A buried treasure from France’s master of suspense returns to the Collection.
In 2010, a sizable chunk of the Criterion Collection went out of print due to expiring licensing agreements with StudioCanal, causing masterpieces by auteurs such as Robert Bresson, Jean Renoir, Marcel Carné, and Henri-Georges Clouzot to disappear from stateside shelves for over a decade. Once these licensing agreements were renewed, many of these films were resurrected and revitalized with restorations by StudioCanal and other cinema preservation organizations.
While some of these restorations, like Port of Shadows and Quai des Orfèvres, have found new homes at Kino Lorber in great packages of their own, films like The Tales of Hoffmann and now Le Corbeau have made triumphant returns back into print, featuring restorations that treat them with well-deserved reverence. For a film like Le Corbeau, a paranoid thriller preying on the infectious nature of mob mentality and secrets repressed by society at large, its reemergence couldn’t come at a more timely moment.
Le Corbeau is set in the small, provincial village of St. Robin, which Clouzot’s opening titles suggest could stand in for any town in France. Its citizens, ranging from Dr. Germain, an obstetrician new to the village (Pierre Fresnay) to the various patients under his charge, are terrorized by an epidemic of poison pen letters that threaten to expose each of their secrets. Their repressed vices and crimes range from banal domestic disputes to the extreme, and Dr. Germain in particular is accused of being the village abortionist. Suspicion and anxiety build as the villagers’s sharp tongues spread rumors about who is the persona writing the letters, the Raven—a tension that explodes as the Raven’s letters claim their first body counts. With the evidence stacking increasingly against him, Dr. Germain realizes that not only might a long-buried truth set him free, but it might be the key to exposing the Raven’s true identity.
While Clouzot’s other films like The Wages of Fear and Diabolique expose the noble highs and vicious lows of human behavior, Le Corbeau feels like a bleak, sinister distillation of Clouzot’s thematic fascinations with human corruption. The mistrust and malice that pervaded French society during the Vichy government are mirrored in the mid-war Le Corbeau; here, Clouzot reveals how suspicion and deceit can easily infect the best of us in a fable that doubles as both a venomous indictment and gallows-humor parody of life under Nazi occupation. In St. Robin, literally no one can be trusted, from kindly old doctors to children playing in the street, and investigations offer similarly little disparity between children and adults and their feeble, irrational methods of discerning fact from rumor.
As spectators eager to solve the mystery before Dr. Germain, the audience of Le Corbeau is asked by extension to participate in this illicit game of intrigue—and even by the film’s end, there are fragments of information that remain out of the good doctor’s reach that we’re forced to keep to ourselves. It’s a voyeuristic provocation that seems shockingly impossible to reckon with the circumstances of Le Corbeau’s production: The film was produced by Continental, essentially the French film industry extension of Joseph Goebbels’s Nazi Ministry of Propaganda. While on its surface, the film fits in with the culture of informing on one’s neighbors, it was reviled by the right for framing the practice as morally bankrupt, while the left condemned the film’s nihilistic outcome and the characters’s inability to stand up to moral injustice. Le Corbeau was banned after the liberation of France, with Clouzot’s career nearly ending as he was labeled as a possible collaborator due to his work with Continental. His future as a director was only saved after intervention by contemporaries such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Cocteau, some of whom praised Le Corbeau’s prescient indictment of the conspiratorial witch-hunting culture of blind justice.
Whether discouraging the practice of informing or revealing just how desperate folks may be to find someone to blame for irrational crimes, Clouzot’s film is viscerally uncomfortable in its nihilistic universality. It’s a mystery whose main thematic concerns aren’t only revealed in the unmasking of its central antagonist, but in the fact that such a mystery exists at all. A key scene in this regard is a dictation that involves the film’s whittled-down list of suspects—one whose purpose seems noble and crucial when it first appears, but on rewatches feels like a sinister cat-and-mouse game whose outcome is determined even before it begins.
This edition of Le Corbeau is a direct resurrection of Criterion’s initial release in 2004, with one major upgrade: a 4K restoration of the film conducted by StudioCanal and the Centre national du cinéma (CNC), accompanied by an updated subtitle translation that, along with a more expansive picture quality, reveals more cultural context to deepen the rich thematic undercurrents and bleak humor at the heart of Clouzot’s film.
Criterion presents Le Corbeau in 1080p HD in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, sourced from a 2017 4K restoration by StudioCanal, with support from the French CNC. Both the video and monaural audio were restored from the 35mm original camera negative, with additional restoration on the soundtrack conducted by Criterion for this release. English subtitles are presented for the feature, as well as any foreign-language sections of the Special Features.
The restoration provides a significant upgrade from Criterion’s OOP DVD release. Additional image information is available on the left and right sides of the picture, as evidenced in the above screenshot. While the previous release was serviceable as far as image quality goes, there are more noticeable instances of scratch and debris cleanup throughout the film. A large amount of preserved or re-applied grain retains the film’s soft, “halo” look during daylight scenes. In contrast, scenes in relative darkness manage to create distinct shadows amidst a wide palette of grays and blacks, preserving key details while undergoing the rigors of digital restoration.
The monaural soundtrack is intriguingly dense, especially during a funeral procession scene that aurally distinguishes between multiple overlapping sound sources like crowds, hoofbeats, fluttering paper, and more. While Criterion’s usual removal of hisses, clicks, and pops allows the film’s dialogue to come to the forefront, there is still a faint hiss in the audio inherent to the technology used during Le Corbeau’s production. The resulting overall soundscape is fittingly oppressive in its silence as well as during its sparse cacophonies.
- Bertrand Tavernier: This 2003 archival interview features the late French director and documentarian discussing the tumultuous production history, release, and suppression of Le Corbeau and the subsequent trial and blacklisting of Clouzot from the postwar French film industry, as well as an insightful dive into Le Corbeau’s hotly debated political subtext.
- Henri-Georges Clouzot: An excerpt from the 1975 French TV documentary The Story of French Cinema by Those Who Made It, featuring Clouzot and his contemporaries discussing the troubled environment of making films under the strict censorship and supervision of the Vichy government and the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda.
- Trailer for Le Corbeau’s initial French theatrical release.
- Booklet featuring a reprint of a 2003 essay on Le Corbeau’s production history and impact on the Noir genre that followed, written by French cinema historian Alan Williams.
Le Corbeau reappears exclusively on Blu-ray on September 20th courtesy of the Criterion Collection.