Although it was beset by controversy, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau is one of the most fiercely brilliant works of French cinema. As noir as noir can get, it offers a vision of humanity as devastating as such masterpieces of misanthropic cinema as Erich von Stroheim’s Greed or Fritz Lang’s M. The film was made in 1943 during the occupation of France by the Germans, at a time when the French film industry, at least in the North, was under the control of the German company Continental. It was for Continental that Clouzot made Le Corbeau, which earned him the reputation of being a collaborator. Tellingly, Clouzot’s vitriolic attack on humanity managed to offend all sides, and while the French Left believed the film promoted a pro-Nazi view of a degenerate France, the Germans saw it as a direct criticism of their rule. At the end of the war Clouzot was tried by the newly reinstated French authorities and banned from making films until 1947.
The film was based on a real-life case of poison-pen letters that caused havoc in the sleepy town of Tulle in 1917. The script, written in 1937, took on a charged significance in the context of occupied France where thousands of anonymous letters denouncing acquaintances, relatives or neighbours for being Jews or Communists were sent to the authorities. In Clouzot’s film, set in an unidentified small town, the anonymous letters, signed ‘Le Corbeau’ (‘The Raven’), bring to the surface the vices simmering under the seemingly placid provincial life, revealing the greed, adultery and hypocrisy of its most respectable citizens. The morally rigid Dr Germain, newly arrived in town and harbouring a secret in his past, is the main victim of the letters, which bad-mouth his practice of medicine as well as his relationships with two women: Laura, the pretty, young wife of the jovial psychiatrist Dr Vorzet, and Denise, a vampy, crippled temptress. Laura’s sister, Marie Corbin, is a frustrated, embittered nurse, and soon it is on her that the suspicions fall.
Aside from Dr Germain, authority figures are the most obvious targets of the Raven’s vicious attacks. The letters reveal how the leaders of the town are weak, corrupt, petty and foolish. Preoccupied solely by their own positions, they are incapable of taking any decisive steps towards the capture of the Raven, much as the impotent, morally bankrupt Vichy Government could not ward off the Germans. As everything else in the film, the Raven’s letters are deeply ambiguous. On the one hand they are little more than cheap rumour mongering and unfounded defamation, upsetting the community and creating an atmosphere of hate and distrust. On the other hand they denounce the hypocrisy on which the town’s life is based, thereby subverting the authority of the town’s undeserving leaders.
But corruption is not restricted to the top and ordinary people are just as objectionable as their leaders. People spy on each other and read letters not addressed to them; a young girl devises an elaborate scam to obtain money from acquaintances; a woman uses the rumours about Dr Germain as a pretext to refuse to pay his bill; even a sweet-faced child steals a letter and lies about it. In Clouzot’s world no one is innocent. Worse still is what happens when these regular folks gather together: egged on by rumours, they suddenly turn into an angry mob ready to lynch one of their own – the nurse Marie Corbin. A sour, unpleasant woman, Marie Corbin is set up from the start to be the obvious fall guy. Clad in a black nurse’s uniform and veil she cuts a sinister, and very much raven-like figure. But as she flees down the deserted streets, pursued by the sounds of the baying mob, our sympathies are violently repositioned, and we now root for her pathetic, lonely, victimised figure. Just as in M‘s famous trial scene, the character targeted by the mob’s fury may be repulsive and even criminal, but the savagery of the mob, its frightening pack mentality and its Old Testament sense of justice, is what is shown to be truly disturbing.
The film’s preoccupation with good and evil is rendered visually by an elaborate play of light and shadows, even more markedly than in other film noirs. The characters’ shadows projected on the walls suggest unseen dark sides; shapes and patterns superimposed on their faces subtly modify their expressions, giving them an almost fantastic, sinister appearance. At the heart of the film is a particularly striking night-time scene in which the indulgent Dr Vorzet tries to demonstrate to the righteous Dr Germain that the boundaries between good and evil are not cast in stone by setting a light bulb in motion. As the light swings, painting grotesque shadows on the walls, with the faces of the two men alternately dark or lit, Dr Vorzet says to Dr Germain: ‘You think people are all good or bad. You think good is light and evil is dark. But where does each begin? Where’s the frontier? Do you know which side you’re on?’ And soon enough indeed we see Dr Germain trip every so slightly, as Dr Vorzet had predicted.
Although it is a very dark film, Le Corbeau is by no means dreary or dispiriting but exudes an extraordinary vitality. This is partly due to Dr Germain’s energetic, resolute efforts to stop the Raven; but it is even more strongly connected to Denise’s sensual love of life and to her total disregard for social rules and conventions. It is her free-spirited attitude and her strength of character, together with Dr Germain’s intransigence, that give the film its gutsiness. And while most of the characters remain beyond redemption, there is some progression for Dr Germain: having learnt to live with the past, there is hope for new love at the end of the film. This conclusion is, however, thoroughly unsentimental, and hope for the future is coupled with the acceptance of the brutality of life, the acceptance that for life to carry on, babies have to be born and mothers sometimes have to die.
On a personal level then, Le Corbeau ends on an almost positive note. But for mankind as a whole the prognostic is bleak. In an astonishing climax, someone is institutionalised, someone dies and a murderer walks free. There is no resolution here, as one crime ends with another. The last image of the film, the black, veiled, raven-like form of a widow walking down a sun-lit street as children play nearby, is a chilling reminder that there is simply no end to evil. Just like the dark figure of Marie Corbin earlier in the film, it tells us in no uncertain terms that every one of us could be the Raven – that every one of us has the capacity for evil. So while the venal authorities, the letters of denunciation, and the mob mentality clearly resonate with the malaise of occupied France, the film’s study of evil goes far beyond its historical context to paint a scathing portrait of a fundamentally corrupt humanity. Clouzot’s ferocious lucidity remains unequalled, and with its masterful technique, tight plotting and vigorous direction, Le Corbeau is not only Clouzot at his best, but also one of cinema’s greatest achievements.