Even the children in Henri-Georges Clouzot's Le Corbeau (The Raven) are sneaky and malicious. No doubt they reflect their upbringing in the stifling French village of St. Robin, where a series of poison-pen letters signed The Raven has galvanized the populace into a spree of spying, whispering and finger-pointing. Most of the letters accuse an aloof doctor (Pierre Fresnay) of occupying illicit beds and of performing illegal operations relieving women of burdens they're unwilling to bear.
The accusations aren't entirely fanciful Fresnay has cheerless affairs going with the young wife (Micheline Francey) of a sententious, much older doctor (Pierre Larquey) and with the town pump (Ginette Leclerc), a smoldering seductress who's both lame and a hypochondriac. But the evil epistles disgorge more than enough malice to go around, alluding to dirty little secrets that touch just about everybody in this Gallic Peyton Place.
When one of the letters causes the suicide of a young man dying of liver cancer, another slips out of a wreath on his casket during his funeral procession, and yet another flutters from the rafters of the church during the requiem mass. The search for the anonymous writer reaches the point of hysteria what else does the unseen assassin know, and who will be the next victim? Alone among the townsfolk, the mother (Sylvie) of the suicide seems resigned and resolute....
Clouzot has been called the French Hitchcock, but when Le Corbeau hit the screens in 1943 released by a German production company during the Nazi occupation of France he wasn't welcomed as warmly as the mischievous but harmless cherub across the Atlantic. its mordantly unflattering portrait of the French bourgeoisie was shunned as little short of treasonous. To be sure, Le Corbeau, like most of Clouzot's work (Diabolique, The Wages of Fear) seems to take Shakespeare's misanthropic Timon of Athens as inspiration for its outlook on humanity; it's certainly no tourist brochure for the French provinces.
When Otto Preminger remade the movie in 1951 as The 13th Letter (setting it in the Province of Québec, and starring Michael Rennie, Linda Darnell, Charles Boyer and Constance Smith), he had to pull back from the nastier material the routine, glum adultery, the rumors of abortions and apply rosier tints to the characters. None of that sentimental nonsense for Clouzot, who unrepentantly hewed to his malevolent vision right to the bitter end.