Cinephile’s Notebook: If you’re feeling sinister…

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02/03/2005 12:00 AM |

Fright has a specific syntax. Sitting in the dark, we hear the rising, screeching music and notice the camera’s refusal to see around the next corner, and we pull our knees to our chest and wait for something to jump out at us (shock cuts are so effective because they don’t go through the proper channels). If older horror movies don’t scare us anymore, it’s because they’re texts are in an unfamiliar language.

All of which underscores how impressive an accomplishment Diabolique (part of BAM’s Henri-Georges Clouzot retrospective) is. The perverse thrills here come not from jolts, but from a pervasive atmosphere of creepiness. Clouzot’s singularly misanthropic worldview is applied to a boarding school, and our first sight of the students is one boy tripping another in the hall. There’s rotten fish, a swimming pool so dirty that the body dumped into it won’t be found until it surfaces, and a sordid murder plot hatched and excecuted by the victim’s wife and lover, all tinted with a voluptuous, decadent sheen.

Hitchcock parallels abound — it’s said that Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac wrote Vertigo for Hitch after Clouzot beat him to the rights for Diabolique ’s source novel — especially the climax, which rivals Psycho ’s for its intersection of stupefying chills and surrealistic imagery. The biggest kick to be had out of Diabolique comes after, though, when you’re riding the subway back home and remember that the actress on the receiving end of most of the terrorizing is Vera Clouzot — the director’s wife.

Moviegoers fond of playing ‘what if?’ are referred to the double bill of King Vidor’s The Crowd and F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise playing during Film Forum series “Oscar’s First Year.” Made just before the transition to sound, they offer an unfulfilled legacy; while many films of the era felt hindered by their silence, grafting complex plots onto a medium that was singularly ill-equipped for exposition, these simple stories (Sunrise is subtitled “A Song of Two Humans”) were built around the narrative possibilities of the image. Reliance on visual storytelling led to the expressive sets and inventive camerawork — long tracks, cranes, impressionistic p.o.v. — on display; while Hollywood movies would remain well-appointed, it would take years of technological improvement to develop sound equipment compatible with a moving camera, and to reassume the path set out by these two films.