BFI Thriller is a season of movies that come alive with speed and mind BFI Southbank from October to December 2017.
Henri-Georges Clouzot films provide some of the most paranoid images yet of France in cinema. Filled with betrayal, voyeurism, and anxiety about the unknown, his cinematic world forces its characters to confront dark reality behind closed doors – just as Alfred Hitchcock did in Hollywood during the same years.
Born in Niort in western France in 1907, Clouseau began working as a screenwriter and made his first short film, La Terreur des Batignolles, in 1931. But a severe bout of tuberculosis halted his career, however, he remained for several years. He was unable to perform military service when World War II broke out.
Get the latest from BFI
Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.
By the time he finally debuted, The Murderer Lives at Number 21, in 1942, France was under German occupation. Clouseau’s work during this period later saw him discredited on all sides of the political spectrum, and he was banned from making films for two years after the war.
However, he later rebounded with some of his greatest work, making some of the most famous suspense films in French cinema in the 1950s. Here are seven major films of Clouzot that reveal his visual flair and his tense and ironic style.
The killer lives at number 21 (1942)
Director Clouzot’s debut is a subversive classic, blending Gothic tensions with a macabre display of noir style. It follows an undercover inspector (Pierre Fresnay) trying to uncover the identity of a killer who could be one of a number of occupants in a boarding house. Issued in 1942, his meticulous excavations on the occupying Nazi forces were daring. The film’s opening segment also boasts one of the most effective first-person scenes ever filmed, in which the killer quietly follows his first victim until an early ending.
Le Corbo (1943)
Another unseen danger haunts Clouseau’s second characteristic, as a small French town has been plagued by an anonymous writer with a Sam pen known only as “Le Corbeau” (“The Raven”). After tracing many wrong paths and the emotional fallout of the letter accusations, Clouzot has outraged many for its negative portrayal of French social mores, allegedly set in Nazi Germany as evidence of France’s moral decline. Funded by the German production company Continental Films, Le Corbeau was banned after the war, but its bitter themes will be key to the director’s subsequent work.
Quai des Orfèvres (1947)
When the ban on his film industry was lifted, Clouseau returned with this early police action after investigating the murder of a lecherous businessman. The Quai des Orfèvres, renamed Jenny Lamour in America, blended a grim crime story with witty (albeit dark) comedy, perhaps to temper the deep social criticism that got Clouzot into so much trouble with the authorities. Known as a turning point in French cinema, the results also proved a huge hit at the domestic box office.
The Fare of Fear (1953)
Set in Latin America (but filmed in the south of France), Clouzot follows the journey of four desperate men hired to transport highly volatile tanks of nitroglycerin through the mountains to a blazing oil refinery fire. This simple fantasy transforms into an intricate study of masculinity under intense pressure, with every little moment of their adventure fizzled out for maximum nerve-wracking suspense. Criticism of the American company at the center of the drama led to accusations of anti-Americanism, and a cut in we his release, though famous New York critic Pauline Kael called The Wages of Fear “the most authentic and shocking French melodrama of the 1950s”.
Les Diabolic (1955)
Clouzot’s masterpiece, this one, plunges into a darker and darker area as wife (Véra Clouzot) and mistress (Simone Signoret) of a schoolteacher (Paul Meurisse) team up to get rid of him. Approaching the world of horror after the body mysteriously disappeared, Les Diaboliques had to be released with an anti-spoiler message on screen asking the audience not to let go of this twist. With this thrilling thriller, Clouseau was praised for Hitchcock’s stinger, the irony being that Clouseau narrowly defeated his rival in choosing the source for Pierre Boilo and Thomas Narciak’s novel. Not to be outdone, Hitch later jumped on the duo’s book D’entre les morts, which became the basis for Vertigo (1958).
Not Aspion (1957)
One of Clouzot’s most underrated films, Les Espions is a spy thriller about not knowing intelligence. As a psychiatrist harbors refugees from Eastern and Western spies, the tension comes from the ambiguity over who’s on his side, making nearly every character untrustworthy and potentially betrayal. Unsettled and suspenseful, it’s a movie that rewards rediscovery. But at the time, he faced sharp criticism from François Truffaut, who wrote that Clouseau “made Kafka in his pants.”
La Ferret (1960)
This tense and tragic courtroom drama is about a woman (Briggit Bardot) who is on trial for a crime of love. Clouzot’s penultimate film (followed by La Prisonnière in 1968), was the result of a notoriously turbulent filming, in which Clouzot himself suffers a heart attack and – and in the case of a reversal of reality on screen – Bardot attempts suicide after an affair with a colleague. Star Sami Fry. Recently shown in a remake at the London Film Festival, La Vérité now stands as the director’s saddest film, featuring a better performance by Pardo.