|Poison-pen letter from “The Raven”|
We are first introduced to “a small town, here or elsewhere…” where Dr. Germain is finishing a house call to save a mother, but abort the child she is carrying. The doctor returns to the hospital and we are introduced to the nurse Marie Corbin, Laura Vorzet, and the patient in bed 13. Germain is seeing Laura despite disapproval from her sister Marie. He is also seeing a woman named Denise who fakes illness to get house calls. Soon poison-pen letters begin to arrive around town signed by “The Raven”. The letters reveal secrets and make accusations about the townspeople and Germain in particular. Suspicion about who is writing the letters swings from person to person and puts innocent Marie Corbin behind bars. We are toyed with one suspect after another until finally the culprit is caught…sort of.
Director Henri-Georges Clouzot was sort of a French Hitchcock and would go onto create such suspense classics as The Wages Of Fear (1953) and Diabolique (1955). With Le Corbeau he created the murky world of film noir in the French provinces, which were under Nazi occupation at the time of filming. My three favorite scenes that showcase the noir aspects of the film are the funeral procession and subsequent arrest of Marie Corbin, the schoolroom inquisition, and the swinging light bulb conversation.
After the patient in bed 13 receives a letter telling him just how bad his condition really is, he slits his throat with a razor blade. His funeral procession starts down the street led by the carriage carrying his casket followed by his mother and the rest of the mourners. A wreath is at the back of the carriage and beneath it is something white that falls to the ground.
Another poison-pen letter has arrived and is walked over by the mother in black, but everyone else parts around it like it was deadly to the touch. We see this part mostly through low angle shots as if we are the letter watching and judging the procession. When Marie stops in front of it, she briefly becomes the center of attention before continuing on. The letter is addressed to “The Townsfolk” and isn’t picked up until a group of children arrive only to have the letter snatched away from them.
|Marie Corbin Stops To Look At The Letter|
At the funeral, the letter is passed around and soon the crowd turns on Marie Corbin since she was his nurse and provided the wreath. She is able to escape the crowd and we watch her run in fear down empty streets chased only by voices of the angry townspeople and framed by a tilted camera.
She arrives at home to find it trashed and “To Prison” written on her wall. They are breaking her windows when she tries to flee, only to be greeted at her door by two tall men who lead her away by the shoulders. She goes to prison, where we never hear from her again.
Things cool down after the arrest of Marie Corbin, but come back dramatically during mass when a new letter falls from the ceiling of the church. They round up people in a schoolroom who could be The Raven and force them to write out all the previous letters as dictated to them by Michel Vorzet who, along with Germain, have become the unofficial investigators. The idea is that the culprit will reveal their true handwriting through exhaustion and thus, implicate themselves. One man says, “There are honest people here who don’t deserve such cheap police methods”, but he receives a chilling response from Germain who says, “honest people should do their part to stop the guilty.”
As the slanderous letters are read, we pass over the suspects like a teacher looks down on students they assume are cheating. There is a certain perverse pleasure obtained by watching these people forced to listen to such dirty things and write them out like school children.
Darkness settles outside the school and the proctors gather around Denise who is clearly having trouble going on. Michel looks on from one side and Germain from the other, while another man twirls a chain like a policeman twirls a nightstick. As the words continue, a watch is wound and a desk is repeatedly tapped. The tension eventually overwhelms her and she collapses, but she isn’t guilty. Despite the inquisition, The Raven has still eluded capture.
What ensues afterwards is a conversation that you would expect between a hero and a monster, an Agent Starling and Hannibal Lecter. Germain goes to talk with Michel who explains that both good and bad can exist side by side in the same person. He refers to good as light and evil as dark while he takes hold of the bulb on a wire above him and sets it in motion to let the light come and go across their faces.
Germain has the bright idea to stop the bulb, but finds that it burns his hand. A person can’t keep in the light at all times and neither can Michel, Germain, or the rest of the townsfolk.
The film never provides a light without a dark and the ending will feel like bitter justice. But that’s what you want in film noir, so I recommend it.