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DVD\Blu-ray of the week: 'Diabolique,' a master class in thrills

Henri-Georges Clouzot's "Diabolique" was a heart-stopping international hit. In his book "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of 'Psycho'," Stephen Rebello argues that after "Diabolique" came out in 1955, even Hitchcock was running scared of Clouzot as a rival for his fright-king crown. Hitchcock may have been known as the Master of Suspense, but he scrutinized Clouzot's 1955 movie "as if with a jeweler's loup."

"Diabolique" deserves to be seen not just as a goad to Hitchcock and a precursor to "Psycho," but as a suspense milestone in its own right. Today's Criterion edition is the best way to see it. The misbegotten 1996 Hollywood remake, starring Sharon Stone, sullied the film's reputation instead of spawning new prints for revival houses. And this film requires precise visualization -- it is, hands down, the dankest movie of all time, as well as one of the creepiest. Water in mudholes, bathtubs, sinks and a swimming pool; medicines dispensed from eyedroppers and needles; doctored whiskey and even photo developer and news ink -- they all form an amniotic fluid that succors evil.

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Yet Clouzot doesn't wallow in metaphor. He lucidly works out a startling murder plot involving a boarding-school headmaster (Paul Meurisse) and two teachers: his long-suffering wife and benefactor (Vira Clouzot) and his mistress (Simone Signoret). The wife is an ex-nun with a heart condition, and Signoret is a shady lady. When they team up to kill Meurisse, a charismatic brute, the odds seem stacked in the man's favor. But you can't judge by appearances: "Two words, three lies" -- that's how Meurisse describes Signoret's character.

In "Diabolique," the mischievous deviltry of schoolboys can't compare with the life-and-death fiendishness of adults. A couple of the characters use children to further their goals; just allowing the kids to witness violent, kinky marital tension is unsettling enough. All the sex is sadistic. The film is peppered with malicious yet peculiarly charged touches: For example, Signoret never looks sexier than when she wears sunglasses indoors, even if they're meant to hide a black eye. Clouzot begins with a quote from Barbey D'Aurevilly: "A painting is always quite moral when it is tragic and it gives the horror of the thing it depicts." If the movie's tragic stature is debatable, Clouzot doesn't stint on the horror. Despite the flood of imitations that followed (including Hitchcock's), "Diabolique" hasn't lost its clamminess or its fright quotient.

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