A small town, here or elsewhere.
Controversy in France surrounding the auteur Henri-Georges Clouzot (The Wages of Fear, Diabolique) centers on his association with Continental Films, the studio established by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to provide innocuous entertainment for the conquered French during the German occupation. Le Corbeau was Clouzot's second film for Continental, a picture whose release despite its clearly subversive political subtext can only be explained by the fact Continental's films weren't subjected to the same censorial review as the product flowing from France's homegrown studios. Oh, the irony. As it turned out, Le Corbeau managed to piss everyone off: the Nazis were none-too-happy with the film's grim view of backstabbing informants (on whom they depended to maintain order among the French population), and the French of both the right- and left-wings were displeased by the film's negative portrayal of the provincial townsfolk as well as Clouzot's philosophical nihilism and laxity in the realm of sexual morality.
As the old saw goes, you can't please all of the people all of the time. Clouzot, however, managed to please no one with Le Corbeau (with the exception of a few notables like Jean-Paul Sartre, who recognized the film's importance from the outset). As a result, the director was blacklisted in the French film industry for three years. His next film, Quai des Orfèvres wouldn't arrive until 1947. Once back in the business of making films, Clouzot's checkered past followed him to the end of his career in the late 1960s, and lingers to a certain degree in his home country even today.
Facts of the Case
Suspicion and backstabbing erupt when the residents of a French provincial town begin receiving a dizzying number of poison-pen letters signed "The Raven." The main target of the letters is Dr. Rémy Germain (Pierre Fresnay, Grand Illusion) who is accused, among other perfidies, of an affair with Laura Vorzet (Micheline Francey), the wife of a fellow doctor, and of performing abortions for the local women.
The list of the letters' victims grows rapidly as the town's dirty laundry is mercilessly brought out into the open. Among the targets is Dr. Vorzet (Pierre Larquey, Diabolique); a decadent man-eater named Denise Saillens (Ginette Leclerc) with whom Germain is actually having an affair; a young girl, Rolande (Liliane Maigné), who works at the post office; and Laura Vorzet's embittered sister, Nurse Marie Corbin (Héléna Manson). As the town's paranoia reaches its apex, no one, including the letters' victims, are free from suspicion and pointing fingers.
Because of Le Corbeau's fascinating history, it's easy to lose sight of its more intrinsic cinematic qualities. The picture works wonderfully as prototype film noir (across the Atlantic, John Huston had already made The Maltese Falcon  and noir style was beginning to cement itself in Hollywood cinema, but it would be more than a decade before the leaders of the French New Wave would coin the term). Clouzot plays a masterful game of sleight of hand, building palpable suspense with the catty, accusatory letters; shaping the mysterious Raven into a figure of real menace; and making us, the audience, suspicious of every character in the film, just as the characters are suspicious of one another. Brilliant political subtext aside, Le Corbeau works as a piece of pure cinema by meticulously building the same pervasive tone of dread and paranoia that would make John Carpenter's The Thing a horror classic nearly 40 years later.
Clouzot and cinematographer Nicolas Hayer (Orphée) lavish us with a visual style that is dense and lean, beautiful to look at but always the slave of story and tone. Consider our introduction to Denise Saillens, a loose woman who plays sick in order to snare Dr. Germain as a lover. We first see her in bed, in a short nightgown, painting her toenails, her bare legs framed in the foreground in a way that emphasizes her sexual availability. We'll later learn Denise suffered a childhood accident that left one of those legs shorter than the other, an injury that both explains her compensatory sexual aggression and may or may not be motive for her taking on the nom de plume of The Raven in order to poison the goodwill of the townsfolk who look down on her libertine excesses. This is only one example among many. Throughout the picture, Clouzot uses dialogue, performance, and shot composition with great precision to simultaneously define characters and cast suspicion upon them, creating that perfect cinematic balance in which character and plot development are entwined, advancing hand-in-hand. The Criterion Collection has done a marvelous restoration of a fine-grain master that makes it easy to appreciate the brilliance of Clouzot's work (one need only look at the clips of the film contained in the segment of The Story of French Cinema by Those Who Made It included on the disc to appreciate Criterion's fine work). As with their recent release of Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest, the black-and-white image sports gorgeous contrast, with perfect blacks and whites, and a finely differentiated scale of grays. Detail is exceedingly sharp, yet negative effects from edge enhancement are basically non-existent. There is plenty of minor damage from the source, but nothing surprising considering its age. If you love the aesthetic qualities of black-and-white photography, you'll fall head-over-heels with what Criterion's achieved here.
As a character-driven piece of suspense, performances are vitally important in Le Corbeau and it's hard to go wrong with Pierre Fresnay in the lead. A mainstay of French cinema of that period, he combines the striking good looks and sophisticated poise of, say, William Powell with Humphrey Bogart's air of psychological complexity and mercenary self-interest. Fresnay handles Dr. Germain, a character who is victim, cad, and perhaps villain, with a delicacy that makes the performance look easy. Ginette Leclerc and Pierre Larquey also masterfully handle roles that are psychologically conflicted and demand that they elicit equal parts of our sympathy and distrust. Combined, the work of these three actors makes for a wonderfully entertaining and suspenseful piece of cinema, powerful because of the contrast between its simple narrative conceit, and meticulous construction and subtle performances.
Extras on the disc provide ample background on the political atmosphere in which the film was born as well as the controversy that surrounded it. Director Bertrand Tavenier, whose 2002 film Laissez-Passer is about French cinema during the occupation, provides a detailed interview about the climate in which the film was made and how the firestorm created among French intellectuals resulted from the film's psychological explorations being too true, too close to the bone. Tavenier provides fairly detailed information about the establishment of Continental Films and the serpentine politics of making a picture under that company's banner. He also discusses French psychology under the Nazi-Vichy government, which provides insight into both Le Corbeau's content and the violent reaction to it. The interview runs 21 minutes and is indexed in five chapters so one can conveniently jump to specific topics.
The Story of French Cinema by Those Who Made It is an eight-minute segment from a 1975 French television documentary. It's a full screen presentation and the source elements were in pretty rough shape, but the piece is notable for its footage of Clouzot discussing Le Corbeau, the controversy surrounding it, and how it was based on a real poison-pen incident that happened in Tulle in the 1920s.
The final extra on the disc is a theatrical trailer.
The 14-page insert booklet contains an insightful essay by Alan Williams, author of Republic of Images: A History of French Cinema, as well as two 1947 opinion pieces from the French newspaper L'Intransigent. The first piece, "The Return of Clouzot's Le Corbeau, or the Commies vs. Le Corbeau," was written by Pépé le Moko scribe Henri Jeanson and, predictably enough, takes the French communist party to task for its aggressive stance against the film. "The Corbeau Affair (Continued): Joseph Kessel Responds to Henri Jeanson" was originally published 17 days later. In it, the Belle du Jour author rebuts Jeanson and condemns Clouzot as an occupation profiteer. Combined, the two articles provide a sense of at least two sides of the controversy surrounding the film. The fact this debate was taking place in the pages of a newspaper four years after the film's initial release gives one a sense of the passion with which Clouzot's countrymen responded to his work.
Le Corbeau will be of particular interest to those with a fascination with French cinema during the German occupation. That said, viewers who just want to enjoy a suspenseful, well-told yarn will find plenty to appreciate, too.
You want to know who's guilty and who isn't? Watch the movie.
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• Bertrand Tavernier Interview
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