Le Corbeau (1943), directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot (The Wages of Fear, 1953), was actually based on a true case that occurred in the city of Tulle, France in 1917. It was there that Angele Laval tormented the local villagers with a series of malicious letters following a failed romance, resulting in three suicides. Certainly, scandalous rumors and their destructive effect (whether true or not) have been the subject of many films (These Three (1936) by Lillian Hellman and its 1961 remake, The Children's Hour to name just one example), but Le Corbeau may be the most sinister and relentlessly pessimistic treatment yet of this theme.
Conceived in controversy from the start, the movie was filmed in France during the German Occupation under the auspices of Continental, a distribution company run by Alfred Greven. At the time, many French directors, actors and technicians who were opposed to the Vichy regime and refused to work for the German-controlled Continental, fled to other countries for work. But Clouzot chose to remain and film Le Corbeau, which today is considered by many critics to be one of the few French film masterpieces to emerge from the World War II years. Its dark, misanthropic world view prefigures the "film noirs" Hollywood would produce in the years immediately following it. And there are several key suspense sequences here, ranking with the best of Alfred Hitchcock: the scene where the nurse, Marie Corbin (Helena Manson), flees to her home, hounded by an angry crowd; a sequence where an anonymous letter drifts down from the rafters of a church while the horrified congregation watch in disbelief.
While there is no denying the skillfulness of Clouzot's direction in creating such an intense psychological drama, French critics and moviegoers alike were outraged by the picture. According to author Remi Fournier Lanzoni in his critical study, French Cinema, "a large number of viewers were reluctant to praise the film, some because they had trouble categorizing it, while others were morally offended by it.Le Corbeau was indeed besieged from both sides of the political scene. The anti-Nazi activists and members of the Resistance considered Le Corbeau pro-Nazi propaganda and fiercely fought (in the clandestine press) against the screening of the film. To them, it exemplified a collaboration with and submission to the German authorities by portraying a gloomy image and the malicious character of French people...The right wing and Vichy supporters also demanded the film be banned for its immoral values."
As a result, Le Corbeau was banned from theatres in France and, after the war, Clouzot and the film's screenwriter, Louis Chavance, were accused by the newly formed Comite de liberation du cinema francais (CLCF) of deliberately making an anti-French movie, commissioned by Josef Goebbels. Despite the scandalous charges, the committee never passed a clear verdict on the film though Clouzot was given a lifetime suspension from the French film industry. The sentence was eventually reduced to two years and Clouzot was allowed to continue his career, making the much-admired crime drama, Quai des Orfevres/Jenny Lamour, in 1947. However, Le Corbeau remains one of his peak achievements. Renown film critic Peter Cowie wrote, "Suspense is not exploited for its own sake in Le Corbeau, but rather as a means of sociological analysis, and nearly a quarter of a century later still seems psychologically valid and disconcerting." In 1951, director Otto Preminger remade the film as The 13th Letter, starring Charles Boyer and Linda Darnell, but it failed to match the quality of the original.
Producer: Rene Montis, Raoul Ploquin
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Screenplay: Louis Chavance, Henri-Georges Clouzot
Cinematography: Nicholas Hayer
Film Editing: Marguerite Beauge
Art Direction: Andrej Andrejew
Music: Tony Aubin
Cast: Pierre Fresnay (Dr. Remy Germain), Ginette Leclerc (Denise Saillens), Micheline Francey (Laura Vorzet), Helena Manson (Marie Corbin), Jeanne Fusier-Gir (The Small-Wear Dealer), Sylvie (Francois' mother).
by Jeff Stafford