As the MFA's French film noir series winds down, we get The Raven, an interesting, if genre-fuzzy entry from Henri-Georges Clouzot. This isn't one of Clouzot's best-remembered films -- The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques will have to fight it out for that honor -- and in its best moments, The Raven plays more as black comedy than as film noir. Clouzot shot the piece in 1942, before the term was invented, so I suppose we shouldn't judge him too harshly for not living up to the genre's conventions.
Pierre Fresnay plays a youngish doctor in a small provincial town who becomes the object of a vicious smear campaign. Letters signed mysteriously by "Le Corbeau" (which translates as "The Raven") appear around town, accusing the doctor of, among other sins, being an abortionist. But just as the mean-spirited townsfolk are about to turn on the doctor, who has recently arrived from Grenoble (and therefore isn't really one of them), more letters appear, each accusing a different villager of his or her own crime: adultery, swindling, etc.
The effect is briefly comic -- though in 1942, with France ruled by Nazi collaborators, I doubt that many people were laughing at this mirror held up to a thoroughly corrupted society.
As the doctor makes his way through the town almost one person at a time, in search of the evil bird, the plot takes enough twists to keep you good and dizzy, though Clouzot has not yet found the fluid filmmaking style he'll later display in Wages of Fear. The result is at times stilted, rather than claustrophobic.
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The film is cleverly plotted, however, and the misanthropy of the director and his age are on full display by the story's end, when the doctor faces the town's two most sympathetic citizens and tries to decide which one to believe.
-- David Theis
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. Starring Pierre Fresnay. 82 minutes. Showing at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, February 19 at the Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet, 639-7530.