authenticity to roles in British films made partly in Europe. Simone Simon appeared in a Georges Simenon adaptation, Temptation Harbour in 1947. The other two French-speaking roles in Against the Wind are played by the French-Canadian Paul Dupuis (in UK films since 1943) and the French actor Gisèle Préville, another occasional visitor to UK film productions.
The film’s story came from J. Elder Wills, adapted by Michael Pertwee and final script by T. E. B. Clarke who continued his partnership with Charles Crichton from Hue and Cry (1947). The story enables one of Ealing’s familiar ensemble films. Top billing goes to Robert Beatty who plays a Canadian Catholic priest who has a ‘mission’ in Belgium (in Brussels, so in a predominantly French-speaking city). At the start of the film we see him arriving at the National History Museum in South Kensington on his way to reporting to the Belgian section of SOE where he meets James Robertson Justice as the section chief and a number of both new and experienced agents, principally Max (Jack Warner), Michèle (Signoret), Picquart (Dupuis), Julie (Préville) and Emile (John Slater). The leader of the group is Andrew (Peter Illing) and the explosives expert is Duncan (Gordon Jackson). The film helps to establish what are now the familiar conventions of ‘secret agent’/commando films.
The first half of the narrative involves training and team bonding and the second half is taken up by a major mission which involves all the group members (except Robertson Justice who as ‘head of the training school’ is presumably looking for the next group). The first half probably condemned the film in the US where the reviewers of the New York Times and Variety find it dull, waiting for the action to start. They might be right in that an early action sequence could work to engage the audience, but I found the script interesting in these early scenes. I do wonder if there is any influence of Rossellini’s war films involved here? The most obvious model would be Paisa (1946) with its narratives about the combined work of Allied agents and Italian partisans. Since Paisa didn’t get a UK release until late 1948 this seems unlikely but perhaps the long shots favoured by Rossellini to show partisan action were known. Lionel Banes, or perhaps a second unit cinematographer, employs the long shots in the final action sequences including an attack on a train. This immediately brings to mind La battaille du rail (France 1946) and the later The Train (France-US 1964). Ealing had good co-operation from the Belgian authorities but their action sequences are on a smaller scale. Even so, I think they are impressive. The long shot technique does help to emphasise collective action. We do get to see closer compositions for each of the characters as their individual narratives reach a climax but we are always aware that they are part of a team.
The key aspect of the film is perhaps its relative lack of sentimentality. With two women in the group, it seems obvious that a romance will be explored. There are already emotions and fears in the group about traitors. But the film’s message for the agents is “never let your emotions take over”. “Look after yourself rather than give yourself away. Your allegiance is only to the group and the mission.” Michèle proves she has the temperament for this work with her actions, dealing with the traitor in the group and remaining calm when one of the others is arrested. Simone Signoret shows all her acting ability in this film. She is a star even after only a few key roles.
Why did the film fail at the box office? The general view is that the film was both too late and too early. It was too late as a screening after the war when its collectivist ideology and lack of sentimentality were seemingly not what the austerity audience of the 40s in the UK were looking for and it was too early for a film which might have picked out Michèle as a more conventional heroic figure or one with a more pronounced romance narrative. Michèle is an assertive young woman who teases Duncan by allowing him to think she is inexperienced as an SOE operative when in fact she knows as much as him. She is in some ways a more familiar figure from the 1960s/70s when sexism began to be challenged more directly. Bob Murphy in his book British Cinema and the Second World War (2000) contrasts the film with Odette (1950) and Carve Her Name With Pride (1958) which focus on the real stories of the two best-known women in SOE, Odette Sansom and Violette Szabo. He also notes that Against the Wind‘s realist take on wartime exploits was matched by the rather different approach by Powell and Pressburger on The Small Back Room (1949) and neither film clicked with the public. In retrospect they seem to me to be among the best British films of the period.
Perhaps the best example of the tone that makes Against the Wind so out of time is the observation that of the seven operatives who are parachuted into Belgium, only three survive, though they do complete the mission and rescue their leader held by the Nazis. One of the seven was a traitor who is calmly dispatched, one dies in an accident. The other two die as a result of a failure to complete a task properly. It’s a tough story. The other interesting referent is the lack of equally ‘realistic’ French films about the résistance in the 1940s and ’50s and the irony that Simone Signoret stars in one of the greatest of all résistance films L’armée des ombres (Jean-Pierre Melville 1969). (There were French films about the resistance in the 1940s but they failed to represent the real issues. Against the Wind failed at the French box office because it was seen as unrealistic, whereas in the UK it was arguably seen as too close to representing issues the audience at the time wanted to put to aside.