Henri-Georges Clouzot, DVD
Clouzot's excellent film is set in a seedy Latin-american outpost, a freelance world of ex-pat oi...
Having failed to fulfil his naval, legal and journalistic ambitions, Henri-Georges Clouzot turned to screenwriting with Carmine Gallone’s Ma Cousine de Varsovie in 1931. Later the same year, he made his directorial debut with the short, La Terreur des Batignolles. But more significantly, he spent part of the early sound era making French-language versions of German box-office hits and, thus, fell under the influence of Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, who were then at UFA, experimenting with the Expressionist lighting designs that were to become such a crucial feature of Clouzot's eventual specialism, film noir.
Another key occurrence was a bout of pleurisy that confined Clouzot to a Swiss sanitorium for four years, during which time he read voraciously and developed a taste for romans policier, the crime thrillers that would also impact upon his more hard-boiled features. Indeed, some critics have cited this period as a source of the pessimism that pervaded so much of Clouzot's work.
Having assisted the likes of Anatole Litvak and E.A. Dupont and contributed to a few more screenplays, Clouzot completed his first feature, L’Assassin Habite au 21, in 1942. But his second, Le Corbeau (1943), which had been produced by the Nazi-controlled Continental Films, nearly ended his career for good.
Such was the hostility levelled at this excoriating study of French provincial life that, on the Liberation, Clouzot was accused of collaborating with the enemy and was banned from directing until 1947. In fact, Louis Chavance had first written his scenario - which was based on an actual poison-pen case in Tulle - in 1937 and it took a propagandist of Goebbels's cynicism to present it to the Reich as proof of the nature and extent of French defeatism.
Clouzot returned to the director's chair with Quai des Orfèvres (1947), in which chanteuse Suzy Delair and husband Bernard Blier are inspector Louis Jouvet's chief suspects following a killing at a seedy Parisian music-hall. Clouzot's genius for suspense resurfaced (as, indeed, did the body of headmaster Paul Meurisse) in Les Diaboliques (1955), a nerve-jangling mystery, in which Meurisse's wealthy wife (Vera Clouzot) and scheming mistress (Simone Signoret) find themselves forming an alliance that's as shaky as it's unlikely.
With its gleeful Grand Guignol gimmickry, this much-imitated mystery was adapted from the novel Celle qui n’etait pas by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, whose D’Etre les Mortes was later brought to the screen as Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock. But the connection with Hitch doesn't end there, as Clouzot clearly shared his contempt for his casts. As Simone Signoret complained, “He does not ask you to do things, he demands that you do things ... Clouzot does not really respect actors. He claims he could make anyone act.”
Clouzot's bleak view of human nature was even more evident in his masterpiece, The Wages of Fear (1952), a superbly structured thriller based on a book by Georges Arnaud. Filmed in Nimes - as Clouzot distrusted the unpredictability of location shooting - but based on his knowledge of Brazil (his wife, Vera's birthplace), the story of four opportunistic outsiders risking all to transport a load of nitro-glycerin across 300 miles of inhospitable Latin American terrain not only reveals Clouzot to have been as much a master of audience manipulation as Hitchcock, but also an auteur with a political conscience.
Despite its endless twists, Les Espions (1957) was considered something of a disappointment by the younger generation of critics, including François Truffaut, who were keen to consign Clouzot to their 'Tradition of Quality' scrapheap. But this take on Egon Hostowsky's novel, Midnight Patient, makes effective use of both an international cast (that included Peter Ustinov and Curt Jurgens) and the rundown sanitorium at which various Cold War agents gather in the hope of snaring a top secret nuclear device.
However, the damage had been done to both Clouzot's reputation and his confidence. Following the cool reception accorded the courtroom thriller La Vérité (1960), he went eight years without completing a feature. Among the many abandoned projects was L'Enfer, which he began filming in 1964 with Serge Reggiani and Romy Schneider only to suffer a heart attack a couple of days into production. This simmering study of jealousy was finally realised by his successor as the French master of suspense, Claude Chabrol, who makes clear his debt in the DVD edition of this 1994 thriller.