Clouzot began as an assistant director and it is worth noting that he worked in Berlin in the early 1930s, directing French versions of German films. He was a scriptwriter for some ten years: Un Soir de Rafle (32, Carmine Gallone); Le Duel (39, Pierre Fresnay); and Les Inconnus dans la Maison ( Henri Decoin). His first film was a romantic thriller, but Le Corbeau proved a sensation. Its baleful view of a French provincial town split by hatred and the intrigue of a poison-pen letter writer was interpreted as being blatantly anti-French and led to a virtual ban on Clouzot until 1947. The film was made by pro-Nazi interests; but the sense of destructive misanthropy now seems characteristic of Clouzot. Even Quai des Otfèvres, a more conventional police thriller, shows suspicion widening the cracks in a central love relationship. The comparison with Hitchcock was clear, but Clouzot s rather gloating concentration on weakness is also Balzacian. His updated Manon was utterly unromantic, with Cécile Aubry a slut and an opportunist.
Clouzot honeymooned in South America and after writing a book about Brazil—Le Cheval des Dieux—he made Le Salaire de la Peur Again, he subjects characters to such strain that they break up. For all the attempt to endorse comradeship, the film is more a study of a rat race induced by spiritual boredom and capitalist greed. The style of the film so ably adds to the physical tension that there is never any doubt that Clouzot regards the destructive competition as unavoidable. Two years later he made Les Diaboliques, one of the most frightening of all films and starring his wife, Vera, as its victim. The character she plays is an invalid, eventually frightened to death. The shabby private school setting, with its swimming pool clogged by weed, offers some of the most dis-turbingly poisoned images in all Clouzot’s work. The director was himself dogged by illness, and Vera Clouzot died young, in I960. Lev Diaboliques certainly looks like the product of a pathological imagination, and the implausibility of the story does not detract from the conviction that it brings to the idea of decay.
After that, Clouzot had to abandon two more projects because of illness: the four finished films he made are an odd collection. The Picasso study is a documentary, ingeniously photographed, and catching the painter’s goblin playfulness. Les Espions was a failed attempt to keep his international audience, and La Verite was a strident but unfeeling account of a girl's wretched life, based on her trial for murder. Again, the tone and accumulation of crushing detail are nineteenth century, and Brigitte Bardot’s performance is melodramatic. La Pnsonniere returned to the way one partner in a relationship may corrupt another. He occupied himself after that in filming orchestral concerts for TV. Clouzot is not easy to take; for all that his visual style is facile. Although Le Salaire de Ja Pair is crammed with exciting action, his real object for dissection is the personality and it is as difficult to warm to him as it is to shrug off the loathsome memories of Les Diaboliques. This is a cinema of total disenchantment.
If Renoir is the sud of French cinema, then Clouzot is an exponent of the nord. The enormous commercial success of Le Salaire de la Peur—one of the first French films to obtain a wide showing in English-speaking countries—and the deliberate emphasis on “putting the audience through it" in Les Diaboliques have made Clouzot artistically suspect.
But he has a consistent vision that is more jaundiced than any other in the French cinema. Where Renoir tends always toward the acceptance of failings, Clouzots world disintegrates through mistrust, alienation, and a willful selfishness that is like an illness.