Le Corbeau

(The Raven, France - 1943)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Pierre Fresnay, Ginette Leclerc, Pierre Larquey, Micheline Francey, Helena Manson, Liliane Maigne
Genre: Mystery/Suspense/Thriller/Crime/Drama
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Screenplay: Louis Chavance & Henri-Georges Clouzot based on Chavance's story
Cinematography: Nicolas Hayer
Composer: Tony Aubin
Runtime: 92 minutes

"Say, The Raven might even be you" - Dr. Remy Germain

Often lost in the desire to praise the great Alfred Hitchcock by classifying films Hitchcockian are the immense contributions Henri-Georges Clouzot made to that genre. Hitchcock was known to resent other directors for stepping on "his" turf, but Clouzot was not only a director he respected, he was a peer that Hitchcock considered himself in direct competition with for the title of "Master of Suspense". Clouzot sometimes got the better of Hitchcock, too. For instance, when he beat him to buying the rights to Pierre Boileau's novel Celle qui n'était plus by 30 minutes, and made it into the classic Les Diaboliques (1955) - a film many would say could not have been made better by the master himself. Hitchcock felt the need to answer Diaboliques with two films, his 1958 classic Vertigo based on Boileau's novel d'Entre les Morts and his 1960 classic Psycho, which was an attempt to top Diaboliques. Claude Chabrol, sometimes called the "French Hitchcock", is also a big admirer of Le Corbeau, which shares his major them of attacking the bourgeois, and Clouzot's work in general. In fact, one of his best films, L'Enfer (1994), was a film Clouzot tried to make 30 years earlier, but was never able to finish because lead Serge Reggiani got sick and Clouzot suffered a heart attack after replacing him with Jean-Louis Trintignant.

If you're looking for a reason to believe the worst about our species, Clouzot is the director to watch. His bleak worldview and paranoid claustrophobic atmosphere were influential on the American film noirs that would become low budget staples a few years after Le Corbeau was released. Hitchcock's films were lighter and more playful than Clouzot's to the point where Hitch can be seen as a cheerful cherub in comparison.

Clouzot's films used elements of the suspense, mystery, thriller, and film noir genres to create extremely tense and tumultuous situations. These situations were highly effective on their own. However, their purpose was to bring out as many qualities in the characters as possible, to present an analysis of the instincts and traits engrained in them and reveal the human attributes or more often flaws he believed to be innate. He often unearthed darkness that made his films scarier than most horrors because it wasn't just a defect in one psycho, it was a defect in us all.

Clouzot's attacks on humanity work - and get him in trouble - because they are so believable and hit so close to home. He doesn't revert to stereotypes and caricature, things that may garner a cheap laugh but ultimately make his film less intelligent and show him as someone that doesn't care about the material enough to understand the people he's taking potshots at. He doesn't use prototypical characters like Hitchcock did, instead creating less predictable all too human characters that are hypocritical and contradictory.

The suspense in Clouzot's films is generally generated from the relative absence of contrived or filmic qualities. While Hitchcock would provide the audience with information the characters themselves didn't possess - for instance the gas spill in The Birds - to get the audience chirping instructions at them, Clouzot simply created a corrosive atmosphere where you knew the humans would get themselves into much trouble. The thing is, you didn't know which wrong action or miscalculation would lead to their demise, so there was no relief. Certainly that was the case in his most successful suspense, Le Salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear) where the main characters could be blown up at the slightest bump because their job was transporting a truckload of nitroglycerine.

This absence of technique is also the reason his films like Le Corbeau and Les Diaboliques succeed so well as mysteries. The problem with so many mysteries is they work under the misconception that the entire purpose of the film is solving the puzzle. This seems to result in the plot becoming nothing more than a series of clues and red herrings, the score becoming a fire alarm to alert us that one of the aforementioned is about to happen, and in the worst entries some pretentious technique being employed that gives away the answer once we pick up on the trick. These all lead to the intelligent viewer being able to solve the mystery, and the end simply reassuring them of their brilliance. While the focus of two doctors in Le Corbeau becomes getting to the bottom of the mystery, the focus of the viewer is more toward why the town as a whole has eaten this all up and become so out of control. That Clouzot is not overly concerned with the outcome greatly enhances the impact of his highly detailed character study, illustrating that anyone could be behind the poison pen letters because the entire population is rotten.

Maybe not so oddly, Le Corbeau reminds me in some ways of Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vredens dag (Day of Wrath), an even greater film from the same year, also filmed during Nazi occupation. Both films are about increased paranoia in small towns. The primary target of the local intolerance is the outsider, the person the townspeople are most apt to believe shady things about because they don't understand them. A great deal of their success stems from their complex storytelling that not only makes every accusation plausible, but at times seems to stop just short of proving them. Corbeau is not as passionate or unresolving as Day of Wrath, but has much of that same ambiguity that frustrates you precisely because it doesn't close its possibilities. This allows you to determine what you want to believe, which can be pretty scary because you find yourself looking for evidence that the accusations are true. The big difference between the films is Dreyer shows the disease spreading through the town and afflicting even those who were or perhaps even still are good people struggling to act responsibly and virtuously. On the other hand, the misanthropic Clouzot shows the negative traits to be inherent and The Raven as simply someone who is stoking the fire, a fire that many like to see fed.

Though one can only guess the directors' exact intentions, both films can be seen as being about the awful results of helping the Nazis "purify" the land. However, the transcendent theme would have been as valuable in 1623 when Dreyer's film is set, and is at least as valuable today when every day the media is creating new "news" about each major potential court case (it's getting to the point where they will consider you qualified as a character witness if your mutt is the 6th cousin of the accused person's aunt's dog), and the district attorney is touring the talk show circuit like he's got a movie to promote. While Dreyer's film was seen as a great piece of resistance filmmaking, Clouzot's was denounced by the Nazis and the French. In order to keep working during the occupation years, the French filmmakers had to work under Nazi supervision, with Alfred Grevin running the cinema and having to answer to Josef Goebbels. This period from 1940 to the summer of 1944 is the subject of Bertrand Tavernier's latest film Laissez-passer (Safe Conduct), so if you are interested, or even if you aren't since it's Tavernier, you might as well check that out. Anyway, part of the resentment stems from Clouzot making the film for the German studio Continental. His prologue says "a small town, here or elsewhere" and his body of work would show that he's extremely generous when it comes to spreading his criticisms. This 1937 story by Louis Chavance was based on a real incident that happened in Tulle, France in 1917 that resulted in three suicides, so a small French town (he chose Saint Robin) was the obvious setting. Nonetheless, Continental shadily promoted it as portraying the "typical small French town". The Nazi supporters condemned the film for its immoral values, while their opponents castigated it as Nazi propaganda for painting a dark insidious portrait of the French. It was quickly pulled from the theatres by the Nazis, and after the liberation the newly formed Comite de liberation du cinema Francais brought Clouzot and Chavance up on charges of collaborating with Goebbels to make an anti-French movie. Though the "purifiers" never came to a clear verdict, Clouzot was banned from the French film industry for life, a sentence that was later reduced to two years.

Le Corbeau is the story of a town sent into a state of turmoil and soon trapped in a web of deceit and lies by character assassination. Corbeau means one who writes poison pen letters or crow. Technically raven is grand corbeau (big crow), but the film always translates Le Corbeau as The Raven so we'll run with it. One reason the writing by Chavance's and Clouzot (Clouzot came up as a screenwriter and reworked all the scripts that weren't his own) works so well is that it only starts out attacking the different person, the new physician in town Dr. Remy Germain (Pierre Fresnay). Remy is also an easy target for The Raven's letters because he is wealthier than perhaps anyone in town, and he's somewhat effete, detached, supercilious, and possibly surreptitious. The Raven's letters expose Germain as a lecher and abortionist who has blamed Marie Corbin (Helena Manson) for stealing morphine that he himself took, and makes a practice of screwing his patients.

Like any persecutor, once The Raven has the town in his grasp, no one is safe. The Raven writes, "Beware! I see all and will tell all" and his accusations are plausible enough because human nature is that you are guilty until proven innocent, and people are more than willing to let their imagination run wild. Clouzot shows this in small ways, like the teenage girl Rolande (Liliane Maigne) asking her older sister Denise (Ginette Leclerc, who gives the best and most diverse performance), "You think it's true? Those things…people are saying."

One of the main themes is the world degenerates because people can't mind their own business, and Clouzot knows how to play on our instinct to assume. We first get a scene where Remy's old colleague Dr. Vorzet's (Pierre Larquey) young wife Laura (Micheline Francey), who is or would like to have an affair with Remy, walks in on Remy supposedly treating the oversexed fatale Denise only to find them in a position that looks compromising. Later, there's a scene of Laura and Germain meeting at night that's playing on the same instinct to assume a love affair, except the sketchy details and absence of the third person puts Laura in the place Denise was previously, and us in the place Laura was previously. The scene is essentially turning the finger at the audience, trying to make them figure out that perhaps they should take a step back and think things over before accusing someone.

What's scary about the film is it not only becomes difficult not to believe the poison letters, it becomes hard to place all that much blame on The Raven. Every character has their selfish and dishonest antics. Denise fakes illness then when that doesn't work makes herself sick in order to get time alone with Dr. Germain. Rolande extorts money from adults under the premise of getting her out of a jam, and constantly spies on Dr. Germain. After Denise distracts Dr. Germain from his escape of watching the "innocent" children play, a letter Germain received from Le Corbeau blows off the windowsill into the playground. A little girl standing against a tree as punishment claims to not have seen it only to pull it out of her pocket as soon as he gives up his search, and begin to read it with a big grin on her face.

The Raven has several accomplices, those who could do something to prevent the poison from succeeding but are too selfish or indifferent to take a stand. A mob gathers at the hospital gate ready to break the gate down and claim their victim, but the gatekeeper doesn't try to break them up claiming, "I didn't mind the noise." The post office continues to deliver The Raven's letters simply because it's their policy to forward everything to the addressee regardless of circumstances. A politician complains, "We must give the impression we're taking action, or I fear the worst…I'll lose my seat on the Town Council."

Though not Clouzot's most accomplished film visually, Le Corbeau has one exceptional sequence where the suspected Raven, Marie Corbin, flees a mob of angry townspeople. With each edit, the camera alternates between two perspectives. When she's running from it, it seems to be watching her, chasing her. When she's running toward it her face is always obscured, in opposition to the high contrast black and white of the rest of the film, which has the look and feel of a film noir except most of it takes place in broad daylight. Finally, the noise of the mob becomes overwhelming and we get a close up of her running terrified. The camera isn't level during the running scenes, it is, well, rather twisted.

The other visual scenes involve the motif of a poison letter fluttering down into a crowd. They are quite ironic because there's a kind of beauty to the way the letter comes down so slowly and gracefully, swaying back and forth in the wind like a leaf falling off a tree. As everyone knows what it is, once it hits the ground, the fun is in seeing who can avoid the urge to pick it up and unleash the poison. The best of these scenes takes place in the church with the Priest declaring, "But God, in his infinite mercy, has turned away the scourge" only to have a letter float down from the gallery when he looks up to the heavens in praise.

After the town falsely persecutes Marie Corbin and The Raven resurfaces, Remy decides to take the investigation into his own hands. Normally, this would make Remy the hero, but it only accentuates the similarities between Remy and the now primary suspect Denise, who have both been altered and shaped in many ways by a previous trauma. Remy believes he's doing the right thing, absolutely, and that's all that matters. Clouzot takes this opportunity to have other characters confront him with his preconceptions. In the absence of facts, he relies on supposedly clever deductions for his proof, much like The Raven does for his accusations, and begins to look creepier by the minute.

The Raven may be the main caster of dispersion, but the film's message is there's no clear and absolute distinction between good and evil, right and wrong. It suggests The Raven merely gives people an excuse to bring their deep seeded hatred, mistrust, and resentment to the forefront. Cynicism and negativity certainly abound in Clouzot's work, but that seems to mainly be a result of him feeling it's the only way to get people to take an honest look at themselves. As Remy says, "This kind of crisis has a purpose. Like a convalescent after an illness, you come out stronger, more aware. It's horrible to admit, but evil is necessary."



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