The Criterion Collection presents
Le Corbeau (The Raven) (1943)
"I received a poison-pen letter. You realize I have to avoid you now."- Laura Vorzet (Micheline Francey)
Stars: Pierre Fresnay, Ginette Leclerc, Micheline Francey, Pierre Larquey
Other Stars: Héléne Manson, Lilano Maigné, Noël Roquevert, Sylvie
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Manufacturer: Laser Pacific
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (suicide, abortions)
Run Time: 01h:31m:21s
Release Date: 2004-02-17
DVD ReviewDuring the Nazi occupation of France from 1940-1944, there was a concerted effort by Goebbels and his propaganda machine to keep the populace under control with the old Roman method of bread and circuses. The Continental Films studio was set up to produce light mysteries and comedies as a way of keeping the French amused and more pliable. Such was the atmosphere in which noted director Henri-Georges Clouzot got his start. But far from being the light mystery that the studio authorized, this, Clouzot's second film, was an incredibly subversive attack on the corruption of private life that had taken place under the first three years of Nazi rule.
In the town of Saint-Roman, Dr. Remy Germain (Pierre Fresnay) is a doctor at the local hospital. He's in a romantic triangle with Laura Vorzet (Micheline Froney), wife of one of the older doctors, Michel Vorzet (Pierre Larquey). Germain is also being pursued by Denise Saillens (Ginette Leclerc). Laura's sister, Nurse Marie Corbin (Héléne Manson) strongly disapproves, especially after she finds a draft letter to Laura in Germain's pocket. But she may not be the only disapproving party, as the principals begin to receive letters full of salacious details about each others' hidden secrets, all signed "Le Corbeau". Before long, The Raven widens his or her net, and soon the entire populace is in an uproar of paranoia, suspicion, and madness.
Clouzot would later be well-known for his suspenseful direction of films such as Diabolique and The Wages of Fear, but he already shows a mastery of the form here. Even though little action happens onscreen, the anonymous letters and the townspeople's varied reactions, supported by the visuals and sound design, generate a good deal of drama and riveting suspense. The central mystery (loosely based on a true occurrence in 1922) is intriguing, and the multiple layers of secrets that are hidden by the central characters (and by extension, nearly everyone in the town) provide a reminder that everyone lives in glass houses, yet the temptation to throw stones is overwhelming. The havoc created by Le Corbeau is magnified as multiple persons begin writing Le Corbeau letters and turning everyone against each other. This was of course a thinly-disguised (but apparently successfully disguised) comment on the demands of the Nazis that the French inform upon each other, and the destructive consequences that follow. The film is surprisingly timely, with the American attorney general suggesting that a similar campaign of informants become a way of life, where an anonymous tip can destroy reputations, careers and even lives.
The cast is excellent, with Fresnay making an appealing lead but one who clearly has much of his own to hide. Particularly interesting is young Liliano Maigné as the teen postal girl Rolande Saillens, who gets caught in the web of Le Corbeau. Héléne Manson makes for a good foil, with a sneering superiority that makes her a central figure of suspicion and a convenient scapegoat. Fresnay's love interests make for an interesting contrast, with the beautiful but somewhat unstable Laura compared to the available but deformed Denise.
The visuals are intriguing, with masterful use of light and shadow. At times an innocent gesture on a staircase throws a huge, menacing shadow; at others a swinging bare light bulb echoes the shifting perceptions of guilt and innocence in Saint-Roman. A funeral procession that passes through a street comes across a letter from Le Corbeau lying on the ground, and as the crowd parts around it, the camera takes the POV of the letter itself, shunned as a pariah but nonetheless attracting the curious looks of its observers.
Clouzot uses an interesting sound design here to increase the unease of the audience. The first sound after the main theme is a chilling creak that suggests opening a door to a room that has long remained in hidden darkness. The taunts of children become overwhelming, as do those of the townspeople after Le Corbeau forces a suicide. Any, or all of them could be Le Corbeau, and Clouzot seems to be suggesting that indeed at heart any of us could be.
This was both an understanding and condemning look at the collaboration, but the second part of the equation was completely missed by the French authorities after the war, and Clouzot was blacklisted for years. The ambiguity is echoed in the conclusion; even after Le Corbeau is revealed, one has the distinct impression that the mystery may not be solved after all, and even if it is, can the genie be put back into the bottle? The parting shot of a woman in widow's weeds walking away from the camera suggests not.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+
|Aspect Ratio||1.33:1 - Full Frame|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: The full-frame image is very grainy; flicker is prominent as well. There are also a few minor frame jumps. Detail is generally decently represented (with some extreme closeups looking quite nice), but shadow detail is generally quite plugged up. Very little frame damage is present, however.
Image Transfer Grade: B-
Audio Transfer Review: Unfortunately, the audio track is a bit of a mess. Hiss and noise are quite prominent, getting worse during dialogue segments and reflecting an attempt at noise reduction. However, by the same token the processing of the sound has badly distorted much of the background dialogue and foley effects. These now have a strange metallic quality to them, frequently sounding as if they're underwater. At other times a sound that I can only describe as a high-frequency metallic slithering is frequently audible in the background, and I found it highly disturbing. I suppose it's possible that this is part of the unusual sound design, but it has an electronic quality that makes me doubt that and I'm thus not inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt.
Audio Transfer Grade: D
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 23 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Layers Switch: 01h:31m:21s
Extras Review: In addition to a blurry, scratchy, and crackly trailer, Criterion provides some interesting featurettes. A 2002 interview with Bernard Tavernier (in English) discusses the political subtext of the film, its historical context, and the resultant controversy. This is quite interesting and worth checking out. An eight-minute excerpt from the 1975 collection of interviews, The Story of French Cinema by Those Who Made It, provides further background, but it's less incisive than Tavernier's comments. Three essays in the companion book (including one that considers it as a proto-film noir) contain some additional background information. The last two of these, dating from 1947, give the pro- and anti-Corbeau sentiment among critics of the time, allowing the modern viewer an insight into the controversy that might otherwise be difficult to understand at this distant remove. While one can certainly understand the resentment against Clouzot for working in collaboration for Continental, his film was a powerful statement against the occupying forces, and their desire to set the French against one another. Had it been set in Germany, as one essayist suggests, it would never have been made at all. But Clouzot clearly is not attacking the French, as such, themselves; he's making a universal statement about the appeal of such cruelty and viciousness behind a comfortable mask of anonymity that could apply as well to the Russians under Stalin and the Germans under Hitler.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsA piercing and riveting psychological drama in the guise of a mystery, this film is a neglected masterpiece that is certainly welcome on DVD. There are some issues with the transfer, particularly the audio, but there are some useful extras without the overwhelming quantity that has become the vogue of late.
Mark Zimmer 2004-02-15