Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1943 film Le Corbeau (or, The Raven) is one that has not reached its proper place in cinema history yet. Clouzot is better known for his later film Diabolique (1955), but Le Corbeau, made under the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, is possibly a greater picture. Its plot and themes can be applied to almost any time period, and remain highly relevant to contemporary culture. The film is about a town taken over by distrust and fear brought on by anonymous letters containing inflammatory information that is sometimes true, sometimes false. 

Released three years later after the liberation of France, Julien Duvivier’s Panique (1946) covers similar territory. The protagonist is framed for a crime he did not commit, and his neighbors are galvanized into violent outrage against him. Righteousness prevails over truth, and otherwise mild-mannered citizens melt down into an angry mob. 

Le Corbeau and Panique are important films for a variety of reasons. They are both good examples of French film noir–ironically, this is a French term that is far more often used to describe American movies. Like most films noirs, they both show the clear influence of German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s with heavy shadows and boldly bleak scenarios. They are not horror films, although they show how the human experience can be absolutely horrifying. These films reflect the awful climate of war torn France, showing how living around and under fascism has the potential to lower us all into a state of social hysteria. 

Although it has an impressive ensemble cast, Le Corbeau focuses on Dr Rémy Germain (Pierre Fresnay), a man with a mysterious past that includes work as an abortionist (a crime punishable by death in France at the time). He begins a sexual relationship with Denise (Ginette Leclerc), a randy hypochondriac, but around the same time, Rémy is accused via poison pen letter of having an affair with Laura (Micheline Francey), the wife of the clever, aging psychiatrist Michel Vorzet (Pierre Larquey). Other characters of note are the nurse Marie (Héléna Manson), sister of Laura, and Rolande (Liliane Maigné) a devious teenaged girl. They are all involved in the reception or delivery of inflammatory letters–signed “The Raven”–which bring the town into complete chaos when a bed-ridden hospital patient commits suicide after receiving a false letter stating his disease is terminal. Throughout the film, the letters are sent to opposing characters in a tactical manner, meant to divide and create suspicion between friends, colleagues, and family members. Although one of these characters is revealed to be the titular Raven in the end, others end up writing harassing or deceitful letters by the conclusion.

Michel Simon as Hire in Duvivier’s Panique (1946)

While Le Corbeau is somewhat like a giallo in that there is a mystery, and at the end an antagonist is revealed, Panique uses a different structure. A woman is murdered on the grounds of a travelling carnival, and by a third of the way through the film, the killer is revealed to be Alfred (Max Dalban), a petty criminal into get-rich-quick schemes. His masochistic girlfriend Alice (Viviane Romance) is recently released from prison and they reunite, making big plans for the future. Meanwhile one of their neighbors, an odd, singular man named Monsieur Hire (Michel Simon) lurks around, taking photographs, peeping through windows, and generally acting as if separate from the rest of the townspeople. His past is slowly revealed, as well as his double life as Dr Varga, an astrologist. Alfred and Alice slowly start implying that Hire is the murderer and planting evidence suggesting this, until everyone is against him and out for blood, regardless of whether these claims are true.    

Hysteria is quite a loaded term and should not be used lightly. Clearly, this article is not using it in regard to gendered issues, although the word was originally created as a medical term to control women. More generally, mass hysteria describes the infectious nature of misinformation spreading among people who are insecure, afraid, and in need of a sense of belonging. Quite often the scapegoats are people who are perceived to be different from the greater population. Monsieur Hire in Panique is a unique fellow and careless about social mores, the type of man who never says hello when he walks by, as is pointed out by a peripheral character. He is also a flawed person who partakes in invasive acts like voyeurism, and even lies in wait for Alice one night as she arrives back at her apartment building. Yet, these actions are nowhere near as serious as murder, and do not warrant the angry mob who is out to get him in the climactic scenes. 

Many townsfolk are just looking for an excuse to lash out against Hire regardless of whether the man deserves it. The butcher conflates Hire’s preference for particularly bloody meat with murder, and even tries to bribe a young girl, with a veal cutlet no less, into saying Hire tried to be alone with her. He does not care whether the crime is true, as long as he can use the accusation against Hire. As things heat up, a small group of men gather to “serve justice” as they say, encouraging random citizens to join them. One man, Monsieur Brochu joins in, saying “I’ve got nothing better to do.” The moment is played for humor, but shows just how easily manipulatable people are, regardless of the situation or their beliefs, all in service to fitting in and becoming one of the mob. Film critic James Quandt describes “Panique as an admonition about neighborly fascism that exploited the immediate postwar aura in France of guilt, recombination, and distrust.” These emotions are not necessarily motivated by political concerns, but interpersonal feelings like pride, which can lead to disdain for others and cruelty. 

Pierre Larquey as Dr Vorzet in Le Corbeau

The production of Le Corbeau has a curious history, having been produced by Continental, a German production company making French films during the occupation. Panique has themes about fascism, while Le Corbeau is a film literally made under fascism. Clouzot and his film both traffic in an immense ambivalence, and factually speaking he did collaborate with the Nazis. After the war ended he was banned from making films in France, but this lasted only three years, until he was allowed to work in the industry again. The ease with which the French film industry forgot his checkered past can be seen as an example of how the capitalist society growing out of the war so easily accepted fascist collaborators back into it. 

Upon its release Le Corbeau was disliked by critics on the left and the right, each side vainly believing that the story of dishonesty and corruption was a comment on themselves. The film can be seen as representing the hollowness and ruthlessness of French bourgeois society, as well as the absolute nihilism and brutality of the Nazis. Either way it shows how a culture under the strain of fascism soon leads to slander, delusions, and violence. 

Le Corbeau and Panique bring to mind other films with similar themes, from around the time that they were made, and titles released more recently. In 1943, American producers had mob violence in mind when making The Ox-bow Incident, a tremendous western about men accused of cattle rustling and murder who must face angry and vengeful citizens, with no hope of receiving a fair trial. 

Over a decade earlier, Fritz Lang’s noir precursor M was released, right around when Nazis were coming to power in Germany. Of course, the angry mob rallying against Peter Lorre’s child murderer have legitimate justification for their outrage–but should a kangaroo court led by criminals by the one to exact justice? In her book on M, Samm Deighan does an excellent job of describing how mass hysteria leading up to the Nazi takeover has similarities to actions in the film.

The carnival atmosphere of Panique shows up again a few years later in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951), also released under the name The Big Carnival incidentally. The film is a brilliant example of how crooked and devious media outlets have the power to galvanize people into caring about situations in exaggerated ways. The immense power of big media outlets and the massive responsibility they should have to present fair and accurate news cannot be stressed enough in proto-fascist times. A raucous carnival is the perfect metaphor for a crowd of people looking for camaraderie and fun, even if going about getting it in an illusory or absolutely delusional manner.

Le Corbeau

There is a certain amorality to Le Corbeau and Panique that is refreshing when watching them today. Neither of the films are pedantic, allowing the audience to take in the action and make their own conclusions. Rémy and Hire are characters that exist in a space between virtue and vice. As a doctor and abortionist, Rémy helps people, although there is always the risk of people dying in his care. He is extremely self-absorbed and unpleasant, yet he fights to have the mystery of The Raven revealed for the sake of everyone. Hire is an admittedly creepy voyeur, and shows disdain for those around him, although this is a reaction to how he has been treated. At one point he says, “People never liked me. Not even my parents.” Yet, he is also a person who values dignity, and stands up for the underdog. The complexity of these characters, and the films’ unwillingness to hand the audience easy answers lays the groundwork for an unusually bleak sense of justice at the films’ conclusions. 

Le Corbeau and Panique end in violence, but leave bittersweet specks of hope that justice can be served in small ways. Rémy finds the character at the root of the town’s problems with his throat slit, and then sees the mother of the suicide victim spectrally walking away in the distance. The figure is hauntingly similar to the mirror-faced being in Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, released only a couple of years earlier. Had Clouzot seen that film or is this just a coincidence? We may never know. Either way, the grieving mother has served justice, but will she really ever be at peace or able to move on?

Viviane Romance and Max Dalban in Panique

In Panique, Hire falls to his death, but then a police inspector finds his photographic evidence revealing Alfred as the carnival murderer. His camera bears witness from beyond the grave, and we know Alfred’s time as a free person is numbered. Yet the last we see of him, he and Alice are on a merry-go-round, suggesting that as long as this vicious circle keeps turning, he can stave off his inevitable judgment. This merry-go-round of death is fuelled by fascist hysteria, and it is very difficult to slow it down once it has begun.