If you’re a filmmaker in German-occupied France, what do you do? The first option is to give up and find a career that wouldn’t be interfered with as much as the movie industry. But for Henri-Georges Clouzot and many other filmmakers, giving up on the artform was not an option. So there was a bit of a conundrum: either try and cobble the money together to attempt to make a movie independently – very difficult in a studio system – or turn to the Germans for funding. So Clouzot did just that, and the most famous product was The Raven, or Le Corbeau.
Ice-cold doctor Remy Germain (Pierre Fresnay) is probably handing illegal abortions to pregnant women, and having two simultaneous affairs, one with his superior’s young wife Laura (Micheline Frencay) and another with beautiful and disabled Denise (Ginette Leclerc). But in the small town where he lives and works, people start receiving poison-pen letters from someone named ‘Le Corbeau.’ Soon the whole town becomes a boiling pot of suspicion, lies, deceit and ill-tempered bickering, while Germain becomes increasingly determined to find the one who calls themselves the Raven.
If we focus on the movie itself, then it’s clear that this is a good prototype for film-noir: shady characters, femme fatales and suspicions and shadows everywhere you look. The only thing you don’t get is lingering close-ups and star charisma. These people are filmed by Clouzot in an almost fly-on-the-wall manner, a typically French style of cinematography that lets the actors move around and breathe instead of being statuettes. In many ways this makes the film more real, bridging the gap between the poetic realism of the 30s and the noir of the late 40s and 50s.
But unlike in noir, our hero isn’t someone drawn in by devious women. Germain knows what he’s doing, and the secrets that are revealed about him are not shocking and can barely rouse any sympathy from the viewer. He’s a man who is tortured, but hard to warm to, making the film more difficult to watch: one sympathetic character would help to alleviate the veil of impending doom that clings to every wall in every room. The shadows start to seem more looming and the fatalism never goes away, even when someone is imprisoned for being Le Corbeau. It does, however, keep you guessing: as a mystery it is quite intriguing and the answer to who Le Corbeau is never reveals itself properly until the denouement. My guess seemed to be heading in a good direction, but then I was a bit disappointed to learn that my investigative skills were a bit lacking. I won’t be becoming a private detective anytime soon.
The theme of suspicion, though, is what really drives this film. The question of who Le Corbeau is really doesn’t matter in the end and it barely mattered at the time. When it was released in France in 1943, Le Corbeau was given hideous reviews, with critics calling it a hateful and spiteful piece of cinema that could only spark unrest amongst small communities. They much preferred glossy productions that showed France to be a massive community of people working in secret to rally against the Germans.
But there’s two potential reasons why Le Corbeau doesn’t play the game: firstly, this is a movie distributed by Continental. Continental were funded by the Germans and, let’s face it, would they really release a film that criticised the occupation? Personally, I think the opening statement of “a small town… anywhere” is a good indication of the general geographical differences in France at the time. The provinces, as we are supposed to guess Le Corbeau is set in, were a world away from Paris and its cosmopolitan feel – at the time it was described as ‘Paris and the surrounding desert.’ Maybe this is why the critics didn’t get the whole idea of suspicion surrounding the film: it was easier to be impersonal in the capital city, communities tend not to be so close in larger connobations. But, in a small town, as it is often made clear in the film, everyone knows everyone else. They might not know all of their business, but as Clouzot makes hauntingly clear, lives can be ruined by lies and spiteful people. The provincial nature of the film makes the claustrophobia and sense of disquiet all the more intense.
Le Corbeau may have been slated at the time of its release, but it is perhaps one of the few films that thoroughly reveals the tension and unease people had to live with during the occupation. It has stood the test of time more than the rallying calls that the critics loved, though Clouzot and some of the other crew were banned from filming after France’s liberation, a sign of how tough decisions like joining German-led Continental had a huge impact on the face of French film to come (the emergent cinema du papa that Francois Truffaut would famously attack in Cahiers du Cinema). It is uncomfortable viewing, especially when considering what was happening at the time, but it is still wonderfully crafted and acted. Just don’t be expect to be uplifted by the end.