July 6, 2013

The Raven (1943)
Grade: 73/100

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Stars: Pierre Fresnay, Ginette Leclerc, Micheline Francey

What it's about. This movie has nothing to do with the Edgar Allen Poe poem, or the various films inspired by that 19th century effort. Instead, the movie is loosely based on a real-life incident involving anonymous "poisoned pen" letters that occurred in the small French village of Tulle circa 1920.

The film stars Pierre Fresnay as Germain, a grim 40ish doctor engaged in on and off affairs with two women. They are Denise (Ginette Leclerc), a willful layabout who limps unless she is wearing prosthetic shoes; and Laura (Micheline Francey), the comely wife of aged psychiatrist Vorzet (Pierre Larquey).

Supporting characters include Rolande (Liliane Maigné), a 14-year-old girl and postal embezzler who nurses a crush on Germain; Marie Corbin (Héléna Manson), a nurse who steals morphine intended for hospital patients to satisfy the addiction of the hospital administrator, Vorzet; François (Roger Blin), a hospital patient with terminal cancer; and François' 50ish mother, Sylvie, who is devoted to her son.

Lives in the small village are sent into turmoil by an anonymous writer who signs his letters as The Raven. These malicious letters contain a mix of truth and slander, and as they are received by everyone in town, set the villagers at odds with each other. The one person they hate and fear the most, however, is The Raven.

Germain is especially targeted by The Raven, and he considers leaving town to escape the storm. The most serious charge leveled against him is that he performs illegal abortions to save the reputations of the mothers.

A letter from The Raven to François informing him of his true condition causes him to commit suicide. The public funeral and mourning provides an excuse to imprison the person suspected of being The Raven, friendless Marie Corbin. But the letters continue, and in turn, Denise, Laura, and Vorzet are suspected. Meanwhile, François's mother has vowed to murder The Raven when his or her identify is revealed.

How others will see it. The Raven was filmed during the World War II German occupation of France, and produced by a German production company, Continental Films. As a result, its French director, Henri-Georges Clouzot, was blacklisted as a German collaborator for several years after the war.

Eventually, however, art triumphed over politics, and Clouzot was able to make the two films he is best known for today, Diabolique and The Wages of Fear. Both of those films were remade in America, as was The Raven, though the latter was retitled as The 13th Letter to avoid confusion with the Edgar Allen Poe work.

Today, the reputation of Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907-1977) has survived any Nazi collaborations, and he is widely regarded as among France's best directors. Though not his best known work, and despite its contemporary spurning, The Raven has a respectable 4831 user votes at imdb.com. The user rating is 8.0 among men under 45, though women of that age group give it a moderately lower 7.5. Women over 45 mostly dislike the film: 214 or 314 voters of that demographic grade the film a highly uncharitable 1 out of 10.

Women over 45 is an independent demographic. They don't care how well the film or its director is regarded. They do know that the leading man (Germain) is unromantic and chilly despite his affairs. The leading woman, Denise, appears to have no vocation, pretends to be sick, and brags of her sexual conquests. Laura is cheating on her husband, and young Rolande is a thief and beggar. If you are looking for heroines, you won't find them here.

How I felt about it. Some advocates of the film look for an allegory of the Nazi occupation within the plot. No such allegory is present. There aren't even any foreign characters. In its day, the film was also accused of being unpatriotic. After all, the French are depicted as murderers, addicts, liars, thieves, and adulterers. But of course, the setting could be any small village. If Clouzot is misanthropic, perhaps he has reason to be, given the Nazi occupation and the collaboration of many with the Nazis, including to some degree by himself.

Evaluating the film from a strictly technical perspective, there are moments we like. The funeral procession shunning the latest poison letter. What good can it do? Dr. Vorzet swinging the light bulb to illustrate the volatile mix of good (light) and bad (dark) within the human soul. And the bouncing ball of Rolande, who uses it as a prop to make her true agenda, spying, appear less obvious. What she learns may be useful for small-scale blackmail.