Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Scene Of The Week: DIABOLIQUE (1955)

SCENE OF THE WEEK: DIABOLIQUE

Directed by: Henri Georges Clouzot (WAGES OF FEAR)
Written by: Clouzot and Jérôme Géronimi based on the novel by Narcejac & Boileau (VERTIGO).
Starring: Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot, Paul Meurisse, and Charles Vanel (TO CATCH A THIEF).

This scene is a lesson in creating suspense, that can be used in both Thriller and Horror genres. It used to be basic film direction, but it seems to have been lost these days - people no longer know the basics!

Okay - someone is walking through dark, spooky room... what is it we (audience) want to see? The person *walking* or what might be skittering in that shadow in front of them? It's all about POV - what is important isn't the person walking, it's *what they see* (or think they see). Only an idiot director would keep the camera on the girl with the flashlight and not show us what the girl *sees* with that flashlight! If you look at 1955s DIABOLIQUE's end - there's more screen time spent on what Vera Clouzot is looking at, than on hottie Vera Clouzot looking. The long hallway, the sliver of light coming from the door - jeeze - is her dead husband in there *typing*? The key to creating suspense is to put the audience in the protagonist's shoes – and we can't be in their shoes and be looking at the shoes. The most important shots are *not* the star, but what the star is looking at. The problem with so many bad thriller and horror films is that we **never** see what the character is seeing – we only see the character looking. No suspense or dread in that at all.

That DIABOLIQUE scene works – not because we see *the star*, but because we see *what the star sees* - and by alternating those shots we feel like we are in her shoes looking through the shadows. Wait... I can describe that scene from DIABOLIQUE, but why not just show it to you and talk about it afterwords?

OKAY: MAJOR MAJOR MAJOR SPOILERS!!!!!!!
THIS IS THE **END** OF THE MOVIE!!!!!!




The story until now: Vera Clouzot is a shy (but hot) school teacher who has inherited this huge old private school. She has also inherited a heart condition, and could drop dead at any time. She's frail. Isn't supposed to get excited. And discovers that her slimy husband has found excitement outside of their marriage... with another teacher at the school played by the sultry Simone Signoret. Now usually these two would be fighting each other, but did I mention the husband is slimy? What happens is both women turn against the husband, and decide to kill him. Over a holiday break, Signoret lures him to her house where the two women drug his wine and drown him in the bathtub, and then take his corpse back to the school in a huge wicker basket and throw his corpse in the school's swimming pool that is closed for he season. A drowning accident. But the body is never discovered, and when they find an excuse to drain the pool... no corpse. WTF? The two women panic – what could have happened to his body? Did animals drag it away? If so, how can they prove that he's dead?

Which brings us to the scene....




Okay, let's take a look at how it works.

1) She's sleeping and a sound wakes her up...

2) She looks out her window and there is a light on in her husband's office. Notice that she looks out the window, then we see out the window (and from her point of view – in Hitchcock/Truffaut they talk about the remake of THE 39 STEPS and how instead of using Hannay's POV looking at the two men watching on the street, they have a non-POV eye-level shot of the two men, which doesn't come from anywhere and takes us *out* of the protagonist's shoes, undercutting our identification – when people say “well, maybe the editor decided to do that”, the problem is that the editor can only work with the shots the director gives her... and if the director doesn't have a plan for the sequence and just shoots coverage, you end up with a bunch of junk shots that do not work). We see what Vera sees, then back to Vera looking, as she decides to investigate.

3) She opens the door and looks down the hallway... and WE see down the hallway from her POV. She walks down the hallway. She hears footsteps... and we see someone walking – this is a break in POV, and I think it doesn't work well. It splits us from knowing only what Vera knows and also having the additional knowledge that there is a man walking in the hallway. In the film there is a nosy cop – and I'm sure this was put here to suspect the nosy cop of setting her up... but *that* undercuts the scene. I think these shots are stumbles... but there are only a couple of them, and the rest of the scene just kicks ass.

4) She enters the next hallway. Looks down the long hallway... and WE see down the hallway from OVER HER SHOULDER at a faint light at the end of the hall. An Over The Shoulder Shot is a great combo of POV *and* Star – even though it's usually just the star's back. Sometimes there's enough of the side of their face that it's really the best of both shots.

5) The sound of the typewriter pounding away in the office. How is that possible? She walks down the long hallway, and this is the core of the scene. We cut back and forth between her cautiously walking to her husband's office and a POV shot of her getting closer to the office door... the light slicing from under it. In NORTH BY NORTHWEST we get shots of Cary Grant running and looking over his shoulder alternating with the zooming crop duster heading right at him. One of the great things in that sequence is the *pacing* - the length of the shots (in frames) becomes shorter with each shot – making the scene more and more frantic as it goes on. This was a common suspense editing technique in the days of Stienbeck Film Editors where actual physical frames of film were part of cutting. You counted frames and created a rhythm... or created an anti-rhythm to throw the audience off. Now, with editing on digital media I'm not sure editors even think in terms of frames anymore. The technique of shaving a frame or three with each shot to build tension may be lost.

6) When Vera gets halfway down the hall, the office door slowly opens sending a slice of light down the hall towards her. We cut between the light and her – as if it's searching for her... and finds her!

7) She cautiously enters the office – and again we get shots of her alternating with her POV of inside the office – this puts us in her shoes and builds suspense up the wazoo. She sees the typewriter on the desk with a piece of paper in it – and that is two shots. She moves to the typewriter (shots of her, POV shots of the dark spooky room), pulls out the paper, and reads it – and we get a POV shot of the paper so that *we* can also read it. Her husband's name over and over again.

8) Footsteps coming from the darkness in her husband's room. She runs like hell.

9) Shots of her running all the way back to her bedroom, cut with shots from her position of her husband's office.

10) In her bathroom, she splashes water on her face... sees something and clutches her heart – this is a great tease shot, because we have not yet seen what she sees... THEN we get her POV shot of her dead husband's corpse in the bathtub. How did he get there? Who put him there? The nosy cop?

11) She backs up, looks... Her POV of her husband rising up!

And that's how you create a suspense scene on film. It's not just shots of the protagonist in the haunted house holding a flashlight walking from room to room – it's WHAT SHE SEES. That flashlight's pale beam searching the shadows and things skittering in the darkness. That’s what builds suspense... and that’s what is often missing from modern films. It’s as if current horror directors have never actually seen a horror movie! They probably think the audience wants to see the $20 million star, when what the audience really wants to see is what the character is seeing - the darkness, the place where the terror may be lurking!

- Bill

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