Poison pen letters plague a small French town in Le corbeau

French filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot is largely remembered today for his 1955 classic Les Diaboliques, a film so suspenseful and shocking that it has been compared to the best of Hitchcock ever since its release over 60 years ago. Indeed, it’s rumored that Hitchcock had tried to obtain the filmmaking rights to its source material – a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac – but was beaten to the punch by Clouzot by only a few hours.

Clouzot, however, was no one-trick pony: his previous feature, 1953’s Le salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear) was every bit the nailbiting equal of Les Diaboliques. Indeed, the Francophone master of suspense had been keeping Gallic audiences on the edge of their seats since the war years, when he had to contend with both German and Vichy French approbation while producing Le Corbeau (The Raven, screening at Pacific Film Archive at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 8 and at 5 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 9).

Shot during the occupation, Le corbeau‘s production created difficulties for Clouzot that would plague him for years to come. Vichy collaborators judged the film unfit for consumption; its depiction of small-minded provincial life was also considered beyond the pale by the Free French at a time when appeals for traditional patriotism were considered an essential part of the struggle to liberate the country from Nazi hegemony.

Le corbeau would leave Clouzot in the bad graces of his countrymen for several years – he wouldn’t make another film until 1947 – but, viewed from the distance of 75 years, it’s clearly neither pro-German nor anti-French propaganda. Though produced by a German company, Continental, the film should be considered general commentary on the foibles of human nature, and the questionable behavior of individuals in difficult times, rather than any endorsement of German superiority.

Clifton Webb-lookalike Pierre Fresnay (Rules of the Game) plays Germain, a doctor accused of being an abortionist by an anonymous poison pen letter signed by ‘The Raven’. Fresnay’s chilly personality and dislike of children don’t help him shake off the accusations – and then similar accusatory letters begin to arrive in other people’s mailboxes.

Is Laura (Micheline Francey), young trophy wife of hospital director M. Vorzel (Pierre Larquey), an adulteress? Is cheeky 14-year old postal clerk Rolande (Liliane Maigné) lifting valuables from the mail? Is nurse Marie (Héléna Manson) stealing morphine from the hospital pharmacy?

It’s quite possible that all – or none – of the accusations are true, and, as the plot develops, light begins to be cast on the foibles and secrets of each of The Raven’s victims. With no Motion Picture Production Code to police the film’s tone and characterizations, it’s apparent Clouzot believes no on is truly innocent, and his screenplay (co-written with Louis Chavance) maintains suspense to the end; a first-timer to Le corbeau is unlikely to discern the identity of The Raven until the final reel. Withal, this is one the best suspense films of the 1940s.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...