Henri-Georges Clouzot’s grittily suspenseful The Wages of Fear (1953) and Les Diaboliques (1955) remain perennial hits on the revival scene. New 4K restorations from Rialto Pictures serve as a sparkling — at times harrowing — reminder that Clouzot’s films from the 1940s exhibit much of the mastery and nastiness of those later triumphs.
The first of the noir de forces to get the corner-brightening digital treatment, 1943’s Le Corbeau vigorously dramatizes a real scandal — in 1917, a woman in central France harried her town with anonymous poison-pen letters — and ultimately kicked up a real scandal of its own. Clouzot’s film exposes a village’s worth of shocking secrets, suggesting French life is rife with adultery, drug addiction and a generalized ambient horribleness. A sensation upon release, thanks to its frankness and consummate whodunit twists, Le Corbeau also pissed off everyone, uniting the Vichy, the anti-Nazis and the Catholic Church. After the liberation, in 1944, the film was judged so damning a portrait of the people of France that Clouzot was banned for life from making films — a sentence that, with the prevailing of cooler heads, soon was reduced to just two years.
Clouzot’s thundering technique and the impassioned performances of his cast lift Le Corbeau’s gossip to something scarifying. As the letters, each signed “Le Corbeau” (“the raven”) pile up around town, it’s not just dirty laundry that’s exposed — it’s the souls of almost everyone we meet. That includes the putative hero, Pierre Fresnay’s Dr. Remy Germain, whose secrets are a jolt and whose investigation will result in at least one piercing injustice.
Propulsive and unsettling, the film offers more tense scenes of envelope-opening than a lifetime’s worth of Oscar nights. Its apex might be the scene of existential horror involving a bare light bulb swung on a string over a globe while two men discuss the nature of evil — of lightness and darkness and the difference between. Clouzot, of course, is always as invested in the practical as the philosophical, so, offhandedly, not really thinking about it, one of the participants in this colloquy reaches out to still that bulb — burning his fingers.
Le Corbeau finds its citizens terrified not just of having their secrets revealed but also of being known as informers — of cooperating with the police. That’s certainly an understandable concern for a film made during the Nazi occupation. But for all its rich bleakness, Le Corbeau also offers dizzy comic riffs on the conventions of detective films. “In the balcony there were 18 people whom I’ve asked to come here,” a detective figure announces, having rounded up half the town.
The director would go further in his second film to get the 4K treatment, 1947’s sprightly post-ban entertainment Quai des Orfevres, also at times making a burlesque of genre convention: Savor the lineup of local blondes the police arranges for the inspection of a cab driver who drove a suspect across town on the night of a murder. As the camera pans their mugs, each smiles or sniffs or glances at us, right into the lens, a phalanx of Busby Berkeley showgirls allowed individuation. Some seem to be asking, “What are you looking at?” and the question still stings and accuses all these decades later.