Henri-Georges Clouzot

Active - 1931 - Present  |   Born - Nov 20, 1907   |   Died - Jan 12, 1977   |   Genres - Drama, Comedy Drama, Thriller, Mystery, Visual Arts

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Biography by Bruce Eder

Henri-Georges Clouzot enjoyed a 40-year career in films in his native France, and saw his reputation rise and fall amid the changing tastes of audiences and critics, at home and internationally. Acclaimed in particular for his thrillers, Clouzot was one of the genuine rivals to Alfred Hitchcock and, at his peak, seemed to anticipate the moves of the better-known English director. Born in 1907 in Niort, Clouzot intended upon a career in the French navy but was barred from that opportunity by poor eyesight and chronic ill health. He studied political science with the intention of joining the diplomatic service and he served on the staff of a Rightist political figure after graduation from college, but in the late '20s, Clouzot moved into writing, first as a journalist and, starting in the early '30s, as a screenwriter and playwright. He co-authored numerous scripts between 1931 and 1933, in addition to making the short thriller La Terreur des Batignolles and serving as an assistant to several directors, including Anatole Litvak, E.A. Dupont, and Karl Hartl, on various projects.

Clouzot's initial start in films was interrupted in the mid-'30s when his declining health forced him to take four years off. He returned to work in 1938 as a screenwriter and made his debut as a feature-film director four years later, with L'Assassin Habite au 21 (aka The Murderer Lives at Number 21) (1942). Clouzot's initial work as a filmmaker was complicated by the fact that it took place during the Nazi occupation of France. His second movie, Le Corbeau (1943), was singled out for attack over its harsh look at provincial France and the fact that it was released by a company with close ties to the Nazis -- the movie was suppressed for a time after WWII and Clouzot was barred from making movies until 1947. He reestablished his reputation and popularity in France during the late '40s with movies such as Quai des Orfèvres (1947), which got an American release (as Jenny Lamour) and Manon (1949), although his output was restricted somewhat by continued health problems.

It was in the early and mid-'50s that Clouzot came to be fully embraced by international critics and audiences, with the releases of Le Salaire de la Peur (aka The Wages of Fear) (1953) and Les Diaboliques (aka Diabolique) (1955). Both movies were screened and reviewed very heavily in America as well as in France, and were rated among the best thrillers of the decade. Diabolique anticipated elements of Hitchcock's Vertigo by several years and served as source material for numerous film and television screenwriters. (Incidentally, both films were adapted from novels jointly written by the same two authors, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac.) Diabolique was also remade, unofficially, in a sci-fi horror mode, in the Outer Limits installment "The Form of Things Unknown," by producers Leslie Stevens and Joseph Stefano and director Gerd Oswald. In addition, a similar script and pilot episode, utilizing the same cast but different edits, was the pilot for a proposed series called The Unknown. Central to Clouzot's work during this period was the presence of his wife, Véra Clouzot, in key roles in both of those movies as well as Les Espions; she also co-wrote the screenplay of La Vérité (1960).

By the time of the release of Diabolique, Clouzot was known for the dark, morbid theme material of most of his work, his tendency toward amoral protagonists, and his vision of the ineffectuality of the social and government institutions that are supposed to protect ordinary people. He was thought of in the same vein as Hitchcock and had one particular trait that resembled the British filmmaker -- his willingness to exhaust his actors in numerous, multiple takes in a quest to achieve the exact performance and effects from it that he felt he needed; it was filmmaking on the edge, and it gave him a formidable reputation.

Beyond his perfectionism behind the camera, Clouzot also wrote or co-wrote most of his screenplays, thus giving him creative control over several layers of his work, at every stage. He should have been regarded as a leading exponent of the auteur theory of cinema, yet even as Clouzot's reputation was spreading internationally, he lost favor among the New Wave critics at home, who refused to take his thrillers seriously. He continued to make daring films into the end of the decade, even when he wasn't making thrillers. His 1956 documentary The Mystery of Picasso was well received, and in 1957 he released Les Espions, a comical yet savage allegory (of the type in which Robert Altman would later specialize) about the Cold War, utilizing the conventions of the spy thriller to brilliant effect. It was also almost impossible for Les Espions to get its rightful exposure in the United States, due its subject and casting (with blacklistee Sam Jaffe in a leading role).

Clouzot's later work was blighted by his declining health, which made it necessary to abandon his production of L'Enfer and reduced his output to just one film every few years. He died in 1977, the same year that William Friedkin's remake of The Wages of Fear, entitled Sorcerer, was released. Clouzot was somewhat eclipsed in the years immediately after his death, but more recently, his movies have been treated with greater respect. In 1984, his 1956 film The Mystery of Picasso was declared a national treasure by the government of France. In the 1990s, Diabolique was released on DVD in a restored edition and was remade in a Hollywood production starring Sharon Stone. Additionally, The Wages of Fear was the subject of a major restoration and theatrical re-release; Clouzot's original has since eclipsed the Friedkin remake.

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