Henri-Georges Clouzot and the cinema of horror | Daily News

Henri-Georges Clouzot and the cinema of horror

Some of the best thrillers leave you wanting for more. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s thrillers don’t quite inspire that feeling in me. In three films, Clouzot redefined the genre. Reviewed scathingly by critics when they first came out, they have, over the decades, acquired a kind of classic status. I say kind of, because the scathing reviews haven’t entirely gone away. It must mean something, after all, when Roger Ebert refuses to include Le Salaire de la Peu, the second of Clouzot’s three classic thrillers, in his Great Movies list, and when he gives three out of a possible four stars to Les Diaboliques, in my opinion the single greatest film in the genre to ever grace the French cinema. Yet to ponder on this is to wonder why certain films are denied a place in the sun even when they’ve become classics. Perhaps that’s why, even though they tend to excite, these thrillers don’t really inspire me.

This is in marked contrast to Alfred Hitchcock’s work. More prolific and prodigious than Clouzot, with whom he is often associated, Hitchcock worked at the rate of a film a year for well over two decades. He made some of the most delectable thrillers to ever grace the screen, and he wasn’t shy about compromising on the needs of credibility if that won him more popular audiences. He gave the impression of working according to a routine, which is probably why he earned the epithet, “Master of Suspense.” Even that other Hitchcock of his time, Brian de Palma, earned his epithet, “Master of the Macabre”, because he followed the methods of his inspiration. In balancing the needs of art and the demands of audiences, both Hitchcock and de Palma gave the impression of making pictures.

Clouzot didn’t quite work this way. True, he treated actors in the same way Hitchcock did: while the latter called them “cattle”, he called them “instruments.” Both viewed actors and crew members as a means to an end: the fulfillment of their vision. But to compare the two would be to conceal certain important differences of context. Hitchcock worked in the US, at the heyday of classical Hollywood, where the sky and beyond was the limit for directors who could deliver, provided the right budget. Clouzot worked in no less than the birthplace of the cinema, but at a time when prospects had dimmed, not least because of the gathering war clouds. In Hitchcock’s war thrillers – Saboteur in particular, but also Lifeboat – there is an underlying sense of cynicism which you don’t get in his prewar and postwar thrillers. It is that sense of cynicism and unyielding bitterness which you sense, at a much higher level, in Clouzot’s thrillers, even – I daresay especially – the postwar ones.

Hitchcock’s thrillers follow the same routine – the hero is wrongfully accused, he sets out on a journey to prove himself innocent, only to be paired with a blonde – while Clouzot’s do not. Yet though several differences do set them apart, it’s important to account for the similarities in-between. For instance, the villain is almost always an unexpected secondary character in both their work: the leader of a Universal Peace Party, really a supporter of the Nazis, in Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, and the loquacious psychiatrist in Clouzot’s Le Corbeau. The hero is almost always one-dimensional in films like Rear Window, North by Northwest, and The Birds, yet this is not to suggest that they are any less complex than the heroes of Le Corbeau, Le Salaire de la Peur, and Les Diaboliques. Of course, the only real difference here is that while Hitchcock sees evil in his villains, Clouzot depicts an inherent capacity for good and evil among all his characters, the heroes included.

Because of this, Clouzot puts almost superhuman pressures on his characters, forcing them to undergo feats even Hitchcock would not have permitted his heroes. If we think of Cary Grant climbing down Mount Rushmore with Eve Marie Saint as the ultimate test of macho bravado in Hitchcock’s world, we must concede much greater space for the characters in Clouzot’s films. It is difficult to see Vera Clouzot going through torment after torment in Les Diaboliques, but she has to go through them, because no less would have sufficed for a thriller that springs heart-stopping climax after climax. When we realise in the end that, as in Agatha Christie’s Triangle at Rhodes, we were looking at the wrong love triangle all the time, our sense of bitterness amplifies even more. Yet we don’t really feel for the tortured wife, who, after all, is as guilty as her friend for her husband’s murder.

In most American thrillers, the twist ending releases you from the pressures of anticipation. By contrast, the twist in Les Diaboliques – perhaps the most celebrated in the history of the medium – doesn’t really relieve you, or let you off. Perhaps this is why these three thrillers don’t leave me wanting for more. Clouzot’s world is far too rotten, far beyond the reach of redemption, for me to care about his characters, even his heroes. American audiences may have been shocked at the ending in Psycho, or even Vertigo, yet they would have been less shocked than repulsed at the sort of endings in Clouzot’s films.

Born in the village of Niort in 1907, Henri-Georges Clouzot was the first of three children in a middle-class family. His father owned a bookstore. When Clouzot turned 15, the store went bankrupt, and the family moved to Brest, where the father became an auctioneer. The theme that connects Clouzot’s three great films together is the impenetrable rift between the rich and the poor, between those who can afford the dreams of avarice and those who end up as their pawns. This is particularly the case in Le Salaire de la Peu, where the oil company at the heart of the plot hires an unemployed lumpen crowd to transport stocks of TNT on a truck. There’s no doubt that his early experiences with relatively poverty, his family’s fall from upper middle-class to lower middle-class status, shaped his outlook. In the 1930s, he forayed into various fields, including translations. His first real success, L’assassin habite... au 21, was released in 1942, to be followed the following year by Le Corbeau.

Clouzot’s association with Hitchcock was never known, because there never was one. We don’t really know whether they met, but there’s an anecdote about Hitchcock that shows us that he was aware of the man’s work. Once a woman wrote to the Master, informing him that her daughter had watched Les Diaboliques and was afraid of taking a bath and she had watched Psycho and was now afraid of taking a shower. Responding to her question about what she could do, Hitchcock noted, “Send her to the dry cleaners.”

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