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October 20, 2007
Georges-Henri Clouzot (1907-1977)
Clouzot made 10 feature length films four of which won international prizes. Clouzot was born in the south-western provincial town of Niort. In 1922 his father’s bookshop went bankrupt and the family moved to Brest in 1922. Here Clouzot tried to join the navy but was rejected due to myopia. Clouzot then tried to study diplomacy in Paris but quickly found that he was from the wrong class, he was ‘quickly made aware that one doesn’t belong’. Clouzot then turned first to theatre as a playwright and then to cinema to screen writing. At the beginning of the 1930s he worked for the Paris based office of Ufa (the German film company). By 1932 he had moved to Babelsberg making French-language versions of German box-office successes. It was here that he met Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, who were then at Ufa, experimenting with the Expressionist chiaroscuro lighting designs which strongly influenced Clouzot's later films noir. Clouzot moved back to Paris after 2 years as he had become too friendly with a Jewish producer.
Clouzot was often in ill health throughout and his return to Paris saw him coming down with pulmonary TB. Clouzot was confined to a Swiss sanatorium for three years supported by friends. During this time he voraciously read popular romans policier. This love of crime thrillers strongly influenced his future output.
In 1938 Clouzot returned to Paris meeting Pierre Fresnay who helped him get back into cinema. Clouzot also met the actor / singer Suzy Delair who sustained a relationship with him for 12 years finally leaving him after working with him on Quai des Orfevres (1947).
1940 saw the occupation of France with Germany taking over the film industry under the aegis of Continental Films as a part of it’s wider aims to establish a European wide counterweight to Hollywood. Alfred Greven headed Continental and knew Clouzot from his days in Germany. Initially Clouzot declined however hunger drove him as well as others into Greven’s power. Clouzot became director of screen writing first adapting Simenon’s Les inconnu dans la maison (1942) Henri Decoin. Already Clouzot started to make the film darker than the original story setting a trend for his later films. The author Stanislas-Andre Steeman L’Assassin Habite au 21 and Quai des Orfèvres commented that Clouzot would rebuild the story ‘after having contemptuously demolished any resemblance to the original, purely for the ambition of effect’  This commented was indicative of both an auteurial appraoch and also a sense of violence which later became apparent in Clouzot’s misogynistic treatment of his women actors a tendency he shared with Hithcock: In order to get the effect he wanted (be it anger or tears) he would quarrel with actors, slap them - in short, shock them into the mood required. ... He was the boss, and he was tough and a perfectionist.’ 
Dissatisfied with Les inconnu dans la maison Clouzot turned to directiong completing his first feature, L’Assassin Habite au 21 (1942). With resources being extremely restricted Clouzot learned to plan his films very tightly working from a very tight story board to organise shooting time and space. Shortages of film meant there was a maximum of two takes. The film was completed very cheaply in only 16 days.
Le Corbeau (1943) was his second feature. It earned him the title of auteur-metteur-en-scene. The term came from Jean Cocteau because he considered Clouzot to be both a master of mise-en-scene as well as being the author of his film text. This was a position developed well before the auteur debates which developed during the 1950s. By comparison the actor Louis Jouvet discerned a a tension for Clouzot between the need to resolve technical issues and keep to his text simultaneously. Some argue that this underlying artistic tension helps bring the edge to Clouzot’s films that they are renowned for. Discussion of Le Corbeau is dealt with in the separate case study. Suffice it to say here the content of the film resulted in Clouzot being controversially banned from film making for 4 years after the liberation by the ‘Cleansing committee’ which found him guilty of collaboration.
Quai des Orfevre (1947)
Despite the ban Clouzot worked on his next film Quai des Orfèvres (1947), in which Suzy Delair and husband Bernard Blier are the chief suspects of the inspector played by Louis Jouvet following a killing at a downmarket Parisian music-hall. Clouzot further developed his skills at suspense. Clouzot also developed his skills at directing his actors gaining a reputation for explaining the scenes very lucidly and making the actors feel very secure according to Jouvet. The film was extremely successful gaining best Director Award at Cannes and a box office of 5.5 million.
Manon won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival 1949
Clouzot followed this film with Manon (1949) which received the Golden Lion award at the Venice film festival and a box office of 3.4 million. Clouzot’s next film the period comedy Miquette et sa mere (1950) an adaptation from a theatre play was something of a failure. However it was during the filming of this that Clouzot met his future wife Vera Gibson Amadeo a Brazilian.
The Clouzot’s then went to Brazil for a time and the knowledge gleaned from this visit strongly influenced the making of The Wages of Fear (1952). Vera had an important role in producing the film as Clouzot established Vera Productions as a finance vehicle and Vera herself was involved in production until she died a premature death from heart attack in 1960. A very tense thriller based on a book by Georges Arnaud filmed in the Camargue region to simulate Venezuela it kept the cost down. Due to a bout of illness combined with bad weather it took much longer to shoot than originally planned. The film won the Grand Jury prize at Cannes in 1953 gained an audience of 6.3 million in France and did well internationally.
This was followed by the very successful Les Diaboliques (1955) with a box office of 3.7 million was a film noir to end film noir as it has been described. The mystery was adapted from the novel Celle Qui N’Etait Pas by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, whose D’ Etre les Mortes was later brought to the screen as Vertigo by Hitchcock. But the connection with Hitch doesn't end there, as Clouzot clearly shared his contempt for his casts. Simone Signoret his leading actress complained, “He does not ask you to do things, he demands that you do things... Clouzot does not really respect actors. He claims he could make anyone act.”
Hayward (2005) argues that Clouzot was never again to attain the heights he achieved with these two films which can be reduced to two primary factors. Firstly rather than further capitalising on the thriller genre Clouzot made a film of his friend Picasso Le Mystere Picasso (1956). Clouzot was also getting out of touch with the changing cultural climate of France which was beginning to modernise and develop a youth generation which was to culminate in la nouvelle vague.
Clouzot with Picasso
Les Espions (1957) a cold war thriller (1.8 million box office) was something of a disappointment by Clouzot’s previous successes. Critics, including François Truffaut, who were keen to consign Clouzot to their 'Tradition of Quality' / cinema du papa. Generically the film had much that was influenced by Les Daiboliques and the plot and characterisation failed to convince.
Despite the damage that had been done to Clouzot's reputation the courtroom thriller La Vérité (1960) co-scripted by his wife just before she died was successful at the box office starring Brigitte Bardot and Sami Frey it appealed to younger audiences with 5.7 million at the box office. Nevertheless it received a cool critical reception and he went eight years without completing another feature La Prisonniere (1968). Illness had intervened again and Clouzot suffered a heart attack soon after starting to film L'Enfer, which he began filming in 1964. Claude Chabrol his successor as a master of suspense eventually filmed the story in 1994. Chabrol made clear his indebtedness to Clouzot in the DVD extras when it was released. Hayward comments that he was: Old fashioned, stuck in his practices and uninventive and seemingly having lost his touch, the nouvelle vague consigned him to the purgatorial ranks of the cinema du papa, and Clouzot was an auteur no more’ .
Hayward’s monograph on Les Diaboliques is a sustained attempt to argue that Clouzot was in fact an auteur and to point out that history has seen him as being accepted as one. Clouzot’s sense of humour is darker than Wilder’s or even Hitchcock’s being 'slightly nasty’. His development of mise en scene is bleaker and more detailed than Hitchcock’s as well as being seedier the glamour of both settings and characters in the later Hitchcock’s is missing. Arguably the horror is darker than Hitchcock. with whom he is probably most usefully compared.
In terms of his status as an auteur the standard benchmarks of auteur status are largely present. Clouzot had overall control of his films from script from stroy board to the shooting. He usually radically altered the original stories to make the text his own and here the complaint of the author Stanislas-Andre Steeman mentioned above corroborates the cinematic qualities of the films. This can be compared to Truffaut’s criticisms of a Aurant and Bost that they didn’t allow for cinema in their adaptations. Clouzot also shot in both studio and on location again circumventing another of Truffaut’s complaints abut cinema du papa being studio based. Furthermore many of the technicians and the production team were constants on Clouzot’s films. Armand Thirard was Clouzot’s director of photography in seven out of ten of his features and William-Robert Sivel was the sound operator in 9 out of ten of the films . Many of the actors he used appear in many of his films and his brother collaborated in the screenplays of 4 of his films. Clouzot’s artistic vision in the realm of suspense and persuading the audience to suspend disbelief also arguably increased at least up until Les Diaboliques. On these grounds whether Clouzot should be consigned to the ranks of cinema du papa is a highly suspect charge.
1 Cited Hayward 2005 p 3.
2 Hayward 2005 p 3.
3 Hayward 2005 p 5.
4 Hayward 2005 p 8.
5 Figures taken from Hayward 2005 p 9.