“Le Corbeau,” (“The Raven”), (1943),is a dark, black and white suspense film, a classic of French cinema, made by that master of the thriller Henri-Georges Clouzot, known worldwide for the two thrillers he made later, LES DIABOLIQUES, and WAGES OF FEAR. And, remarkably enough, it was made during the World War II German occupation of France, under the Vichy regime, when all French films were supposed to be light, dreamy and uplifting. THE RAVEN, a tight 91 minute crime drama/mystery, was anything but, controversial from its release. Some French hated it, considered it treasonous in wartime because of the bad light into which it threw the country’s bourgeoisie. But it also delivers a strong anti- informer message; so the right wing Vichy government hated it, too. Not because a single German was shown doing anything bad; there’s not a German to be seen in this film. But because the occupying Germans got most of their information from informants. A French provincial town, in the occupied sector, is driven into a frenzy of recrimination via a series of anonymous, cryptic and damning poison pen letters sent by “Le Corbeau,” “The Raven.” The suspicion and hard feelings hidden by the residents of the town, beneath the community's surface, are exposed, to the detriment of all. The Raven’s principal target is an aloof village doctor, le docteur Remy Germain, who is played by Pierre Fresnay, (CESAR, MARIUS) then a big French theatrical star. He is carrying on some joyless sexual affairs, one with the town schoo l master’s crippled, spinster, promiscuous sister, Denise Saillens, played by Ginette Leclerc; and one with Laura Vorzet, played by Micheline Francey, the beautiful, much younger wife of one of the town’s most prominent citizens, the psychiatrist Michel Vorzet (Pierre Larquay). And Germain will do abortions. The film also treats drug addiction in a matter of fact way, obviously making it a target of the religious Catholic, and the right wing. Residents of the village are unable to guess the identity of the Raven for the longest time, though current-day readers should have no trouble doing so; at one point the townsmen suspect Laura’s sister, Marie Corbin, a waspish hospital nurse, played by Helena Manson. The film boasts some remarkable, moody work with shadows throughout. And a few knockout suspenseful scenes: one of Nurse Corbin fleeing through the town as she attempts to evade arrest. And one of the funeral of one of the Raven’s victims, a suicide: the Raven has placed a letter in one of the floral arrangements, and no villager will pick it up, until a child finally does. And another of a letter floating down from the balcony during a mass, in which the priest has attacked the misdeeds of the townsfolk as exposed by the Raven. Once again, no one will touch the letter for the longest time: the congregants hardly breathe. However, I admit to some difficulty in following the film, perhaps because I was seeing something on the small screen that was meant for the large; perhaps because I am not a member of the contemporaneous French film- going audience, who might recognize the stars. At any rate, the film gives us four old women, when only one is needed, and countless town officials in suits, so that I could not recognize many characters: Clouzot must have given every unemployed French actor work. Mind you, I could recognize the principal four women and three men. But in this regard, the film is nothing like the director’s later works, DIABOLIQUE and WAGES OF FEAR, which have only a small number of principal characters and are easily followed. The director must have learned from his feedback as he went along. I also had great difficulty with the most potentially interesting of the special features, an interview with Bertrand Tavernier,( COUP DE TORCHON, D’ARTAGNAN’S DAUGHTER), a fine French director. Not only is he speaking heavily-French accented English; I also think he might have suffered a stroke prior to this interview. He was very hard to understand, and I couldn’t catch most of what he said: I wish there had been subtitles. However, I could make out the gist of Tavernier’s argument. After the war, Clouzot was considered a German collaborator, because he made this picture for a company called Continental Films that had German, as well as French money, involved. He was initially barred by the French government from ever making films again. However, such outstanding French cultural figures as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir wrote in his defense, pointing out his important anti- informer message in wartime. The suspension was eventually made for only two years, enabling Clouzot to give us his great later films. Well, I did have some difficulty with this film, but it’s worth a look as one of the director’s influential early works, with his characteristic misanthropy, and wit, and a focus on the interdependency of good and evil.
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