BFI Thriller, a season of films that get the pulse and mind racing, ran at BFI Southbank from October to December 2017.
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s movies provide some of the most thrilling yet paranoid portrayals of France in cinema. Filled with treachery, voyeurism and unease at the unknown, his cinematic world forces its characters to confront the darker reality behind closed doors – much as Alfred Hitchcock was doing in Hollywood during the same years.
Born in Niort in western France in 1907, Clouzot began work as a screenwriter and made his first short film, La Terreur des Batignolles, in 1931. A severe bout of tuberculosis put his career on hold, however, and several years of being bedbound left him incapable of military service when the Second World War broke out.
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By the time he eventually made his feature debut, The Murderer Lives at Number 21, in 1942, France was under German occupation. Clouzot’s work during this period later saw him vilified on all sides of the political spectrum, and he was banned from filmmaking for two years after the war.
Yet he later rebounded with some of his greatest work, making some of French cinema’s most famous suspense films in the 1950s. Here are seven key Clouzot films that reveal his visual flair and tense, cynical style.
The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (1942)
Clouzot’s directorial debut is a subversive classic, mixing gothic tensions with a macabre display of noir style. It follows an undercover inspector (Pierre Fresnay) attempting to uncover the identity of a murderer who could be any one of a number of occupants in a boarding house. Released in 1942, its subtle digs at the occupying Nazi forces were daring. The film’s opening segment also boasts one of the most effective first-person sequences ever shot, as the murderer quietly follows their first victim to an untimely end.
Le Corbeau (1943)
Another unseen menace haunts Clouzot’s second feature, as a small French town is plagued by an anonymous poison-pen writer known only as ‘Le Corbeau’ (‘The Raven’). Tracing the many false trails and the emotional fallout of the letters’ accusations, Clouzot’s film irked many for its negative portrayal of French social mores, and it was allegedly screened in Nazi Germany as evidence of France’s moral degradation. Funded by the German occupation production company Continental Films, as such Le Corbeau was banned after the war, but its bitter themes would be key to the director’s later work.
Quai des Orfèvres (1947)
When the ban on his filmmaking was lifted, Clouzot returned with this early police procedural following the investigation into the murder of a lecherous businessman. Renamed Jenny Lamour in America, Quai des Orfèvres mixed a bleak crime story with witty (albeit dark) comedy, perhaps to temper the visceral social critiques that had got Clouzot into so much trouble with the authorities. Acclaimed as a watershed in French cinema, the results also proved a huge hit at the domestic box office.
The Wages of Fear (1953)
Set in Latin America (but filmed in the south of France), Clouzot’s tensest film follows the journey of four desperate men who are hired to transport highly volatile tanks of nitroglycerine through the mountains to a blazing fire at an oil refinery. This simple conceit is turned into a complex study of masculinity under extreme pressure, with each small moment of their adventure wrung for maximum, nerve-wracking suspense. The critique of the American company at the heart of the drama led to accusations of anti-Americanism, and cuts in the US release, though famed New York critic Pauline Kael called The Wages of Fear ”the most original and shocking French melodrama of the 50s”.
Les Diaboliques (1955)
This one’s Clouzot’s masterpiece, plunging into darker and darker territory as the wife (Véra Clouzot) and mistress (Simone Signoret) of a schoolteacher (Paul Meurisse) team up to do away with him. Moving close to the realm of horror after the body mysteriously goes missing, Les Diaboliques had to be issued with an on-screen anti-spoiler message asking audiences not to give away the twist. With this sensational thriller, Clouzot was acclaimed for out-Hitchcocking Hitchcock, the irony being that Clouzot had only narrowly beaten his rival in optioning Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s source novel. Not to be outdone, Hitch subsequently jumped on the duo’s book D’entre les morts, which became the basis for Vertigo (1958).
Les Espions (1957)
One of Clouzot’s most underrated films, Les Espions is a spy movie about the unknowability of intelligence. As a psychiatrist shelters a refugee from both eastern and western spies, the tension comes from the ambiguity as to who is on whose side, rendering virtually every character untrustworthy and potentially treacherous. Unsettling and suspenseful, it’s a film that rewards rediscovery. At the time, however, it fell foul of biting criticism from François Truffaut, who wrote that Clouzot “has made Kafka in his pants”.
La Vérité (1960)
This tense and tragic courtroom drama revolves around a woman (Brigitte Bardot) on trial for a crime of passion. Clouzot’s penultimate film (La Prisonnière followed in 1968), it was the result of a famously troubled shoot, with Clouzot himself suffering a heart attack and – in a case of reality mirroring the on-screen action – Bardot attempting suicide following an affair with co-star Sami Frey. Recently screened in a restored version at the London Film Festival, La Vérité now stands as the director’s most melancholic film, featuring a career-best performance from Bardot.
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