Part Hitchcock, part Gothic thriller, Diabolique is one of the most famous suspense films ever made.  That it carries its suspense consistently through to the shaky ending, is a testament to the talent of director and co-writer Henri-Georges Clouzot, and screenwriter Jerome Geronimi.

How is it that two women can hate one another so viciously, yet loathe the man they share more, so much so that they’re willing to plot his murder? Paul Meurisse answers that question easily, as Michel, the cruel headmaster of a French boys’ school: he’s a beast of a man, with a poisonous tongue and swift hand.  His wife, Christina (Vera Clouzot), who actually owns the school and is stuffed with money, has suffered years of abuse, as has his mistress, Nicole (Simone Signoret). Together they plot a murder they believe to be almost perfect, right down to the details of their alibi, which, of course, involves the two women vouching for one another.

The murder goes off without a hitch–until Michel’s body disappears.  Soon, the women receive strange portents, such as [See, now, I’ve had to go back and edited this part out because I feel I gave away too much.  You’ll just have to watch the movie now, won’t you?]  Is Michel still alive?  Or has he come back from the dead to haunt his killers?

All of this is told with great style by Clouzot and his cinematographer, Armand Thirad, who fill their frames with shadows and long, dark hallways. Bodies with eyes as white as marshmallows rise from bathtubs.  Strange images in pictures.  And a terrific, haunting opening score, complete with children singing a macabre lullaby.  It’s all very creepy, and, as I said, entirely suspenseful, as the mystery slowly begins to come together.  Until, that is…

Well, if the ending (which I won’t dare reveal) isn’t entirely successful, it doesn’t matter: What comes before is done so well, I can forgive the transgressions of the final two or three minutes, and Diabolique is ultimately a success.  There’s also a strange role by Charles Vanel, as a cop investigating Michel’s disappearance.  He seems to ingratiate himself at the wrong moments; but when presented with an opportunity to do something right, he fails miserably.  Odd.

1955; starring Vera Clouzot, Simone Signoret; directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot; 116 min; not rated; in French w/ English subtitles; available on Criterion.