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For its last two weeks of screenings before closing for two months for renovations, Film Forum offers a sublimely poisoned feast: new 4K restorations of early thrillers from Henri-Georges Clouzot, whose suspenseful The Wages of Fear (1953) and Les Diaboliques (1955) remain perennial hits on the revival scene. Clouzot’s films from the Forties exhibit much of the mastery and nastiness of those later triumphs.
Chronologically the first of the two noir de forces, but the second to play in Film Forum’s mini-celebration, 1943’s Le Corbeau (premiering April 20) 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 everyone off, uniting the Vichy, the anti-Nazis, and the Catholic Church. After the liberation, in 1944, the film was judged so damning a portrait of the people of France that Clouzot was banned for life from making films — a sentence that, with the prevailing of cooler heads, was soon reduced to just 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, including the putative hero, Pierre Fresnay’s Dr. Rémy 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 light bulb swung on a string over a globe while two men discuss the nature of evil — of lightness and darkness and the difference between. Clouzot, of course, is always as invested in the practical as the philosophical, so, offhandedly, not really thinking about it, one of the participants in this colloquy reaches out to still that bulb — and burns his fingers.
Le Corbeau finds its citizens terrified not just of having their secrets revealed but also of being known as informers — of cooperating with the police. That’s certainly an understandable concern for a film made during the Nazi occupation. But for all its rich bleakness, Le Corbeau also offers dizzy comic riffs on the conventions of detective films. “In the balcony there were eighteen people whom I’ve asked to come here,” a detective figure announces, having rounded up half the town.
This week’s Clouzot, the sprightly entertainment Quai des Orfèvres (1947), also at times makes a burlesque of genre convention: Savor the lineup of local blondes the police arrange for the inspection of a cabdriver who drove a suspect across town on the night of a murder. As the camera pans their mugs, each smiles or sniffs or glances at us, right into the lens, a phalanx of Busby Berkeley showgirls allowed individuation. Some seem to be asking, “What are you looking at?”
An urbane police procedural, a cracking whodunnit, a Gold Diggers–style sex comedy, and a stealth backstage musical, Quai des Orfèvres concerns — eventually — the murder of a film producer who was, before his death, infatuated with Suzy Delair’s singer/paragon of sass, Jenny Lamour. She’s as forward as her name, a go-getter so adept at go-getting she actually calls herself a go-getter. We meet her auditioning as a singer in a sharpie agent’s office; mid-song Clouzot cuts, and she’s already onstage at a music hall, a star willing herself into being for the delectation of a crowd. It takes some forty minutes before the corpse turns up, but not a scene is wasted: Clouzot and his restless camera track lives that seem already to have been unfolding before we’re invited in to regard them. Paris bustles in his backgrounds, a riotous cancan one moment and a shadowed dreamscape the next; faces pack his frames, often in arrestingly complex compositions.
As in Le Corbeau, none of the broke and suspicious characters are eager to involve the cops in their lives. (The police are represented by Louis Jouvet as the detective in charge of the case; his Inspector Antoine, worn down by a war wound, often finds himself defending the honor of police work itself, and memorably details just how much money his investigation is costing the department.) The film surges along, its pacing as modern as its morals. At one point, Clouzot crosscuts between suspect after suspect, each in heated interrogations, each insisting they weren’t involved in the murder, and a late sequence involving blood on the floor of a jail cell still stings and surprises.
Quai des Orfèvres
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
Now playing, Film Forum
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
Opens April 20, Film Forum