Le Corbeau (1943)

Le Corbeau first published by Movie Gazette

Rémy Germain (Pierre Fresnay) is a dour, insomniac doctor trying to hide from a troubled past in the provincial town of Saint Robin – but he finds himself at the centre of a poison-pen campaign, as anonymous letters circulate accusing him of everything from committing adultery with the married Laura (Micheline Francey) to sleeping with the promiscuous Denise (Ginette Leclerc), from conducting illegal abortions to selling drugs. As the letters (all signed ‘le corbeau’, or ‘the raven’) rapidly proliferate, and other people are drawn into their malicious denunciations, the whole town falls under the grip of suspicion and hysteria. Germain joins forces with Laura’s husband, the elderly psychiatrist Michel Vorzet (Pierre Laquey), in an attempt to identify the slanderer before the succession of insidious allegations tears Saint Robin open, revealing all its dark secrets.

“Interpretation and mystification go hand in hand”, Vorzet tells Germain near the beginning of Le Corbeau. It is a principle that dominates Henri-Georges Clouzot’s acerbic whodunnit, where nothing (apart from the filmstock, of course) is black and white, and everyone seems to be compromised. The film’s ‘hero’ is first glimpsed literally with blood on his hands, the community’s élite (police, doctors, politicians, treasurers) are at best ineffective, at worst underhanded, even the young children emanate menace – and in this town full of predatory ravens, not only do the letters’ accusations turn out to be only half lies, but the final twisty solution seems on reflection to be only half the truth.

Le Corbeau is based on a real-life French case from the 1920s – but it is all the more extraordinary for having been made in 1943, when anonymous denunciations were positively encouraged by the collaborationist Vichy authorities and ordinary citizens found themselves morally compromised on a daily basis by the German Occupation. So it is hardly surprising that the film, after a brief release, was withdrawn, and its director banned from making further films until the Second World War came to an end. More surprising, perhaps, was the film’s reception amongst critics from the Left, who regarded its scathing view of the corruption, pettiness and spite of provincial life as an unpatriotic attack on the national character, in line with Nazi notions of Gallic inferiority. So it seems that when Le Corbeau first pointed its accusatory finger, there were few viewers of any political persuasion who did not regard themselves as uncomfortably exposed by the vitriol of its satire. Saint Robin is, as the text which opens the film asserts, “a small town, anywhere”, and the small-minded evil uncovered there belongs to each and every one of us.

Owing to its war-time infamy, Le Corbeau is far less known than later films, like Wages of Fear (1953) and Les Diaboliques (1954), which would earn Clouzot a reputation as the ‘French Hitchcock’ – yet it is an involving mystery, a bitter portrait of a community at odds with itself and, with its unlikeable characters, stark use of shadows and pessimistic moral outlook, an exemplary forerunner to the whole genre of film noir.

Summary: A masterful blend of dark misanthropy and small-town hysteria.

© Anton Bitel