Le Corbeau aka The Raven is a surprisingly vivid piece of film-making, a wonderfully cinematic dissection of a town torn apart by the poison-pen letters of 'The Raven.' The initial balance of power that maintains the status quo (A knows B's indiscretion, B knows A's, so neither can destroy the other without disgracing himself) is soon destroyed as the whole town learns each other's dirty linen, with suspicions, half-truths and outright lies soon lead to the town turning on each other in the search for a scapegoat. Tragedy, suicide and murder inevitably follow...
This, of course, was the film that earned Clouzot a lasting reputation as a collaborator - made for the infamous German Continental films, it was attacked by both the Nazis for discouraging the French from informing (their main source of information during the occupation) and the resistance for attacking the French moral character. Of the two, it's pretty obvious the Nazis were on the right track. Even though the Germans are conspicuous by their absence, it makes clear that the anonymous informer/s are undermining solidarity and making the town easy prey for predators (it is implicit in the film that the Raven is not the only poison-pen writer in the town as a veritable flock of Ravens emerge).
The suspense comes not from the Raven's identity, which is blindingly obvious in this era of double-endings but must have seemed groundbreaking at the time, but from what damage the Raven will do next. Blessed with a surprisingly unlikable hero and a frankness lacking in US and British films of the period - abortion and drug-addiction are discussed as readily as adultery and embezzlement - there is a somewhat awkward Catholic moral imposed at the end (the good doctor learns it is better to let a mother die in childbirth to save the child than vice versa because the future is more important than the past) but it's still refreshingly dark. The script establishes character, setting and guilty secrets with remarkable economy and the film is blessed with a great use of location and some visually impressive set pieces: the funeral where people step around a letter left by the Raven before a child picks it up or the huge church silenced by a single letter fluttering down from the gallery are particularly striking. It also has a biting black wit and an interesting discussion about the interdependent nature of good and evil.
A genuine masterpiece, and entertaining with it.
Quai des Orfevres takes too long getting going, with Clouzot so enamored of his back-stage milieu that he is almost in danger of forgetting the story. However, once it does, it's Clouzot at his best. Bertrand Blier (father of Bertrand Blier and co-star of his Buffet Froid) is the worldworn pianist who married beneath himself and who plans to kill the seedy studio mogul with designs on his wife only to find that someone has beaten him to it. Not only that, but his carefully planned but clumsily executed alibi falls to pieces, not least when a thief steals his car at the murder scene...
The film really kicks into life with the arrival of Luis Jouvet's police inspector, a rather wonderful creation half Alistair Sim in Green for Danger and half world-weary Maigret with better dialog. In a neat running gag, his investigation is constantly conducted at the top of his voice against chaos and noise, whether it be the noisy typewriters of the police station or a loud rehearsal. The police station itself is a wonderfully realistic creation, a wealth of chaotic and telling small details that makes Steve Bocchco's once revolutionary 80's US cop shows look like antiquated museum pieces by comparison.
If Suzy Delair is a rather unconvincing femme fatale, the supporting cast more than compensate, with the beautiful Simone Renant a standout as the lesbian photographer in love with her from afar and constantly mistaken for Blier's lover by Delair and other interested parties (only Jouvet, similarly unlucky with women, understands and genuinely sympathises). With great black and white photography by Armand Thirard, this is a terrific little thriller with a nice twist ending and a lovely scene with a cab driver reluctantly identifying Renant in a police station. (Trivia note: Pierre Larquey, who played the playfully philosophical Dr Vorzet in Le Corbeau, turns up in smaller roles as a cab-driver in both Quai and Les Espions.)
But pride of place has to go to Wages of Fear, one of the greatest suspense thrillers ever made. We can thank the Movie Gods that Jean Gabin didn't want to play a coward or else we'd never have had Charles Vanel's superb performance in Clouzot's edge-of-seater: it's notable that William Friedkin's intriguingly feverish but suspense-free remake Sorcerer didn't even attempt to give its equivalent deadbeat killer a similar arc, despite the fact that the character and his curious shifting relationship with Yves Montand cuts to the very core of the story's take on the nature of courage, bravado and machismo. At the beginning of the film Vanel is the tough guy who can walk the walk, while Montand is his puppy doggish sidekick, throwing over his best friend for his new crush until his feet of clay are revealed when the chips are down. Even in a place where, in the absence of white women the white men cling to each other, this relationship seems to go a few steps beyond mere hero-worship, but when they hit the road the power in the relationship shifts, and in the process we get to watch Yves Montand become a genuine movie star before our very eyes, which is almost as exciting as the road trip to Hell with a truckload of unstable nitro and miles of very, very bumpy roads. Almost, because I doubt there's anything to beat the film's extraordinary double-jeopardy sequence on a rotting platform on a mountain road - a scene pretty much done for real - which takes your breath away until you suddenly realize that the second truck is going to have to do the same thing in even worse conditions... I remember when I saw that at a revival house a couple of years ago I genuinely forgot to breathe during that sequence, and found myself doing the same even on DVD.
Sadly the subtitle translation is a bit too politically correct, dropping most of the obscenities and all of the racist language that's an important part of the hatred and self-loathing that drives the characters to risk everything for a chance for a ticket out of this backwater South American hellhole (amazingly recreated in the Carmargue in France because Montand refused to film in Fascist Spain). The shoot may have been jinxed by delays, accidents and colossal budget overruns, but damn, it was worth it.