Henri-Georges Clouzot's Le Corbeau, a grittily suspenseful noir de force from 1943, vigorously dramatizes a real scandal -- in 1917, a woman in central France harried her town with anonymous poison-pen letters -- and ultimately kicked up a real scandal of its own. Clouzot's film exposes a village's worth of shocking secrets, suggesting French life is rife with adultery, drug addiction and a generalized ambient horribleness. A sensation upon release, thanks to its frankness and consummate whodunnit twists, Le Corbeau also pissed off everyone, uniting the Vichy, the anti-Nazis and the Catholic Church. After the liberation, in 1944, it was judged so damning a portrait of the people of France that Clouzot was banned for life from making films. (The sentence soon was soon reduced to two years.)
Clouzot's thundering technique and the impassioned performances of his cast lift Le Corbeau's gossip to something scarifying. As the letters, each signed "Le Corbeau" ("The Raven") pile up around town, it's not just dirty laundry that's exposed -- it's the souls of almost everyone we meet. That includes the putative hero, Pierre Fresnay's Dr. Remy Germain, whose secrets are a jolt and whose investigation will result in at least one piercing injustice. Propulsive and unsettling, the film offers more tense scenes of envelope opening than a lifetime's worth of Oscar nights. Its apex might be the scene of existential horror involving a bare lightbulb swung on a string over a globe while two men discuss the nature of evil -- of lightness, darkness and the difference between. Clouzot is always as invested in the practical as the philosophical, so, offhandedly, one of the participants in this colloquy reaches out to still that bulb -- burning his fingers.