THE LIVING AND THE DEAD (1954) by Boileau-Narcejac

Boileau-Narjejac-Living-and-Dead-steinPierre Boileau and Thomas Narjejac’s mysteries in the 1950s and 60s were admired for their great plot ingenuity but not for their plausibility. This is certainly the case with their third novel, a morbid tale with a giant twist adapted with reasonably fidelity by Hitchcock as Vertigo (it has  been reprinted several times since under that title).

I submit this review for Bev’s 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge in the ‘Killed in Translation’ category; the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog (for links to other participants’ reviews, click here); and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, which today Todd Mason is graciously hosting over at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.

“Madeleine walked in front of him, a slim dark figure, a prey to the shadows, smelling of chrysanthemums”

Originally published in France in 1954 as D’entre les morts (literally ‘Among the Dead’), it appeared in English two years later as The Living and the Dead in a translation by Geoffrey Sainsbury, who had also been responsible for many of the early UK editions of the Maigret novels (he was an early champion of Simenon) though, controversially, he also made several changes to the original texts. The issue of ‘version control’ is not one I can discuss here not having access to the French original but it is fascinating to compare the book to the Hitchcock film adaptation, a very different kind of ‘translation’. It is said that Hitchcock was so envious of the success of Les diaboliques (1955), the film version of the team’s previous novel that he acquired the rights to the team’s next book, not realising that they had in fact fashioned a story in the hope that it would attract his attention. Is this true? Narcejac later disputed this but it’s a great story anyhow.

“Do you think it’s possible to live again, Monsieur? … I mean … is it possible to die and then … live again in someone else? “

I have blogged about the celebrated film adaptation in some detail before (Is Vertigo the best film ever?) but this is a good opportunity to compare it to its literary progenitor. Here is a plot description for both book and film:


An ex-policeman, invalided out of the Force due to a fear of heights, is contacted by an old college friend who is now a wealthy industrialist to follow his wife, Madeleine. She has become obsessed with the life, and death, of her great-grandmother,who ultimately committed suicide. Her husband is concerned she might do the same. The detective follows Madeleine as she visits the grave of her ancestor and even the house where she once lived. One day Madeleine goes to the waterfront and throws herself in. The ex-detective saves her and the two become confidantes.


She tells him that she has dreams of an old church with a tower and he tells her it is a real place. They go there and she rushes to the top – he can’t reach her due to his agoraphobia and so is unable to stop his friend’s wife plunging to her death. The detective is traumatised and much time passes until by chance he meets a woman who looks just like her. He becomes obsessed with turning her into Madeleine though she is clearly not his old friend’s wife. This ultimately leads to another death.


The British director was famous for his near disdain for the books and plays he adapted, taking only what interested him and discarding the rest. In the case of Vertigo he must have liked what he read as he kept a great deal, from most of the plot and its two-act structure to Madeleine’s gray dress, necklace and hair style. On the other hand, there are great differences too. For one thing, the first part of the book is set in the Spring of 1940 during the ‘Phoney War’. The protagonist, named Paul Gevigne, is from the outset a highly neurotic type, deeply envious of Roger Flavieres, the old college chum who is now Madeleine’s husband, and clearly sexually dysfunctional. Thus his attachment to Madeleine is, from the outset, more than tinged with unhealthy desire and self-loathing.

“So it comes to this,” said the psychiatrist, “you’re still looking for her. You refuse to believe she’s dead”

Boileau-Narcejac-Vertigo-dellPart one of the book ends with the death of Madeleine and the fall of France to the Nazi invaders. The story picks up again at the end of the War. Roger is now dead and Paul is an alcoholic in lousy physical and mental shape, tormented by his guilt over the death of the woman married to his old friend who he secretly coveted. Though still able to tun his legal practice, he is told by his doctors that he must get out of the city and start seeing a shrink too. On the day he is to leave Paris he goes to the cinema and watches a newsreel – and sees a girl who reminds him of Madeleine. He tracks her down to a swanky hotel, where the woman (named Renee Sourange) has just been dumped by her rich boyfriend. Paul becomes her new lover and is initially pleased that his able to dispel the idealised memory of the dead woman. But soon their relationship deteriorates as he becomes consumed by the idea that she is also a reincarnation of Madeleine’s great-grandmother – this is very different from the movie and in fact this part of the book actually more closely resembles the torment and doom of the closing of Fleming’s Casino Royale (1953) as the couple are ultimately trapped in a self-destructive relationship. And then comes the big shocking twist which is undeniably clever and in fact seems slightly more plausible here than the version we see in the film even though the story by this point is much more deranged than the one in Vertigo. It is bleaker and more nihilistic and certainly much less operatic (I found it impossible not to hear the strains of Bernard Herrmann’s magnificent Wagner-inspired score as I read the book).

In adapting it for the screen the filmmakers created a new character, Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), who secretly loves the investigator. This helped provide an identification figure for many in the audience as she is a down-to-earth type compared with the main protagonists at the centre of the psychodrama being enacted. The book does suffer from not really having an equivalent person to root for and for making most of the characters pretty unsympathetic, reflecting a tougher, less sentimental streak. I prefer the film, but it’s an interesting book, as much for its departures as for what it shares with the better known incarnation.

Vertigo (1958)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Producer: Herbert Colman
Screenplay: Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor
Cinematography: Robert Burks
Art Direction: Henry Bumstead
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Cast: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore, Ellen Corby, henry Jones, Konstantin Shayne

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2013 Book to Movie Challenge, 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge, Alfred Hitchcock, Boileau-Narcejac, France, Friday's Forgotten Book, Paris. Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to THE LIVING AND THE DEAD (1954) by Boileau-Narcejac

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – I love that film, too. Now, I have to say that I am a Hitchcock admirer, so I am biased. There’s little of Hitchcock’s work that I think of as sub-par. I love the use of cinematography in this film too actually.

    • Thanks Margot. It’s a beautiful (and morbid) film and it was fascinating to compare it against the original novel as I’d never read it before – the film is better but it owes a huge amount to the book too.

  2. Colin says:

    Interesting comparison. I’ve had the book sitting on my shelf for years, having picked it up long ago as a freebie with a film magazine (Sight & Sound?), but I never read it. I too love Hitchcock’s movie; it grows on you and reveals itself further with every viewing. Perhaps it’s time I gave the novel a go.

    • Exactly the same edition that I have from Sight & Sound (I should be more loyal as I write for them but that’s another story) – and like you I just left it there picking up dust for a decade – it is well worth a read an even though the plot is basically the same, the characters are not and it is very useful and satisfying to see just where the movie came from and also where it opted not to go too

      • Colin says:

        I will get round to it but I do find it a little difficult sometimes reading the source material for films with which I am as familiar as Vertigo.

        • I tend to feel the same though here the differences in tone and setting are substantial enough, I think to warrant it and ultimately make the effort worthwhile, though of course it is hard not to think of the movie as you’re reading it!

          • Colin says:

            Yeah, I can never read The Big Sleep without hearing Bogart’s voice.

          • Actually because I fell in love with the novel way before I saw the movie I don’t have that problem – also, I’m one of those that deep down prefers Dick Powell (well, partly because Chandler had Cary Grant in mind and Powell is nearer to that image in my mind that Bogart). On the other hand, Inspector Morse (the elder) will always be John Thaw though I really like John Shrapnel’s version for radio.

  3. Todd Mason says:

    I will be hosting this week…and I should look into at least one of their novels, given how much I like the original DIALBOLIQUE (the remake manages to be less terrible than such comparable remakes as PSYCHO and THE HAUNTING, though this is such faint praise as to verge on bruising insult…nonetheless, somewhat better than SIESTA’s relation to CARNIVAL OF SOULS, too…).

    • Wow, have thought about Siesta for a very long time! I’ll have to dig out a copy and I know exactly what you mean – mind you, for me they are all bastard children of Ambrose Bierce realy, along with The Game, Jacob’s Ladder etc etc. I’m updating my post right now due to the change of location – thanks for the update chum (and for hosting).

  4. Todd Mason says:

    Hm. The deodorant qualities of DIALBOLIQUE aside, I think I prefer DIABOLIQUE when typing while awake.

  5. Sergio, thanks for reviewing this book by the French pair of Boileau and Narcejac. Wholly new ground for me. I had no idea the two authors had written the book that was later filmed as DIABOLIQUE. Although I don’t recall watching the 1955 version, I remember liking the 1996 adaptation starring Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani. It was a well-made film and I’d be curious to see the original and compare. The latter version came to mind even as I was reading your review and checked it out on IMDb. The Boileau-Narcejac team have been duly credited.

    • Thanks Prashant. The remake is pretty decent and does keep all the major plot from the original and the novel. If you haven’t seen Vertigo I would certainly recommend it – but then it’s one of my favourite films of all time, so I would say that …

      • Sergio, I might have confused issues by referring to DIABOLIQUE based on another book by Boileau and Narcejac (which you have mentioned upfront) rather than THE LIVING AND THE DEAD and its famous screen adaptation. I have seen VERTIGO on more than one occasion and while I have seen many of Hitchcock’s films, I can’t seem to put a finger on any one and say I like this one the best. I guess, with Hitchcock, you got to think of not just the film but the making of it as well. If pressed for possible favourites, I could offer the ones starring James Stewart. Any idea why Hitchcock remade THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH?

        • I suspect Hitchcock fell back on the story of Man who Knew Too Much as he knew he could expand it and it was a story with a really solid basic premise. I’m not sure he improved on the original though, except in the Albert Hall sequence. Sorry if I misunderstood but the Boileau and Narcejac books of the 50s are full of clever twists and turns and worth seeking out, though not that easy to find beyond Vertigo / Living and the Dead. Apart from Diaboliques and Vertigo, a less well-known adaptation of one of their books is Faces in the Dark, which is well worth finding as it also has a couple of really great twists. It is out on a very decent DVD in the UK.

  6. John says:

    If you ever manage to read any of the lesser known Boileau-Narcejac novels you will find that there are very few sympthetic characters in *any* of the books. Also — forgive my self-promotion — I have reviewed three of those very hard to find books in English translation (though plentiful in the original French) and interested readers can go here to read them all. One of the posts is on the book FACES IN THE DARK, my least favorite. Perhaps the story is better on film. There a few scenes of well done terror but as it is the story of a blind man I suspect a movie could improve on the twisty plot points which to me were very obvious as handled on the printed page.

    For a long time I’ve wanted to read THE LIVING AND THE DEAD, especially when I learned that it differs dramatically from VERTIGO. In trying to find a copy, however, all copies were priced way too high for me and still are. At one time there was an unauthorized reprint out there but it seems to have disappeared from all bookselling markets. I bet the French literary agent put an end to it. I know they are very protective of these books because a small press I’m working with is trying to get the US rights to reprint all his books. We’re very close, but it looks to be more expensive than we planned for. Keep your fingers crossed.

  7. Film critics argue about which movie was Hitchcock’s best. VERTIGO gets my voite (but REAR WINDOW is a very close Second). I read the Boileau-Narcejac novel long ago and thought the movie version was better than the book.

    • I agree with you George, though I got a lot out of the novel too. Rear Widow is certainly better than he Woolrich story (and I say that as a fan of the author). I love Hitchcock so trying to pick a favourite is virtually impossible especially with the likes of Notorious, The 39 Steps, Psycho to choose from!

  8. TracyK says:

    Very interesting post. The book sounds interesting and I love that cover. Having watched Vertigo so many times, and various documentaries / featurettes about it, I must have know it was adapted from a book, but had forgotten.

    • Thanks TracyK – I wish my edition had that cover, but I have a later film tie-in edition based on Saul Bass’ poster design which is not quite as amazing – the book is well worth getting though:

  9. robert says:

    I read few of Boileau-Narcejac books, including “celle qui n’etait plus (les diaboliques)”. the same thing can be said about them as about another famous french author of this time, R. Barjavel, who wrote SciFi novels: they had very good ideas, the plots were clever, but their style was awfully dry. So it’s no wonder a film-maker like Hitchcock was attracted by the plot but didn’t hesitate to add his own sensibility.
    Vertigo was a good film (although I always have problems with Hitchcock films, probably because I was born too late and they always seem dated) and probably better than it would have been if Hitchcock had really followed entirely the book.
    Funnily I saw the original H.G. Clouzot movie “les diaboliques” and read the novel much later. It was funny to observe that the plot of the film had been “reversed” when compared to that of the book. I guess it’s because the book clearly implied some lesbian affair between both woman, while the film follows the more conventional husband-wife-mistress pattern.

    • Thanks for all the extra info Rbert, much appreciated. Very interesting what you say about the original Clouzot version – indeed, he ‘sapphic’ subtext was one of the welcome additions to the Diabolique remakes with Stone and Adjani.

  10. DoingDewey says:

    I’m sorry to say that the only Hitchcock I’ve watched is a bit of The Birds in a high school english class. I recently read a biography of Hitchcock though and it made me really want to watch more of his work. He sounds like he was quite a character!

    • I really envy all the great discoveries that lie in store for you! Hope you get to see such classics as Notorious, Rear Window and The 39 Steps too as Vertigo is one that really divides fans – I love it now but it took quite a while for me to come round to this point of view!

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