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Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot in 1943 from a script that the director co-wrote with Louis Chavance, Le Corbeau (or The Raven in English), was quite controversial upon its release in France but has since been properly recognized as the excellent piece of challenging filmmaking that it is.
The story takes place in a French town dubbed "anywhere" in the movie. Hhere, someone identifying themselves only as 'Le Corbeau' is sending scathing letters to Doctor Remy Germain (Pierre Fresnay) of carrying out a clandestine affair with a woman named Laura Vorzet (Micheline Francey), the beautiful, and much younger, wife of one Doctor Michel Vorzet (Pierre Larquey), an aging psychiatrist. On top of that, the writer also accuses Germain of discretely conducting abortions, an act which is very much agains the law. From here, the letters spread, the writer sending them to anyone of any significance in town and exposing their secrets as well, and clearly intent on smearing their names. When once such letter finds its way to a patient at a local hospital telling him that he is dying of cancer, the man commits suicide.
Marie Corbin (Héléna Manson), Laura's sister, works as a nurse and is arrested under suspicion that she's been the one penning the missives that have caused so much trouble in town. After her arrest, however, more letters show up. Inspections ensue, and clues are gathered, with Michel Vorzet doing his best to use handwriting analysis techniques to try and out the writer.
The film got Clouzot into some hot water in his homeland as it was produced by German film production company Continental Films, formed just as German forces were occupying France. On top of that, certain news outlets read the film as portraying the French people in a negative light. This resulted in the director being banned from making films in France, though what was meant to be a misguided lifetime ban was listed in 1947. And rightly so. The movie, through the benefit of hindsight at least, would seem to be an allegorical damnation of those who would inform the German's as to resistance movements going on within France and the like, vilifying those who would opt to profit off of someone else's personal business. Given when the movie was made and the political climate surrounding it at the time, it's easy to understand why certain factions of the French movie going public as well as certain factions of the press and even the government might react to the film the way that they did, it was certainly a very tense and paranoid time to be living in France after all.
That said, the movie holds up very well. The acting is excellent across the board, with Pierre Fresnay doing an excellent job as Le Corbeau's initial target, with the rest of the cast doing fine work here as well. Pierre Larquey brings his character to life on the screen very effectively and both the beautiful Micheline Francey and Héléna Manson do great work here as well, they are quite believable as sisters in the movie.
Clouzot does a great job of building tension and suspense as the movie plays out. The film is paced effectively and very nicely shot, with the cinematography doing an excellent job of using interesting and creative camera angles as well as toying with light and shadow to make for a visually compelling production. The score is also very good, adding to the tension and drama inherent in the plot.
The Criterion Collection brings the film to Blu-ray framed at 1.37.1 in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition presentation taken from a new 4k scan and it looks excellent. There's barely any print damage here at all, just the odd small white speck now and again, and both detail and clarity are very strong across the board. Contrast is very strong, there are no issues with blooming or where anything looks too hot, and we get nice, deep blacks and clean whites with a nice greyscale here as well. Depth and texture are very strong as well, and there are no problems with any noise reduction, edge enhancement or compression related issues as the transfer always looks properly like film. Criterion has done an excellent job here, the movie looks fantastic.
The 24-bit LPCM Mono mix, which is in the film's native French and comes with optional English subtitles, is clean, clear and properly balanced. Both the film's evocative score and its use of sound effects and foley work both come through nicely and with good clarity and there are no issues with any hiss or distortion to note.
The extras are all carried over from the previous Criterion Collection DVD release, starting with a twenty-two minute archival interview with filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier. Recorded in 2002, this piece lets the man who directed Safe Passage talk about how Le Corbeau was received when first released, why it wasn't especially popular, censorship issues and more.
The disc also includes eight minutes of excerpts from The Story Of French Cinema By Those Who Made It: Grand Illusions 1939 To 1942 which is documentary made in 1975 that features director Henri-Georges Clouzot. Here the director himself speaks about the importance of building suspense and keeping an audience engaged as well as how the film was received in Germany.
Finishing up the extras on the disc are a trailer for the feature, menus and chapter selection options. Criterion also include an insert booklet containing some technical information on the movie as well as an essay by film scholar Alan Williams.
Le Corbeau remains a through provoking film, an excellent politically tinged thriller that benefits from some excellent performances and equally strong direction. The Blu-ray release from The Criterion Collection doesn't bring any new extras to the table but it does carry over everything over from the older DVD and provide a beautifully restored high definition upgrade for a very deserving film. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.