Holly Engel

Sinister Cinema: Depictions of Evil in the WWII and Postwar Thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock and Henri-Georges Clouzot

April 3, 2021   /  

Name: Holly Engel
Major: English, French
Minor: Music
Advisors: Dr. Marion Duval, Dr. Thomas Prendergast

Best Use of Genre Award

British/American director Alfred Hitchcock and his French parallel, Henri-Georges Clouzot are occasionally mentioned together because of the similar subject matter of their thrillers, but there is little scholarship explicitly comparing their works and their methods. I took advantage of the opportunity for cross-cultural comparison by analyzing six films—Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), and Psycho (1960) by Hitchcock and Le Corbeau (The Raven, 1943), Le Salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear, 1953), and Les Diaboliques (Diaboliques, 1955) by Clouzot—and considering how each film depicts ordinary and extraordinary manifestations of evil through themes of surveillance, guilt, gender, and sexuality. Each of these films debuted either during or after WWII, a time when people’s perceptions of evil were changing radically. Hitchcock’s focus on individual deviances in the domestic sphere and Clouzot’s critiques of society as a whole demonstrate that evil is highly subjective, largely depending on personal beliefs and socio-cultural climates.

I have always been a fan of Alfred Hitchcock, and I was wowed by Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques when I first saw it at Wooster. My studies in French and English inspired me to consider movies from a cultural perspective, especially since watching and analyzing film has been a longtime passion of mine. I hope that my presentation demonstrates the importance of these cross-cultural comparisons, which have the potential to teach us numerous things about ourselves and others.

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Holly will be online to field comments on April 16:
2-4pm EDT (PST 11am-1pm, Africa/Europe: evening)

50 thoughts on “Sinister Cinema: Depictions of Evil in the WWII and Postwar Thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock and Henri-Georges Clouzot”

  1. What a great presentation! Very creative!! I love Hitchcock movies, don’t think I’ve seen Rope though, I’ll have to watch it now!
    Congratulations on completing such an extensive project!!

    1. Thanks, Patti! Rope is actually one of my favorites now, so I do highly recommend it. I just happened to watch it a couple years ago with no intention of adding it to my I.S., and then when I came up with my topic I thought, “Hey, why don’t I add that underrated Hitchcock film I saw a few years ago?”

  2. Holly
    What a thought provoking presentation! I will surely pay more attention to world events in relation to when a movie was made. I loved the dashes of “Holly humor” IE. “OK That should be enough time for 6 movies!”. Best wishes in your future endeavors.

    1. I’m already beginning to wonder what movies will come out in response to the COVID pandemic. Perhaps we’ll see a new movie trend in the next couple of years. I’m glad you enjoyed the presentation!

    1. Thank you. I hope to keep studying this subject after Wooster; there’s still so much to learn!

  3. Excellent presentation — I particularly liked the face on the evil banana peel.

    The difference in the treatment of evil reminded me of the quote from Solzhenitsyn: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

    Do you have any insight into how different the French and American cultural views of evil and people who do evil things were *prior* to WWII? How much was the difference in our views enhanced by the war, as opposed to being created by the war? It’s interesting to think about how these differences developed through historical experiences.

    Rear Window was already on my list of movies to re-watch this summer. You’ve definitely given me an additional lens to watch it through.

    1. I’m glad that you enjoyed the presentation! I do like that Solzhenitsyn quote. It reminds me of something one of the characters would say in “Le Corbeau.”

      The French and American prewar films I’ve seen do seem to have different relationships with evil, though I’m no expert on the subject. “Le Crime de Monsieur Lange” (a man kills his womanizing, greedy boss) and “Pépé le Moko” (a gangster film) both address moral ambiguity, but they also contain themes that weren’t as present in the films I studied, like defiance against authority figures and romanticized personal suffering. Many American films that I know of before WWII are either gangster movies, romances, or comedies, most of them with a pretty clear distinction between good and evil. Now that I think about it, most of the classic “thrillers” I’ve seen (“Cape Fear,” “Night of the Hunter,” “The Bad Seed”) did not appear until after the war.

      Perhaps the war actually brought the countries’ views of evil closer together rather than polarizing them further, since I’d argue that Hitchcock’s films following the war are more morally ambiguous than his films before the war (even if the line between good and evil is clearer there than it is in Clouzot’s films). It makes me wonder what conclusions I would draw if I were studying pre- or post-WWI films instead.

  4. A fantastic (and quite entertaining) video!

    While the collective experience of German occupation doubtless informed how Clouzot portrayed evil, do you think that his presentation of moral ambiguity in part stemmed from his own experience as a German collaborator since he worked for the Nazi authorized French film company Continental Films?

    1. Thank you!

      I do think Clouzot’s work with Continental Films and his relationship with Germany had some effect on the moral ambiguity in his films. Clouzot had already been working in Germany for several years before the war, and I can only imagine what it would be like to have a longtime connection with a different country when it declares war on your home country. If I remember correctly, part of the reason why Clouzot made “Le Corbeau” under Continental Films is because the Vichy government wouldn’t let him make something so controversial in France. No wonder it got so much negative attention from both France and Germany!

  5. Mais quelle superbe présentation, Holly! Je suis admirative de ta créativité et de la manière dont tu partages tes idées si clairement. Cela a été un très grand plaisir de travailler avec toi ces quatre années mais surtout cette dernière. Toutes mes félicitations!

    1. Merci beaucoup ! C’était très amusant de réaliser ce film, mais aussi très difficile de condenser mes informations. Je vous remercie pour toute votre aide cette année.

  6. This is terrific, Holly – well done! Are you also the pianist for the film? 🤗

    1. Thanks, Doc Wong! I am indeed the pianist, though that’s a recording from a couple of years ago.

  7. This is such a fascinating topic and the presentation was extremely entertaining! Did you play the piano background music yourself??

    It’s been great to see you move through your Wooster experience from ARCH roommates to Dykstra’s dinners to (soon!) graduation! Congratulations Holly!

    1. Thanks, Michelle! Yep, that was me playing the piano at the beginning and the end. It’s a piece from freshman year.

      It’s so weird to think that we’ll be graduating soon, and it really was wonderful to get to know you a little bit over the past few years. I wish you luck with graduation and the future to come!

  8. Congratulations on this major achievement, Holly! I also thoroughly enjoyed the video presentation 🙂 In terms of evaluating thriller films from a cross-cultural perspective, I highly recommend Bong Joon-Ho’s “Parasite” (2019) if you didn’t see it yet.

    Wish you all the best in your future study!

      1. Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed the presentation. I was very surprised to get an award for “Best Use of Genre,” and I’m thankful for the recognition.

        “Parasite” has been on my list of movies to see for a while! I’ve heard so many good things about it. My goal this summer before I go off to grad school is to catch up on my movie watching.

  9. Hi Holly! This was such a creative way to portrait your research. Very well done! Here is a question for you: why did you chose the 6 movies you did? Were there other movies you could have included in this research?

    1. Hi Erica! I’m going to answer your second question first because it’s the less lengthy answer: yes. It took me a lot of time to figure out which movies I wanted to use, especially for Hitchcock. I’d originally planned on “The Birds,” but since the main force of evil in that film is literally a giant mess of birds, I didn’t think it was best for my discussion. It might have been interesting to do “Vertigo,” which fits the “extraordinary evil” category because the protagonist (?) is extremely obsessive and stalker-like. I also could have used Clouzot’s “Manon,” which directly addresses WWII, but I did not know the film well enough.

      So, why I chose to talk about the films I mentioned:
      “Les Diaboliques” is my favorite Clouzot film, and Hitchcock also enjoyed it. A lot of times, it’s compared with “Psycho” because of its plot twist and bathroom murder.
      “Le Corbeau” was extremely controversial (which usually makes something a good discussion topic), and its relationship with moral ambiguity inspired me to do this I.S.
      “Le Salaire de la peur” has views on the evils of capitalism that hint at Clouzot’s social awareness and his focus on evils in the community.
      “Rope” is a really fascinating, philosophical take on morality, which was perfect for discussion in a thesis about portrayals of evil.
      “Rear Window” fit surprisingly well with the themes of surveillance that appear in “Le Corbeau,” and I was actually able to find an article (in French!) briefly comparing the two.
      “Psycho” is one of my favorite movies, but it was also extremely influential to the horror films and thrillers that followed it.

  10. Hi Holly! This presentation was amazing! It was extremely creative and well done. You explained all of the concepts in such a clear and unique manner that made the whole video easy to follow.

    1. Hi Julia! I’m glad that you liked my presentation and that it was easy to follow. Definitely took a lot of time to assure that everything was clear, but it was worth it.

  11. Hi Holly! What a wonderful film of your film study–definitely best use of genre!!! I’m wondering about what I see as a criticism of individualism/social atomization in Rear Window, since the story turns on people looking out for one another–or not. (Is the lady with the dog one of the voices of the film? And what about Miss Lonely Hearts?) Thanks so much for your wonderful insights on some of my favorite films, et beaucoup de félicitations on your project and your future studies!

    1. Hi Professor Eager. Yes, Hitchcock really does seem to be critiquing individualism in “Rear Window”! It’s a foggy territory because Jefferies does his community “good” by discovering a murderer, but he only caught the murderer because he was bored, not because he was concerned about the man’s wife (as far as the audience knows). He is isolated from the community but still insists on interacting with it, albeit invasively.

      What you said reminds me of a quote from the lady with the dog after her dog is killed: “You don’t know the meaning of the word neighbor. Neighbors like each other, speak to each other, care if anybody lives or dies. But none of you do” (1:22:49-1:23:45). The film really makes audiences question the connotation of the word “neighbor,” something that I think could’ve had a particular sting during the Cold War.

      1. Thanks for this answer! Yes, I was thinking of the speech after the dog is murdered also. And I find that my experience of watching the film is to identify with the community, or the individuals who could/should be a community (or Hitchcock’s godlike perspective on the community??), rather than with Jeff or anyone else. This seems to be because of the choice not just to show what Jeff sees, but also some of the things that he doesn’t, or things that make us (the audience/me) care, even if he doesn’t seem to.

        On a separate note, I’m now thinking about just what the wife in Les Diaboliques is afraid of–because I agree with your analysis there, and it almost seems like she becomes or embodies fear over the course of the film, as opposed to specifically being afraid of the (very real) things that scare her.

  12. Congratulations, Holly! I’m impressed not only by the informative, creative, and funny presentation but also by the wonderfully formulated topic. In addition to awakening an interest in Clouzot and a desire to revist Hitchcock, your video left me wonderfing: “Music performed by … “? At any rate, it has been a pleasure getting to know you this semester!

    1. Thanks, Dr. Freeze! I’m glad that you liked it. The music was performed by me; I was going to put that in the opening credits, but I decided that I’d already given myself enough credit there. Probably would’ve been a good idea, though, since you’re not the first one to ask. It’s been a pleasure getting to know you as well!

  13. Hello Holly! I loved the creativity in your presentation! Your use of evils in comparison to WWII politics in films reminds me a lot about the two films surrounding my IS–Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1940ish) and The House on 92nd Street (1943ish). It’s interesting to see how politics affects media!

    Here’s a question: why isn’t there a lot of academic studies comparing these two films?

    1. Hi Sydney! Thanks for dropping by my page. I think I’ve heard of “The House on 92nd Street,” but I’ll have to look up “Confessions of a Nazi Spy.”

      Honestly, I’m not quite sure why there aren’t a lot of studies comparing these films or the directors. Part of the problem may be that Clouzot just isn’t as well-known as Hitchcock. I had almost as much trouble finding sources about him as I did finding sources that talk about both directors at length. If you go to the library, there’s several shelves dedicated to Hitchcock and zero books singularly about Clouzot. The problem even comes up in online, like on JSTOR. Hitchcock gets tons of recognition, but Clouzot is more elusive.

  14. Holly, what an impressive work you have created. I thoroughly enjoyed watching and listening to your multidimensional talents you displayed in your project. I need to watch Rope! Are the French films easily available and are there subtitles? Congratulations Holly. (Wayne would have loved your project!)

    Beth Howell

    1. Thank you! As I told Patti in an earlier post, I definitely recommend “Rope”; it’s very underrated. “Les Diaboliques” is free on Amazon Prime, and “Le Salaire de la peur” is about $4 to rent (you’ll need to look it up as “The Wages of Fear”). “Le Corbeau” is the hardest one to find because it’s out of print (it also may not have subtitles).

  15. Very interesting I.S! The film was well done and you packed in a lot of really good points! I was curious if you came across any hierarchical relationships in depictions of evil, like alpha, beta, and omega.

    1. Thanks, Anna! I’m glad you liked it. There were indeed several hierarchical relationships in the balance of evil, which I talked about more in-depth in my I.S. For instance, in “Les Diaboliques,” Nicole and Christina have an intense friendship where Nicole is dominant (or the alpha) while Christina is more submissive (or the beta). However, since Clouzot focuses on a switch in gender roles (and thus, power dynamics), when Michel appears at the end and “kills” Christina, he becomes the true alpha. Nicole (who is submissive to Michel) becomes the beta, and Christina, who is dead, becomes the omega.

      A similar balance of power appears in “Rope,” where Brandon, the most evil character, has a very dominant, alpha-esque personality characterized by his charming attitude and lack of remorse. Phillip, who exhibits remorse (thus appearing less evil), is more of a beta.

  16. Congratulations! I knew you’d win an award.

    You mention that the connection between The Raven and nazi letters was unintentional, as was the connection between evil and communism in Hitchcock. If these connections are unintentional, why do they appear so clearly in the films?

    1. Thanks Tiago!

      That’s a very good question. I doubt that Hitchcock went into “Psycho” saying, “Alright, this movie is going to indirectly critique Cold War family values” or that Clouzot made “Les Diaboliques” thinking, “La culpabilité de Christina, c’est une métaphore pour celle de la France.” BUT I do think each director had their own opinions about the social and political worlds that surrounded them, and since films are subjective, those beliefs and ideas come through rather strongly. It goes to show how much our surrounding cultures affect our perceptions.

  17. Loved your presentation. This was a super creative way to explain the work of your I.S.

    1. Thanks, Jenni! I’m glad that you enjoyed it. I’ve always loved making movies, so I figured this would be a good way to present my I.S.

  18. I loved your presentation! It reminded my of one of my favorite Wooster classes on French film taught by Dr. Carolyn Durham during my years at Wooster. I’ll need to add the Clouzot’s films to my viewing list. One question: do you feel as though each director’s take on ‘evil’ simply represented the political climate/reality of their times, or were there particular ideologies that each director was trying to convey?
    Congratulations on a terrific presentation and best of luck as you finish your Wooster chapter!
    Class of ’91, French/Cultural Studies major

    1. Thank you! It was a fun presentation to make, albeit time-consuming.

      I feel like the movies present the social/political climates in France and the United States in addition to the directors’ diverse ideologies and opinions. It gets a little murky trying to single those opinions out, though, unless I have primary source information from the directors themselves. Clouzot’s socialist viewpoint stands out in “Le Salaire de la peur”; there’s no doubt that he does not sympathize with the American Capitalist system. Likewise, in “Rear Window,” Hitchcock really seems to be critiquing American individualism and Cold War surveillance. The parallels between Jefferies’ spying and the Cold War paranoia are pretty undeniable, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Hitchcock directed the film with those attitudes in mind.

  19. Your presentation greatly exceeded my expectations though I don’t know why. Congratulations on a job well done, as I know how hard you worked on it. I had wondered if the piano background music was performed by you and am glad to see that it was.

    1. Thank you! There are still times when I can’t believe that I’m done with I.S. (except for orals, which are this coming Thursday). It’s so strange suddenly having time to work on and think about other things. I’m still pretty excited to continue my studies in grad school. Guess I’m an academic-type person.

  20. Holly, great work! “Student, investigator, and villain” made me laugh. Congrats!

    1. Thanks, Professor Beutner! Would you believe that I did the casting myself, too?

  21. Congratulations on your genre award. It is well deserved. Having recently seen “Le Corbeau” I particularly appreciate your comments on the film and on Clouzot. (French major, class of 1964)

  22. Wonderfully researched, dissected, and filmed presentation, Holly! I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but the banana peel immediately made me think of Peter—your character from creative writing in high school! I’m sorry that I missed the live Q & A portion, as I do have one quick question. In addition to writing, producing, filming, and starring in this, did you also provide the score?

    Congratulations and great work!

    1. Oh my gosh, I totally forgot about Peter and the banana! That story must’ve been lurking somewhere in my subconscious; I’m sure he saw evil faces on bananas all the time. Yes, I did also provide the score. Well, Chopin wrote it, but I did the actual playing since Chopin is unfortunately no longer with us.

      I’m glad you enjoyed my presentation. Thank you for the congratulations!

  23. What a great presentation! It was informative, creative, and entertaining–with plenty of your typical unusual humor. We are so glad that exposing you to classic thrillers during your formative years caused lasting effects with positive academic results. Can’t wait to see what you do with “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” Congratulations–good luck with orals and exams–see you at graduation!

    P.S. D and RG really loved the banana peel man.

  24. Brava, Holly! I loved the movie and the music. Congratulations on a job well done. I was privileged to be able to announce your best use of genre award.

  25. Holly!! Great job, this presentation was as creative as it was informative. I love some of these movies, and you’ve definitely convinced me to watch the rest and see all they have to offer.

    Congratulations!

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