I saw a terrific French classic: Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1942 Le Corbeau (The Raven.) Clouzot is of course best known for the great films he would make later: Wages of Fear and Diabolique. This one, though, is something of a revelation of its own.
It's about a small provincial French town torn apart by a series of anonymous "poison-pen letters," all signed by "Le Corbeau." The author, who clearly knows everyone in town, threatens to expose their darkest secrets. Everyone is a victim, as well as a suspect. At the center of the controversy stands a doctor who has a closet of skeletons: suspected of being an abortionist, he's also carrying on affairs with a patient as well as the wife of an associate. Any of the above, as well as any of their enemies, could be the culprit.
At that level, of course, the story is somewhat familar: it's about the poison of suspicion, the very kind of story you saw in this country in the McCarthyist 1950s. (The Crucible being only the most obvious example.) It is, also, brilliantly filmed in Clouzot's highly suspenseful style -- he was probably the closest France ever got to a Hitchcock -- and it has some remarkable images and scenes. Clouzot has that knack for finding the suspense and the tension in the everyday, much the way Lean did and Scorsese does. I'm thinking in particular of a scene in a classroom, where all the suspects are given a grueling handwriting examination; as the hours pass, the tapping of a pencil on a desk and the whirling of a watchfob become something like Chinese water torture.
But it is, also, a somewhat abstract story that satisfies the demands of its story without necessarily granting the audience's desire for a swift, clever Oh-so-that's-who-did-it ending. The main thing you come away with in this film isn't the evil of an individual but of the way a society can rot from the inside out. David Thomson's comment in A Biographical Dictionary of Film is instructive: "Where Renoir tends toward the acceptance of failings, Clouzot's world disintegrates through mistrust, alienation, and a willful selfishness that is like an illness."
Considering it was made in Nazi-occupied France, all of this might be considered something of an artistic coup: a way of pointing out Nazi evil under their very noses. Actually, though, according to the DVD booklet, Clouzot's subversive critique of Nazism ultimately was beside the point. After the war, all that mattered (understandably) is that he played ball with the Gestapo while others fled for their lives. (He would be prohibited from making a film for years after.) Not only that, his picture of this suffocating little village seemed for many to actually play into the Nazi's hands, supposedly because it suggested that a country like this could stand to be improved by a little, uh, German discipline.
Clouzot, in other words, had a bit of a Leni Riefenstahl problem among his countrymen, and as is true in her case, it's kinda hard to argue the point, except for this: the film, while a great success among Nazi-occupied France, wasn't a hit with the Nazis.
Clouzot: "I was fired because the German authorities complained that it [the film] discouraged people from writing anonymous letters. It was the end of `41, when informing was very useful."