Poison pen letters

Despite directing two of the greatest films ever made – Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la peur) and Diabolique – the films of Henri-Georges Clouzot are under the radar even for completist cineastes.

Clouzot’s 1943 Le Corbeau (The Raven) works like a who-done-it although it’s not about murder so much as a poison pen letter thriller.

Over the course of the narrative hundred of envelopes are mailed in a small town that chiefly target a local doctor among others. The missives, all written in capital letters, suggest the doctor practices free love and abortion. In that order.

The letters are being written by one of the many characters we meet. The doctor attends his clinic that includes terminal patients while also interacting with townspeople with various maladies, all of who are instant suspects.

Just like the best kind of detective story you start to guess who the vituperative author could possibly be among all the characters we meet in the first half of the film. (I was convinced I had figured the suspect out only to be proved wrong during the final reveal.) Clouzot certainly displays his feel for atmosphere and vision of theme that later defines his best films.

The film was remade by Otto Preminger in 1951 as The 13th Letter. Both Wages of Fear and Diabolique have also been remade as Hollywood productions.

Here’s the kicker. Le Corbeau was produced by a company that was complying outside the dictates of the provisional government of war torn France.

At one point Clouzot, post-WWII, was banned from making films in France for life. Le Corbeau was deemed anti-something-or-other and Clouzot was cancelled. Fortunately this rash judgement was lifted.

Le Corbeau stars Pierre Fresnay, a major screen actor of the time, and perhaps best known to domestic audiences from La Grande Illusion.

Le Corbeau unwinds on Thursday, September 29 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in a 4K digital print at the museum’s Lynn Wyatt Theater.


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