The Nazis hated it. The Vichy government and Catholic church were none too keen, to say the very least, and the Resistance condemned it too. It was banned, its lead actors briefly imprisoned, and its director blacklisted for three years. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s brilliant Le Corbeau (1943) may not be quite as enshrined in the realm of ‘common film knowledge’ outside of its country of origin as later works like The Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur, 1953) and Les Diaboliques (1955), but it certainly occupies a unique space in film history, not only for the controversy it generated, but also as a prime exemplar of early French film noir and one of the most well known and evocative examples of Occupation-era cinema.
At that time, Nazi-controlled production company Continental Films was the only outfit authorised to operate in northern and western France, so for any committed filmmaker within those zones wanting to, say, eat, or enjoy such luxuries as gas and electricity, they were the only show in town. This wouldn’t stop certain quarters labelling Clouzot and others as ‘collaborators’, though, even if the most cursory examination of Le Corbeau reveals this not to be the case. Continental Films was founded by Joseph Goebbels, no less, and did business under the auspices of appointed Nazi Party member Alfred Greven. While the remit was to make escapist, non-challenging films for the subdued public of the zone occupée, the considerable ill-gotten resources of the Germans also meant that the films benefited from lavish budgets, and none but the very finest French actors and technicians were employed in their making.
Le Corbeau is a case in point, or perhaps the case in point, being as it is the most celebrated and hotly debated of all Occupation films. In a picturesque town dubbed by an on-screen caption as “A small town… anywhere” (soon revealed to be called ‘St. Robin’), daily life is disrupted by a veritable plague of poison pen letters, all by the same distinctive hand and signed ‘The Raven’. First to feel the sting of these is le docteur Rémy Germain (Pierre Fresnay, who’d also starred in Clouzot’s debut, The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (L’assassin habite… au 21, 1942), a relative newcomer to the town accused of being not only an abortionist, but also of having an illicit affair with Laura (Micheline Francey), wife of psychiatrist and pillar-of-the-community Dr. Vorzet (Pierre Larquey). Before long, the whole town is affected by these scandalous missives, including Vorzet himself and the rest of St. Robin’s ‘great and good’, and suspicion, fury, and mob rule become the order of the day.
So how has this relatively straightforward thriller narrative come to be interpreted both as a resistance and fascist text? Although loosely based on a real life incident in 1917, it clearly represents a condemnation of the widespread practice of letters of denunciation, where citizens anonymously reported their neighbours for real or maliciously invented anti-Nazi/communist acts or sentiments. Such letters were circulated by the millions during the Occupation period. This wasn’t lost on the Nazis, of course, who quickly withdrew the film after its initial massive box office success.
The character of Denise (Ginette Leclerc), with whom Germain enters into a caustic love affair, would also have been a severe sticking point with rabid adherents of Großdeutsches Reich philosophy. This glamorous but lazy ‘loose woman’ provides a counterpoint to the
more outwardly ‘respectable’ figure of Laura. More saliently, while she appears at first to be a mere malingerer, Germain soon discovers that she is in fact disabled (specifically with coxalgia), a fact obscured by her outward appearance and only made apparent when Clouzot’s camera and Germain’s eyes fix on a specially adapted shoe.
This ‘deformity’, although hidden, renders her an ‘undesirable’ in terms of the Aryan ideal, but the fact that she is desirable and has taken ownership of and conquered her disability to a degree, is at odds with that brutish doctrine. “When I have my shoes on I can walk like anybody else,” she proclaims triumphantly, adding that “It took me five years, but now I can have any man I want.” Of course, it still stands as a damning sign of those times that the latter stands as some pinnacle of female achievement, but that’s another argument completely. The psychiatrist Vorzet articulates fascist doctrine when he tells Germain that “Even a hidden deformity often leaves the seeds of venom”, with Denise hobbling down the stairs right on cue, but it will later transpire that Vorzet has his reasons to misdirect suspicion onto Denise in this way.
From the outset of the narrative, Germain himself is viewed with suspicion by some, due to the fact that, in a short space of time, he has attended three births where the child has died but the mother’s life has been saved. This adds fire to the smoke of The Raven’s ‘abortionist’ accusations, and it’s later revealed that his own wife died in childbirth. This, in addition to his affairs with Laura and Denise, flew in the face of Catholic and Vichy government family values, and is compounded when we find that the newly pregnant Denise has thrown herself down some stairs in an attempt to rid herself of what she believes will be a ‘deformed’ child. “A fine occasion to operate,” snipes a subsequent missive from The Raven. It perhaps goes without saying that the depiction of the church-going townspeople as small-minded, mean-spirited hypocrites to the very end wouldn’t have sat well with these powerful entities either, nor would the film’s representation of the town’s authority figures as petty, inept, and guided by pure self-interest.
However, while all this sounds commendably non-conformist and anti-fascistic from our twenty-first century vantage point, there were (and still are) certain factions who would condemn Le Corbeau as a right-wing narrative. The communist Resistance were certainly of that opinion, pointing to the representation of the common townspeople cited above as unpatriotic, displaying a low opinion of ordinary French citizens, particularly in a scene where they become a braying mob in pursuit of Marie Corbin (Héléna Manson), the sour-faced, matronly red herring whose name even echoes the film’s title. It was viewed equally as an acerbic attack on French corruption. The current writer would argue that the petty, self-serving, mean-spiritedness of humanity in general is more the focus of Clouzot and writer Louis Chavance’s ire here, while of course also having to concede that this is mere supposition. This aside, it was the mere fact that Clouzot, Fresnay, and Leclerc worked for Continental Film at all that would subsequently lead to them being blacklisted and serving short prison sentences for collaboration.
This and other works by Clouzot would suffer further indignities a short time later at the hands of the ‘Young Turks’ at Cahiers du cinéma, representing as they did la tradition de qualité that those writers railed so vehemently against, and as Godard, Truffaut, Rivette et al made the transition from critics to iconoclastic nouvelle vague filmmakers, Clouzot’s more conventional mode of storytelling would briefly fall out of favour. However, this is now seen to be more rooted in the French public’s understandable need to put the Occupation years behind them than in any purely stylistic concerns.
As the context of the film fades further into the past, so too do the political concerns surrounding it, and it’s much easier to see it now for what it is: a masterpiece of the form. We can appreciate its exquisite cinematography by Nicolas Hayer, its long shadows, Clouzot’s exhilarating camera movements, and the flawless performances from every single member of its cast. Today it is seen as the inaugural work on the road to Clouzot’s later lionization as the ‘French Hitchcock’. As scholar Ginette Vincendeau (to whom the current writer owes an enormous debt) has poetically put it, Le Corbeau stands as a “black jewel in the crown of French cinema”. It’s the first film one should turn to in any exploration of French film noir, and as such is not only of huge importance in the history of cinema but also key to any understanding of the oeuvre of this now legendary director.