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The Raven (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1943)


    Henri-Georges Clouzot, generally regarded as France’s master of suspense, delivers a transfixing tale of a small town’s incestuous suspicions with The Raven (Le Corbeau). In the film, trouble starts brewing as a series of accusatory, almost omnipotent poison pen letters surface, each mysteriously signed by “The Raven”. Before long, the hysteria caused by the anonymous letters sparks a witch hunt. Copycat letters spring up as malice begets more malice and quick social ostracism faces anyone who appears to have been the least bit involved in their writing. Along the way, the script offers up numerous red herrings, and even though it becomes predictable before it reveals its final twists, Clouzot thankfully rejiggers the movie along the way so that it’s not a whodunit so much as a “who’s gonna get it?”. Because the script sometimes takes a facile approach to characterization (e.g. the good girl / bad girl dichotomy is reversed all too predictably), it doesn’t really pack that much power as an indictment of humankind’s inherent fallibility, but it’s an entertaining, albeit cynical, story nonetheless.


    Photographed so that it appears to be shadowy even during scenes that take place in broad daylight, The Raven visually reflects the dark inner recesses that drive its characters to spread their ill wills. With canted camera angles, broken mirrors and a proto-noir style, the film not only preaches a pessimistic attitude that nullifies simplistic morality by assuming we all posses some strain of evil, but also makes that idea literal. Even if the movie is more efficient than superb, one has to admit that it’s awfully efficient, with a minimal number of subplots getting in the way of its single-minded attack on the town’s rapid moral corrosion. It’s precisely because Clouzot has a clear didactic intent here that his film isn’t more effective as a thriller. He aims for and achieves an unambiguous message, but in doing so takes a small toll on the story that he’s telling. If one does consider the film to be an allegory that condemns France’s Nazi occupation, at least there’s some added perversity to be found in the ways the movie demonstrates the corruptibility of those in power. One doesn’t need to take such an approach to enjoy The Raven, however. It’s so deftly made, superbly acted and relentlessly bitter that it manages to condemn repression, hypocrisy and those eager to be judgmental on a universal level.




Jeremy Heilman