Le Corbeau, only Henri-Georges Clouzot’s second feature film, feels slightly less assured than its follow-up, Quai des Orfèvres, though it may be less compromised as an expression of the director’s decidedly bleak worldview. Casting a dark eye on human tendencies toward gossip and defamation, Clouzot explores the psycho-emotional havoc wreaked on a small town in the French provinces by a letter-writer whose anonymous poison-pen missives, signed “le Corbeau” (the Raven), claim to identify a wide variety of debaucherous activities on the part of various citizens. Most of the film’s characters, of course, seem to have both opportunity and motive to author the letters. Even Dr. Germain (Pierre Fresnay), who’s the locus of the virtiolic accusations, is a likely suspect.
Clouzot closely examines the ways that the flurry of mysterious letters arouses guilt and paranoia within the villagers, who seem to be motivated by fear and shame. The director’s renowned mordant humor is on full display in a film that combines noir stylings with characters written at full soap-opera pitch. Check out the gimpy but incredibly sexy hypochondriac Denise (Ginette Leclerc), who does everything but hump Germain’s leg when she lures him to her bedside to diagnose an alleged illness, or the old doctor on his way to mass who’s asked whether he’s religious. “I’m cautious,” he responds. “When in doubt, I take out insurance. It’s cheap enough.”
Clouzot is also a showman on the order of Hitchcock: the sequences depicting the profane appearance of new letters in sacred places — during a church service and amidst a funeral procession — are staggeringly well staged and photographed. There are single images in Le Corbeau that are freighted with a more accurate sense of malevolence and dread than in, say, the Lord of the Rings movies, for all their bluster about good and evil (and their considerably high level of craft). Among contemporary films, I’d say Se7en has a similarly permeating sense of twisted moral righteousness. It all flags a little toward the end, when the proceedings hew too closely to whodunit expectations, but it’s still splendidly entertaining and disquieting.
Cultural distance and well-developed senses of cynicism probably help contemporary audiences easily relate to this stuff, which was considered outright scandalous by many of Clouzot’s compatriots. The film was made in Nazi-occupied France, and that it was bankrolled by German distributor Continental only amplified arguments that Clouzot had committed cultural treason, making a piece of pro-Nazi propaganda that depicted the everyday Frenchman as a petty, duplicitous and malicious sort. After the war, Clouzot wound up getting banned from the French film industry — fortunately, he was reinstated a few years later, when he made the terrific Quai des Orfèvres, which actually evinces some degree of affection for its characters, haplessly duplicitous as they may be. He went on, of course, to direct Wages of Fear and Diabolique, ambitious suspense films whose impact would be felt worldwide. They also demonstrated that his dim view of human behavior was decidedly independent of Nazi influence.