Micheline Francey, Pierre Fresnay, Ginette Leclerc, and Héléna Manson in Le corbeau (1943)


(director/writer: Henri-Georges Clouzot; screenwriter: Louis Chavance; cinematographer: Nicolas Hayer; editor: Marguerite Beaugé; music: Tony Aubin; cast: Pierre Fresnay (Dr. Rémy Germain), Ginette Leclerc (Denise Saillens), Micheline Francey (Laura Vorzet), Héléna Manson (Marie Corbin, l’infirmière), Noël Roquevert (School Director Saillens), Sylvie (Mother of cancer patient), Liliane Maigné (Rolande Saillens), Pierre Larquey (Dr. Vorzet), Roger Blin (François, hospital patient), Pierre Larquey (Dr. Michel Vorzet); Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: René Montis/Raoul Ploquin; The Criterion Collection; 1943-France-in French with English subtitles)
“It’s the kind of seriously offensive in-your-face psychological thriller that would make a hell of a double-feature with Dreyer’s Day of Wrath.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A brilliantly dark suspense film by Henri-Georges Clouzot (“The Wages of Fear”/”Quai des Orfèvres”/ “Diabolique”) made during WWII that acts as a misanthropic exposé of occupied France: it mocks all those in authority and every class is shown to be hypocrites, with the upper-class doctors coming off the worst. It looks and feels like film noir, though noir didn’t become discovered until post-WWII. It’s a deliriously downbeat film that emerges from the period of German occupation and is set in a mid-sized unnamed rural town in northern France.

Clouzot’s film has a sour look at provincial life, it exposes the nastiness, pettiness, back-biting gossip, paranoia and the self-loathing of the French town denizens that infuriated just about everyone in France. The director was criticized by the right-wing Vichy government, the left-wing Resistance movement and the Catholic Church. The young filmmaker (his second film) was banned from filmmaking for two years after the liberation for creating an anti-French Nazi propaganda film (it was made by a German company and he was said to be a collaborator), but the script was written by Louis Chavance six years previously. Fortunately, many French intellectuals championed the film, especially Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre, and the ban was lifted as it became recognized for the anti-Gestapo fable and anti-informant film it was and Clouzot’s rep as a filmmaker grew.

It concerns a mysterious writer of poison-pen letters, with an illogical agenda, who signs them as Le Corbeau (the Raven). Otto Preminger remade it as The Thirteenth Letter in 1951, but it was much inferior.

The anonymous writer starts out by attacking the reputation of the town’s capable doctor, Rémy Germain (Pierre Fresnay), accusing him of carrying out illegal abortions and dalliances with various married women, patients and especially with Laura Vorzet (Micheline Francey)–she’s the pretty young wife of the head of the psychiatry wing of the hospital, the elderly Dr. Vorzet (Pierre Larquey). Letters also are received by Marie Corbin (Héléna Manson), who works as a nurse in the infirmary and is accused of being a drug addict (in one very effective scene she’s chased through the dusty streets by an unseen but hostile screaming mob because they mistake her for the Raven); by the club-footed sexually free and alluring Denise (Ginette Leclerc) and her thieving postal clerk sister Rolande Saillens (Liliane Maigné); and by a patient in the hospital (Roger Blin) who is falsely told his condition is terminal and he commits suicide by razor blade.

It’s the kind of seriously offensive in-your-face psychological thriller that would make a hell of a double-feature with Dreyer’s Day of Wrath.