Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
The French director Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907-1977), best known for two films he made in the mid-1950s—The Wages of Fear (1953), which won the Grand Prize at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival, and Les Diaboliques (1955)—is often referred to as "the French Hitchcock." In those two films, Clouzot's signature use of suspense acts not just as a means of achieving moments of heightened tension and excitement, but as a sustained mood that barely lets up until the movie's shocking conclusion. In his second full-length film, Le Corbeau (1943), the suspense, while just as effective, is derived more from the conventional "whodunit" approach of the classic mystery.
Based on a true incident that had happened years earlier, Le Corbeau concerns a rash of poison pen letters signed "Le Corbeau" (The Raven) that tear apart the fictional Saint-Robin, a small village in provincial France. At first the letters are aimed at a relative newcomer to the village, Dr. Germain (Pierre Fresnay), accusing him of performing abortions, which he denies. Soon others in the village start receiving vicious anonymous letters too, and not only do the accusations seem believable, but in some cases we know they are true. Clearly the writer of the letters not only knows a great deal about the secret lives of the villagers, but is also a cunning judge of character able to accuse people of things they might not actually have done but are only too capable of. The number of suspects is large, for nearly everyone in the village has a grievance against someone else. But who in the village is so filled with generalized malice that he or she would go to such extremes to destroy its social fabric?
In a 1974 series on the history of French film made for French television, Clouzot explained the importance of suspense in his movies by saying that suspense is the element that keeps the viewer watching "everything else." In Le Corbeau that "everything else" consists of quite a lot. For one thing, there is Clouzot's strong sense of visual theatrics (another trait he shares with Hitchcock), beginning with the shots of the village cemetery that open the film, suggesting that this is a dark place with many buried secrets. Although most of the letters are delivered by post, a couple of times they are publicly delivered in passages of great visual drama. One time this happens at the funeral of a man who has been driven to suicide by one of the letters, a funeral the entire village attends, when a letter accusing a female villager of being responsible for his death tumbles from a funeral wreath on the back of the horse-drawn hearse bearing his coffin to the cemetery. The entire village then becomes a frenzied, vengeful mob who chase her through the streets of the village to her home and nearly kill her. Another time, in the local cathedral where the priest is sermonizing about the evil of the letter-writer, the entire congregation looks up to the highest gallery and watches in stupefied fascination as another letter slowly flutters to the floor.
A key scene in the film occurs when Dr. Germain discusses the evil behind the letters with his friend Dr. Vorzet, a psychologist (and ironically the man with whose wife he is secretly having an affair). The scene is staged in a darkened room illuminated by one overhead light—a lamp with one naked bulb and a small shade that directs the light downward—hanging just above Germain and Vorzet. Vorzet tries to convince Germain that any of the villagers might be The Raven because good and evil co-exist in all people and it is impossible to suppress the evil in one's nature completely. He illustrates this by reaching up to start the overhead lamp swinging lamp back and forth, casting each man now in darkness, now in light. When Germain reacts skeptically to Vorzet's ideas, the psychologist asks him to reach up and stop the swinging light. When he does, he immediately burns his hand and instinctively withdraws it, while the lamp keeps on swinging, continuing to cast each man in an unstoppable alternation of light and shadow. The scene uses dialogue, staging, lighting and photography to focus the overriding theme of the movie—that in the right circumstances everyone is capable of evil, a theme that given what we now know of the ignoble actions of many ordinary French citizens during the Nazi occupation, must have had extra resonance at the time.
Mirroring Dr. Vorzet's cynical view of humanity, Clouzot's depiction of life in the small town is relentlessly caustic. Aside from Dr. Germain, who seems sincere although hardly without flaws (besides the affair with Madame Vorzet, he also gets a handicapped young woman pregnant after a one-night stand), nearly everyone else in the movie—no matter how sympathetic they seem at first—is corrupt in some way. These nasty small-town provincials are driven by the basest, most petty, most selfish of human impulses. Narrow-minded and suspicious of outsiders like Germain, they are also filled with envy, lust, and greed directed at one another. Above all, they are hypocrites who conceal their true natures while projecting their vilest urges and motives onto their fellow villagers. The greatest effect the letters have on the community is to lead its inhabitants to expose their true selves, an ugly and dismaying sight indeed.
Although Le Corbeau was a big hit in France when it was first released, it was not without controversy. Leftists and the Resistance denounced it not only because it was made by Continental Films, a German-controlled production company established during the Occupation by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, but also because of the savage—and in their eyes unpatriotic—way it depicted life in provincial France. Likewise, the Nazis and the collaborationist Vichy government were displeased with the film because they felt it surreptitiously condemned the practice of denouncing those working for the Resistance, a practice the Nazis encouraged. Clouzot suffered reprisals from both groups of the film's detractors. Just days before the movie's release, Continental fired Clouzot, who had also been in charge of the studio's screenwriting division. After the war, he was accused of collaboration because of his association with Continental Films and banned from the French film industry for life. Later this was reduced to two years.
Le Corbeau is a very accomplished work and in its perversely bleak way quite enjoyable. Its unsparingly negative view of human nature, plainly the product of a filmmaker of a highly pessimistic temperament, and its expert manipulation of audience response through the precisely targeted use of suspenseful situations as the film works its way to its grim conclusion anticipate Clouzot's later and better-known masterpieces. It is well worth seeking out, especially for those interested in pre-New Wave French cinema or in the suspense genre.
For more about Continental Films and the French film industry during the Occupation, I recommend Bertrand Tavernier's excellent film Safe Conduct (2002), which details the experiences of two men working in the French film industry during this time.