The bravura opening, recreated verbatim by Bertrand Tavernier in Deathwatch, photographs a bucolic vista, tilts to a graveyard framed through stone arches, and then tracks to iron gates, which grind open: France. The sour doctor (Pierre Fresnay) emerges from a miscarriage, the first of many instances of dirty hands; his indiscretions encompass the young wife (Micheline Francey) of an aged, sardonic colleague (Pierre Larguey), the club-footed minx (Ginette Leclerc) who thrusts out her chest when he tries to check her heart rate, plus some "phantoms" from the past. There are intimations of adultery and drug-smuggling, the bespectacled schoolgirl (Liliane Maigné) is a budding kleptomaniac, the nunnish spinster (Héléna Manson) is in charge of the sick ("She's a mean woman." "She's just unhappy"). The collective bucket needs just one more drop to overflow, ink does it -- mysterious letters spread calumnies and accusations, which proliferate and contaminate (Larguey documents events as if charting a mounting fever). The Raven signing them is Poe's, of course, Henri-Georges Clouzot does it justice with loads of brackish chiaroscuro and lugubrious eroticism, a searching light on humanity's warts and pockmarks. The great funeral procession pivots on the missive materializing out of the hearse, the low-angled camera looks up as villagers recoil from it as if from a diseased corpse; accused, Manson dashes through slanted streets with the people's bloodlust ringing in her ears, she comes to a devastated flat to face a cracked mirror (Dreyer made Day of Wrath the same year). "Are you religious?" "I'm cautious. When in doubt, I take out insurance." No one is unsullied and no order is restored, the letters are just the sores flowering from a cancerous world one can embrace or challenge -- or both, as the figure of vengeful Sylvie proves. Yes, a humanist work: Goebbels saw propaganda and postwar authorities saw malicious defeatism, but Clouzot was simply reminding audiences of the full reading of Renoir's dictum: "The terrible thing is that everyone has his reasons." Cinematography by Nicolas Hayer. With Antoine Balpetré, and Roger Blin. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce