Thu 23 Jul 2015
by Walter Albert
Since I seem to be in a retrospective mood, I will recommend as the best thriller of my recent experience a French film you’re not likely to see at your neighborhood theater or on late-night TV. It’s Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (The Raven), financed by a German producing company and released in occupied France in 1943. Movie-goers whose memories go back to the fifties may remember the great success of two of Clouzot’s films on the art-house circuit, The Wages of Fear (1953) and Diaboliques (1955), the latter with its unforgettable body-in-the-bathtub scene.
Clouzot’s reputation had already been established in France with three films: The Murderer Lives at No. 21 (1942), based on a novel by Belgian writer André Steeman; Le Corbeau; and, one of my other favorites, Quai des Orfevres (1947), released in this country as Jenny Lamour and with a fine cast headed by Louis Jouvet, one of France’s legendary actor-directors.
Le Corbeau was originally conceived by writer Louis Chavance in 1937 (effectively taking care of the later charge that the film was written to put the French in the worst possible light) and was based on an incident involving the writing of poison-pen letters in Marseilles. In Clouzot’s film, the anecdote which serves as the basic narrative thread is only a pretext to allow him to film a pessimistic study of provincial life in which everyone is hiding something and is a likely suspect for the writer who signs himself as “le Corbeau.”
The initial letters expose a relationship between an idealistic doctor, Rémy Germain (played by Pierre Fresnay) and the wife of his respected elder colleague, psychiatrist Dr. Vorzet, but before the movie reaches its disturbing conclusion 850 letters have indicted what appears to be just about everybody of any importance in St. Robin.
Clouzot has been compared to Hitchcock in his ability to play skillfully on the spectators’ nerves, but Clouzot has none of the wit of the British filmmaker, and the town seems to be tainted by a slow rot that even the exposure of the identity of the Raven will not remove. (Shadow of a Doubt is closest in tone to Le Corbeau, but the basic goodness of at least some of Hitchcock’s characters does not become suspect.)
With his camera menacing every character’s movements, shadows mimic the black bird’s shape until, at the end, a veiled avenger, clothed in white, is costumed and photographed as a mocking parody of the bird of death.
Two sequences deserve special note: a funeral cortege for the victim of the poison-pen letters, with superbly detailed close-ups of the townspeople silently watching the procession as the mourners step over and around a letter that has fallen from the hearse; and the flight of the chief suspect down empty streets invaded by the threatening shouts of an unseen mob, growing in intensity until glass shatters in her room where she has taken refuge and forces her to rush out into the arms of waiting authorities.
And, in a scene which serves as a key to Clouzot’s intentions, the investigator-psychiatrist Vorzet uses a slowly swinging lamp to demonstrate to Dr. Germain our ambivalent demonic/angelic nature in a relentless alternating of light and shadow that is ironically descriptive of the director’s nightmare vision.
Georges Méliès (in Part One), Tod Browning (in Part Two), and now Henri-Georges Clouzot: their methods may differ and they are not similar stylistically, but they are all accomplished directors,who use the camera to deceive and mystify audiences. Welles may be the first and, perhaps, the best of film magicians, but this marvelous theater of illusions that is film has many rooms, and who knows what delightful or terrifying furnishings we shall find behind the next door we open?
LE CORBEAU. Continental Films/Films Sonores Tobis, France, 1943. Pierre Fresnay, Ginette Leclerc, Micheline Francey, Héléna Manson, Jeanne Fusier-Gir, Sylvie. Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot.