Of course, there weren't really too many horror films made in France during the 1950's - Eyes Without a Face would come about in 1960, which is another classic to look out for that is genuinely creepy still to this day - but there was one film that, I have to imagine, had audiences on the edge of their seats for an enormous, almost ridiculous amount of time in the theater: Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1955 thriller Diabolique (or 'Les Diaboliques', which translates simply as 'The Devils').
The story, from a book by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (who later wrote what would be the basis for 'Eyes', and Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo), concerns a wife and school-teacher, Christina (Vera Clouzot, also wife of the director), who is married to Michel, the principal of the school played by Paul Meurisse; you know him soon as you see those dark eyes, which here are used to rather (spot-on) benignly sinister effect as an abusive husband (in short, he's the kind of husband that will wait till his wife swallows a piece of food she just doesn't want to eat).
She can't stand him, and why not, he's a total louse, abuses her, and so his mistress (French actress-legend Simone Signoret) comes up with a plan since, you know, Michel won't grant Christina a divorce: kill him, quickly and efficiently, with tracks covered and alibis planted firmly.
So, in one night, following a phone call to alert Michel and get him out from his school to where Christina and Nicole (Signoret) are at, and a little concoction added to a whiskey bottle followed by a dunk in a bathtub, they do the deed, get him in a wicker basket, and then promptly toss him into the pool at the school (!) in order to add to the quasi-brilliance of this plot that he drowned while drunk. But... where's the body when the pool is drained? Why isn't he at the morgue as another body is discovered? Is he now Michel the Not-so-Friendly Ghost? As Batman might say, some days you just can't get rid of a body...
Indeed going back to Hitchcock, while Vertigo is the tie-that-binds for the authors, I could see more than a bit of influence on Psycho - not simply in the obvious bathroom murder scheme (though it's always more intimate a murder when it's done where one bathes really), but the identification with the perpetrators: in a sense much of Diabolique is like that scene in Psycho where Norman Bates is watching the car sink into the swamp... and is it going down, is it not, okay, there it goes, whew. Only here, imagine if Marion Crane kept popping up around poor ol' Norman - over and over again (it's no surprise to learn, fyi, Hitchcock tried to buy the rights to this novel first - luckily for the world, when that didn't work out, the writers wrote the book From Among the Dead specifically for him).
Christina, meanwhile, is how some of us would react more-so, especially those who have a strong conviction about sin: she is reluctant (at first anyway) about the *divorce* much less such a murder plot. Her job is to make Christina perpetually haunted, loaded with guilt, and really her story becomes that of a ghost story as much as a "scene-turner" of a mystery (the movie version of a "page-turner" I mean - you really want to see what'll happen next).
Director Clouzot keeps this mystery of this rascally body afloat (no pun intended, I think) with tremendous skill, in part cause it's just the actresses and their back-and-forth tension, but also because of the setting. Pre-400 Blows this is one of the better depictions of French school life I've seen from that period, full of rambunctious and not-too-clean-mouthed kids (the "F-word" is even uttered in the subtitles for my copy of the film), and, like Hitchcock, Clouzot makes sure to cast well with character players who you probably won't remember in terms of names, but for the faces every teacher, groundskeeper, and a certain retired police detective (who could be the French Columbo the way he walks and talks and acts, nice, aloof, but probably knowing more than he lets on), so that the setting feels immediate and thick with what the women know and what no one else doesn't, and what let's slip.
I should note that I'm still not sure how I feel or think about the end of the picture, where this all leads to. You have to suddenly take a lot in, think about many, many scenes and moments, and it's something that works more-so emotionally as a pay-off than in terms of logic. For all of Clouzot's theatrics in that regard, however, not to mention that final reel which becomes more like a horror movie than anything else in the movie (if John Carpenter scored it you'd swear Michael Myers was just down the corner, or was in the feet that are creeping up in the hallway oh bleep!) it's at heart a gripping yarn, a story told with precision, patience, and two actresses who take on their characters so that we know what they've done, and if they're going down we might just go down with them.
In a sense this was a pretty daring film for the period - it skirts the line very finely for the "Code", for example, that was still in use in the United States at the time - and it holds up splendidly in terms of tightening the screw on things (is it a red herring or is this story taking a fantastical turn?) and making the audience an active participant in guessing what's what. As a not so much whodunit as a 'where-is-it?' it's a lot of fun and a kind of minor-masterpiece in this director's body of work (also among his great works are Le Corbeau and Wages of Fear).