The place is a small, lonely French village by the name of Saint-Robin; the time is the interbellum period when some wrongly believed that the worst of Europe had already come and gone. Our inhabitants seem weary and suspicious, but not in the way so commonly incident to villagers who have spied on each other for generations. For some reason they do not know their neighbors as well as one would expect. For some reason a thin glaze of malevolence coats every conversation, every glance, every perfunctory exchange in those cramped, entry-belled shops where village rumors invariably begin. Typical village gossip may compel those unable to handle endless scrutiny to withdraw or seek out more indifferent pastures, but Saint-Robin is not typical. Something is rotten in this provincial state and the maggots are spreading through every patch of soil. Indeed, you will rarely have encountered a village so ready to destroy itself as the setting of this classic film.
Our hero is also our villain, one Doctor Rémy Germain (a particularly weary Pierre Fresnay). In the last six weeks he has saved three pregnant women, but not their offspring. This oddity has not escaped the notice of the villagers, who only know Germain as a stranger, a gynecologist who moved here from Grenoble three years earlier. A handsome fellow in his mid-forties, our doctor is lean, unsporty, and moustached in a way that would be impossible within the current popular image of movie heroes. Nowadays Germain would be at best a recluse of unusual habits; at worst, he would be a psychopath. But in the context of Le Corbeau's filming, he is a typical European bourgeois – even labeled at one point as such – with a bourgeois's attendant mores. A revelatory outburst towards the end of our film complicates our image of Germain, whose confession has the acrimony of truth, yet he cannot be considered a man of high virtue. He carries on with the rather pretty and rather married Laura Vorzet (Micheline Francey), whose husband may be three times her age. He also gets involved, more briefly and passionately, with the sister of the owner of his pension, a young woman by the name of Denise Saillens (Ginette Leclerc). Denise may or may not be a nymphomaniac, but she certainly wishes that impression upon every man she encounters, and we first see her painting her nails in bed in the lustful sloth of someone inured to regular sensuality. Her subsequent examination, consisting on her part mostly of sighs and pouts, concludes with Doctor Germain's assurance that she's in pristine health, and that she "doesn't need a doctor – at least not me." Other characters hover: Marie, a nurse at Germain's hospital who considers her sister Laura to be a whore; Dr. Vorzet himself (Pierre Larquey), the hospital's chief medical administrator and an eloquent font of smug comments; the head of the hospital, Delorme (Antoine Balpêtré), a drunk burdened by an unhappy marriage; the sub-prefect (Pierre Bertin), who cannot understand why anyone would think of him as corrupt; and Rolande, age "fourteen-and-a-half," a precocious, bespectacled lass whose nosiness is not mitigated by her part-time work at the post office. And the post office will be of prime importance because of an anonymous writer of poison-pen letters known only as the Corbeau.
A French Corbeau is an English raven (or crow, as many languages do not distinguish in everyday speech between the two large black corvids), and much like Poe's bird of ill omen our Corbeau seems to know the sins on everyone's conscience. Germain and Laura are labeled adulterous, but Germain is also a vicious murderer of fetuses; Delorme and his bursar Bonnevie both receive unfortunate information about one another that transforms the initially toady Bonnevie into a man of fearsome poise; the sub-prefect is told that both he and his town are debauched, and the only retort he can muster to a bunch of card-playing cronies is a reminder that he "cleared [his] name last year"; and in the film's most predictable segment, a terminally ill man is informed by the Corbeau of his remaining time on this earth – a terminally ill man who, at the beginning of our film, receives an unusual gift from his mother. Laura (who would still be colorless and dull even if Le Corbeau weren't filmed in black-and-white) hovers in Germain's vicinity without actually convincing us or him that she is a real human being. Her cypher of a personality only renders Germain's interest in Denise, who seems complex and nuanced, all the more justifiable. Even more damning is Laura's coupling with Vorzet, a man of infinite adages and composure, precisely the type of fellow who would not bother with a high-strung twit unless he had something up his diabolical sleeve. One quote contains all we need to know about Dr. Michel Vorzet:
There's nothing more absurd than a convention of doctors, especially psychiatrists. Thankfully no one was listening to the speakers .... They need a bunch of patients to listen to the speakers .... These conventions are for provincial doctors to cheat on their wives with Parisian women. Since I'm too old for that, I came home.
That Laura is visibly shocked by what provincial doctors and Parisian women purportedly do when left to their own devices provides further evidence that she is merely an apparition, a blonde ghost who haunts Germain, who is clearly haunted by something else as well. So when Vorzet asks his wife's lover whether he is a believer, he observes that Germain has "the self-assurance of an atheist" (which is something akin to having the "mirth of a murderer"). When the same question is asked of Vorzet, he replies that he has his doubts, but "takes out insurance" because "it costs so little," and the rest we will leave to the curious viewer.
Clouzot is known first and foremost for this film, which is a shame since Le Corbeau is its superior in almost every way. Les Diaboliques is certainly terrifying upon an initial viewing; yet its melodrama remains superficial because unadulterated evil is hollow but not profound (Vera Clouzot's character being a bit too lame and weak-willed to generate any empathy, much like her counterpart in the 1996 remake). Our Corbeau, on the other hand, claims the agenda of a genuine flagellum dei, even if the lashes strike everyone in their path. One expression he uses has garnered particular attention, "J'ai l'œil américain," a reference to Native Americans and their folk-tale prowess for seeing as sharply as an eagle or hawk – or, for that matter, a raven. That the film was released in 1943 with a protagonist called Germain should tell all you need to know about its reception; that it succeeded despite, not owing to, its obvious political commentary of denouncers and denouncees is a tribute to Clouzot's craftsmanship and insistence. And his most vivid creation is Denise. Denise harbors a secret about herself that can be detected, in a way, by observing her brother. Her character also hovers around Germain, but unlike Laura, does not grow annoying and directionless like some unwanted pigeon. No, Denise is entrusted with the film's best line when Germain forbids her from uttering his Christian name ("I said that name one whole night. You can let me use it now"), as if to atone for her calling him "Joseph" (again, a nasty topical allusion for a doctor) after her first "examination." The best scene, however, remains the public accusation of one character at the mass funeral of another, a scene which appears to be shot from the point-of-view of the person six feet under. Or something or someone lower still.