Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Le Corbeau (France, 1943)

An early film by an early master of suspense often referred to as "the French Hitchcock," which actually does the man disservice for Hitchcock seldom made films as dark and pessimistic as those of Henri-Georges Clouzot; likewise, as good as Hitchcock's films can be, they often seem much more contrived. But then, being a European filmmaker Clouzot's films tended to be much more direct than any American films could be at the time, not suffering the shackling limitations imposed by the Hay's Office. (Hitchcock may have been from England, but most of his later films were made in the US and definitely felt as if they were.)
Not the most productive filmmaker, Clouzot died at the age of 70 in Paris in 1977 with roughly 13+ directorial credits to his name, but at least three films other than this one are considered classics —
the dullest of which is probably Le Mystère Picasso /The Mystery of Picasso (1956), an art house favorite that panders too much to the artist. Much more entertaining are Le Salaire de la peur/Wages of Fear (1953), which was remade by William Friedkin as Sorcerer in 1977, and, most famous, the original and highly influential Les Diaboliques/Diabolique (1955), which has since suffered two pointless remakes, most recently being Jeremiah Chechik's 1996 mistake (complete with a happy ending) starring Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani. (Actually, Le Corbeau has also been remade once — in Canada by Otto Preminger in 1951 as The 13th Letter — but the film is relatively hard to find, although it is said to be effective.)
Le Corbeau is probably Clouzot's first true masterpiece, but of them all it is also the one least screened or seen, perhaps due to its less than auspicious roots. As film historian John McCarty puts it, Clouzot obviously tended to believe that "money didn't stink even if...politics did."
Thus, during the German occupation of France, unlike most French filmmakers of note Clouzot had no qualms about working for the Continental Film Company, a front operation financed by the Nazis. Once the Nazis lost the war and left, Le Corbeau was banned for having defamed the French people and both Clouzot and his co-scriptwriter Louis Chavance were forbidden to make any more films.
Unlike Germany's equally talented but unrepentant and unapologetic Leni Reifenstahl, Clouzot was apparently forgiven by 1947 and returned to filmmaking (probably unrepentant and unapologetic). It is a bit interesting to note that however unlikable most of the characters are in Le Corbeau, the concept of war is amazingly lacking considering when the film was made — not so much as a single soldier in uniform or reference to the situation of the time is to be found in the film... but then, the film does take place (as is pointed out by a title card at the film's beginning) in "a small town... anywhere."
Supposedly loosely based on true events that occurred in the 1920s in Tulle (Corrèze, France), Le Corbeau opens under the glaring sun of St. Pierre, a village located in some ass-backwards rural area of France where a group of old cronies dressed in the black garb of the region stand waiting outside a impoverished looking house, from which the movie's nominal hero Dr. Remy Germain (Pierre Fresnay) exits to wash his bloody hands. Did he or did he not just do an abortion? The only thing for sure is that he claims to have saved the mother. The old ladies titter meanly to some slanderous remark as he leaves. Is he an abortionist? Is he having an affair with Laura Vorzet (Micheline Francey)? The first poison pen letters distributed from the Crow are aimed directly to destroy the reputation of the doctor, but before long virtually every person in the town gets one or suffers the after-effects of some such evil epistle. The anger, suspicion and fear in the town continues to rise, and once Francois (Roger Blin), the tubercular husband of the woman whose "abortion" opens the film, commits suicide upon receiving a letter, the focus of the town's feelings becomes the hospital's dislikable and unpleasant nurse Marie (Héléna Manson). Her arrest does nothing to stop Le Corbeau, her innocence proven when an odious letters floats slowly down from the rafters of the church while she sits in jail. In the hope of getting the Crow to end his evil game by destroying his initial target, the town heads even decide at one point to attempt to set up Dr. Germain to agree to do an illegal abortion and thus be open to arrest, but their plan fails. In the meantime, Dr. Germain has impregnated the limping Denise Saillens (Ginette Leclerc), who may or may not be the writer of the letters — letters that are slowly but surely destroying the town. Germain's paranoia mounts, his suspicions both at time supported and at times tempered by his boss Dr. Michel Vorzet (Pierre Larquey), a specialist in the field of mental illness and the aged husband of the young Laura Vorzet....
Le Corbeau is an engrossing and suspenseful film shot with much verve and style, its harsh black-and-white photography complementing its bitter, disturbing story. Many of the scenes are stunning in their effectiveness, as when Marie runs through the streets chased by the murmuring cries of an angry crowd, how the people all walk around and avoid a poison pen letter that has fallen from the funeral hearse of Francois, or how form of Francois' mother as she walks down the dirt street at the end of the film becomes that of a crow.
A film such as Le Corbeau would never had been able to make in the US at the time it was made — aside from the abortion aspect, Le Corbeau includes extramarital sex, pregnancy, drug use, suicide and blood. There are some flaws to be found in the film, of course, but they hardly make a lasting impression due to the talented direction and overall suspenseful nature of the film. Still, the true identity of the crow is a bit too obvious even if there is no real evidence pointing to him. Likewise, even with a helper, 800+ hand-printed letters is an unbelievable amount. Lastly, when Dr. Germain finds the body of the real crow with his neck slit (by Francois' mother), he also finds the latest letter the crow had been writing, a letter that the crow had no reason to write, seeing that it would have actually cleared the name of the very person he wanted (and had) institutionalized as being Le Corbeau.

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