Le corbeau (1943)

If the French government had stuck to their original plan of banning Henri-Georges Clouzot for life after WW2, we would still be left with this one bracingly unpleasant bit of work by him (well, that and his actual debut feature from the year before). Le corbeau was made for the Nazi-owned Continental Films in occupied France, where censorship was bizarrely lighter than in the Vichy-run half of the country for some reason; this not insignificant detail caused the film to be banned later for being anti-French, and Clouzot himself was initially banned for life from directing again. However, both bans only lasted a couple of years and at this distance it’s much clearer what Clouzot was doing. Apparently Clouzot had been fired from working at actual German studios in the 1930s for having Jewish friends, and in Le corbeau he gives us a picture of life in occupied territory where you never know if someone’s going to rat on you for the people you associate with or the things you do, etc. This picture is neatly couched in a narrative that never actually mentions the war or anything like that, and which could of course just be viewed as a terrifically tense thriller about a small town collapsing under a poison-pen campaign based on an actual occurrence of same that happened in the 1920s; letters are being sent to many people in the town, mostly based on the activities of one person but exposing many more indiscretions by the other townsfolk. Indeed, I think that was something I wasn’t really prepared for, the way in which almost no one in the film is “innocent” as such; everyone’s doing something (of varying degrees of “badness”) they shouldn’t be. It’s a pretty bleak vision that Clouzot communicates, and it can just be read as a straightforward thriller. Viewed with the wartime production circumstances in mind, though, the film’s atmosphere of paranoia and bitterness (and ominous references to cleansing the town) takes on an even darker and nastier tone that I’m sure Clouzot fully intended.

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