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Early French noir debuts on Blu 4 Stars

Best known today for The Wages of Fear (1953) and Diabolique (1955), director Henri-Georges Clouzot began his career as a screenwriter before a bout with tuberculosis put him on the shelf – and in a Swiss sanitorium – for five years. After his health recovered, he resumed his career and – using the time bedridden from tuberculosis to improve his screenwriting skills – became a director with his debut feature The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (1942). For his follow-up feature, he looked to the recent pre-WWII past with Le Corbeau (The Raven). Criterion has previously released the film on DVD but has given it a Blu-ray upgrade.

Le Corbeau (1943)
Released: 28 Sep 1943
Rated: Not Rated
Runtime: 92 min
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery
Cast: Pierre Fresnay, Ginette Leclerc, Micheline Francey
Writer(s): Louis Chavance, Henri-Georges Clouzot
Plot: A French village doctor becomes the target of poison-pen letters sent to village leaders, accusing him of affairs and practicing abortion.
IMDB rating: 7.8
MetaScore: N/A

Disc Information
Studio: Other
Distributed By: Criterion Collection
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Audio: French 1.0 PCM (Mono)
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 31 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: Clear keep case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Region: A
Release Date: 09/20/2022
MSRP: $39.99

The Production: 4.5/5

In a small provincial village in the French countryside, the tranquility is shattered when poison pen letters signed by an anonymous writer called Le Corbeau (“The Raven”) start turning up. First, the letters accuse Dr. Rémy Germain (Pierre Fresnay) of performing illegal abortions and having an affair with the wife of his colleague, psychologist Dr. Michel Vorzet (Pierre Larquey). However, when more poison pen letters turn up – including one memorably dropped in the church from the gallery – accusing other villagers of various character flaws, the atmosphere becomes one charged with hostility and suspicion. But it’s when a cancer patient takes his own life – due one of the Raven’s letters – that the true identity of the Raven is revealed in a surprising twist.

A proto noir in French cinema, Le Corbeau endured a troublesome afterlife due to the circumstances it was created in. Meant to be a commentary on the effects of the German occupation, the story had its roots in a real life incident of poison pen letters in the southwestern French village of Tulle in 1917; director Henri-Georges Clouzot adapted the Louis Chavance script that was written shortly after the incident but took years to produce. When it was released in theaters, the ruling Vichy government, the Catholic Church and the French resistance all expressed outrage over the film for differing reasons and after the end of WWII in 1945, Clouzot – along with several fellow directors who worked with the German controlled Continental Films during the war – was effectively banned from directing for life; however, figures like existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and fellow filmmaker Jean Cocteau saw value in the movie and Clouzot’s exile was ended – after protests – in 1947. As for the film itself, it benefits from the striking camerawork of Nicolas Hayer, Clouzot’s taut direction and solid performances from the cast in bringing the story to life. In short, Le Corbeau is not only one of the important building blocks in French noir, but also a cornerstone in the career of a brilliant filmmaker, which was nearly ended due to a misunderstanding – and differing interpretations – behind the content of the film itself; it also found its way into American noir, as it was remade by 20th Century Fox as The 13th Letter (1951), under the direction of Otto Preminger.

As the initial target of the poison pen letters, Pierre Fresnay brings a coolness to the part of Dr. Germain; in France, he’s best known for playing Marius in Marcel Pagnol’s Marseilles film trilogy, while he’s best known to international audiences today for appearing in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Pierre Larquey, playing the psychiatrist involved with trying to figure out the identity of The Raven, is a fine counterpoint to Fresnay performance wise; this was the second of five times Larquey would work with Clouzot. Ginette Leclerc – best known as the titular Baker’s Wife in Pagnol’s film from 1938 – is a cool beauty playing the bedridden Denise while Micheline Francey acquits herself well as Dr. Vorzet’s beautiful wife, first suspected of having an affair with Remy, then of being The Raven. Rounding out the cast are Héléna Manson as the infirmary nurse caught up in the suspicion, Roger Blin as the cancer patient François, Pierre Bertin as the village sub-prefect, Liliane Maigné as Denise’s younger sister Rolande, Noël Roquevert as the school director, Palmyre Levasseur as the magistrate, Antoine Balpêtré and Louis Seigner as fellow doctors and colleagues of Remy and Michel, Marcel Delaître as the village preacher and Sylvie as the mother of François, who factors prominently in the final twist at the end.

 

Video: 5/5

3D Rating: NA

The film is presented in its original 1:37:1 aspect ratio, taken from a 4K restoration of the 35mm camera negative done by Studiocanal. Film grain, gray scale and fine details appear to be faithfully represented with minimal cases of nicks, scratches, tears and dirt present. This release bests the previous Criterion DVD release and is probably the best the movie will ever look on home video.

Audio: 5/5

The original French mono soundtrack is presented on a PCM track for this release. Dialogue, sound mix and Tony Aubin’s music score are all presented faithfully with clarity and minimal cases of hissing, clicking, popping, crackling and distortion present. Again, this Criterion Blu-ray release bests the previous DVD release and is likely the best the movie will ever sound on home video.

Special Features: 3/5

2002 interview with filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier (21:35) – Carried over from the 2003 Criterion DVD, the director talks about the film’s political subtext and why it was misunderstood and maligned during initial release and for several years.

Excerpts from the 1975 documentary The Story of French Cinema by Those Who Made It: Grand Illusions 1939-1942 (7:56) – These excerpts cover the era in which French cinema was under occupation during WWII; Henri-Georges Clouzot is among several filmmakers from the period interviewed.

Theatrical Trailer (3:12)

Foldout feat. an essay by film scholar Alan Williams

Overall: 4/5

While it was reviled for different reasons upon initial release, Le Corbeau has been reappraised over the years and is now considered a crucial work in the career of Henri-Georges Clouzot as well as one the key movies in the development of French noir. Criterion has done a solid re-release of the movie with a sterling HD transfer and carrying over the special features from the previous DVD. Highly recommended and absolutely worth upgrading from said DVD.

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