(1943)4Craig ButlerLe Corbeau is a stunning examination of paranoia, distrust, and human venality. Sporting a bleak world view that is typical of much of director Henri-Georges Clouzot, it's a film that is enormously effective as both an intriguing mystery and a statement on the human condition. Upon its initial release, Le Corbeau drew condemnation from all sides. Made under the Nazi occupation, French loyalists viewed it as collaborationist, while the Nazis correctly saw in it an unflattering parallel to their network of spies and informers. If anything, the Nazis' interpretation is the more correct as a political statement, but Clouzot's larger message is a social statement -- that there exists inside everyone a dark side that is dedicated to ruin and hatred, and that keeping it in check is the only way for humanity to survive. Reduced to its essence and put on paper in this manner, it sounds simpleminded; but Clouzot and co-writer Louis Chavance's talent bring it to bitter, powerful life on the screen. The rottenness underneath the society in the film almost oozes off of the screen, to tremendous effect. Yet, while the characters are dark of soul, they are not one-note people. They have conflicts and contrasts, especially leading character Germain. Clouzot also makes Le Corbeau an incredibly visual experience, with a rich use of stark blacks and whites, surprising angles (including a shot from the p.o.v of a letter on the ground), and intriguing compositions. Especially noteworthy are the sequence in which one of the poison pen letters floats calmly to the ground in the middle of a church service, capturing the attention of one and all, and that in which a mob chases one of the suspects through the streets of town. The tension and the mystery that the director imparts to the film is astonishingly effective, and he's aided by a perfect cast. Pierre Fresnay is perhaps first among equals, but each one contributes to making Le Corbeau an amazing film.
A small French village is plagued by a poison-pen writer, whose principal target is Doctor Germain (Pierre Fresnay). The vitriolic letters wreak so much havoc that soon neighbor turns upon neighbor. Eventually, even the doctor himself becomes one of the suspects, as the townspeople are driven to commit paranoia-fueled crimes and suicides. The actual culprit is revealed to be one of the least likely candidates. Though it can now be seen to be a subliminal indictment of the paranoia fomented by the Nazi occupation of France, Le Corbeau (aka The Raven) was condemned as unpatriotic after the liberation, and director Henri-Georges Clouzot was banned from filmmaking until 1947. Based on a story by Clouzot and Louis Chavance, Le Corbeau was remade in Hollywood by Otto Preminger as The 13th Letter (1951).