Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (1943) is a textbook classic of film—a textbook classic that I have deliberately avoided seeing for years. I didn’t doubt its probable merit. I merely doubted it was a movie I would enjoy. And as it turns out, it’s not a film I can say I enjoyed, but it’s not a film that’s meant to be enjoyed. It’s a dark and suspenseful film (well, it is Clouzot) that serves as an anti-Gestapo, anti-informant work that simultaneously managed to anger the government, the leftists, the rightists, the Nazis and the Catholic Church—an accomplishment of some note, but one that’s easy to understand in light of its bleak pessimism in its exposé of hypocrisy.
It’s almost amusing to note—in light of petitions that have circulated to try to ban Uwe Boll from making any more movies—that the French government apparently did try to ban Clouzot from ever making another film. This nonsense later turned into a two-year ban. Whether it was actually ever enforced is open to question, but it was four years later that Clouzot finally made another movie. The question is whether or not the film is likely to seem as upsetting and offensive today. Probably not. Aspects of its plot—concerning the main character’s past and the revelation of who the villain of the piece is—are a little too movie-like to make it seem entirely real. All the same, it’s pretty strong stuff
The story centers on a number of poison-pen letters—signed “Le Corbeau” (which is French for “raven” or “crow”)—which start plaguing a medium-sized French town. Most of these center on Dr. Remy Germain (Pierre Fresnay) and most contain some element of truth. Germain himself isn’t exactly the most likable of characters, though the film affords glimmers of humanity (notice how he doesn’t find the entertainment value his colleagues do in the prospect of viewing a leg with gangrene) and a sense of humor. But as the film progresses, it transpires that nearly the entire town is filled with people who are petty-minded, self-important, mean-spirited and certainly hypocritical. Le Corbeau has, in fact, constructed the letters so that the victims hold each other in check with potential revelations.
The situation leads to suspicion, near lynching and general chaos. The film itself records it all with a certain stylishness and a degree of ironic detachment. But it also very shrewdly is designed to work as a mystery thriller—complete with red herrings—and it undeniably holds the viewer’s interest throughout with the mystery. On that level alone, it’s a compelling work.