- The Washington Times - Friday, April 16, 2004

About 60 years separate “Le Corbeau” (1943), Henri-Georges Clouzot’s notorious and compelling suspense melodrama, made in France during the German occupation, from “Ripley’s Game,” the second movie version of Patricia Highsmith’s crime novel, transposed from a French to an Italian setting by director Liliana Cavani.

Now available in DVD editions, “Le Corbeau” (“The Raven”) and “Ripley’s Game” are insidious fables of malice and entrapment that offer a haunted, desolate impression of human vulnerability and corruptibility across the decades.

“Le Corbeau” was the second feature directed by Mr. Clouzot, who achieved international fame as a misanthropic, nerve-racking virtuoso in the early 1950s with “The Wages of Fear” and “Diabolique.” As a specialist in dread, Mr. Clouzot, who died in 1977 at 70, far outclasses Miss Cavani, now in her late 60s. However, the movies do share a predilection for characters struggling to survive in moral quicksand.

“Le Corbeau” showcases an ensemble of French actors who seem to fit their roles with uncanny temperamental exactitude. The protagonist, whose deductive skills are always defective, is a surgeon with a clouded past, Dr. Germain, played by Pierre Fresnay. The characters most likely to cloud his judgment are a venerable, loquacious psychiatrist, Dr. Vorzet (Pierre Larquey), and Ginette Leclerc as a sultry unfaithful spouse, Denise, amorously entangled with Germain.

The French title alludes to the “signature” in a plague of poison-pen letters: The author affixes a drawing of a raven to contemptuous accusations scrawled in large block letters. Many of the slurs target Germain, who has chosen to remain an outsider in a town called St. Robin. The accusations have a certain flair: They exaggerate shreds of truth along with sheer fabrication.

New Line Cinema, the distributor of “Ripley’s Game,” never released the film theatrically in the United States. Filmed in 1977 as “The American Friend” by the German director Wim Wenders, “Ripley’s Game” retrieves the third book of the Highsmith series about Tom Ripley, a socially aspiring, disarming American psychopath.

Ripley has become a well-heeled criminal expatriate in Europe, after getting away with murder in his literary debut, “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Published in 1955, the prototype was adapted first as “Purple Noon” by Rene Clement in 1960 and then under its original title by Anthony Minghella in 1999.

The middle-aged Ripley embodied by John Malkovich is a more intriguing and alarming choice in many respects than his predecessors: Alain Delon, Dennis Hopper and Matt Damon. New Line’s lack of confidence in Miss Cavani’s update of “Ripley’s Game” may be defensible, but the principal selling point all along must have been the prospect of watching Mr. Malkovich slip into a famously menacing, introspective role. The fit isn’t as foolproof as one might wish, but it’s still the best reason for catching up with the movie on the rebound.

The weak link is Dougray Scott as Jonathan Trevanny, the doomed decent man whom Ripley elects to lure into a murder conspiracy, as payback for a petty social slight. Once Trevanny is on the spot, participating in the contract killing that promises him a nest egg for his family, the sympathetic and remorseful remnants in Ripley are activated.

Ripley comes to the amateur’s rescue during a morbidly bemusing round of murder on a train. Trevanny and Ripley approach a showdown with rival assassins as mismatched soul mates, and the outcome leaves Ripley owing a mortal debt to his dupe.

This refinement on Miss Highsmith’s trusty entrapment scenario (anticipated from the outset in “Strangers on a Train,” the Hitchcock classic adapted from the author’s eponymous first novel) gets under your skin. Trevanny’s susceptibility is more plausible and wrenching than most criminal setups. What’s lacking is a temperamental fusion between the Faust and his Mephistopheles.There’s a stronger performing bond between Mr. Malkovich and Ray Winstone, cast as a vulgarian named Reeves, who enters as a Ripley confederate of long-standing and presumptuous familiarity.

“Le Corbeau” demonstrates that Henri-Georges Clouzot possessed exceptional command of suspenseful, sardonic manipulation early in his directing career. The sinister undertow in the movie is something that kindhearted spectators may need to resist on principle. The plot calculations are not above reproach or second-guessing, but every episode, characterization and image is so sharply etched that you remain on high alert throughout the picture.

Even the discursive scenes, which depend on Dr. Vorzet’s suspect analysis of what troubles his vexed and vindictive community, exhibit an impressive pictorial flair. In a literally swinging gesture of expressionism, Vorzet reaches up and sets an overhead light bulb into motion, using the pendulum effect of illumination and darkness to rebuke Germain for clinging to a simplified view of human nature.

“Le Corbeau” was a sensational but also disreputable hit when new. In a fragmentary interview included on the DVD, Mr. Clouzot remembers it as a smash and his only unanimous critical triumph. However, after World War II, the fact that Mr. Clouzot had made “Le Corbeau” for a German-owned company, Continental Films, left him open to charges of collaboration that resulted in a temporary ban on both the picture and the director.

Nevertheless, “Le Corbeau” became an enduring guilty pleasure of French cinema. Francois Truffaut fondly recalled it as an “accurate picture” of what he had seen around him during the war — “collaboration, denunciation, the black market, hustling, cynicism.”

Admirers of “Le Corbeau” gave it perhaps exorbitant credit for encapsulating all the treacheries and suspicions of the Word War II period. It is also regarded, more plausibly, as an elusive model for the film noir crime thrillers of the 1940s and 1950s, which acquired an unholy prestige by the end of the century.

Liliana Cavani has no prestige thrillers to her credit. She did direct one notorious feature a generation ago: “The Night Porter,” which matched Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling as ultimate erotic degenerates in 1974. Their characters met by accident in Vienna and renewed the sadomasochistic bond forged in a Nazi concentration camp, where Mr. Bogarde was an SS officer and Miss Rampling the inmate who became his carnal plaything.

By comparison, “Ripley’s Game” is a breath of fresh air.

TITLE:”Le Corbeau” (“The Raven”)

RATING:No MPAA Rating (made in France in 1942; adult subject matter, with occasional profanity, sordid plot elements and systematic ominous atmosphere)

CREDITS: Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. Screenplay by Louis Chavance and Mr. Clouzot. Cinematography by Nicolas Hayer. In French with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes

DVD Edition: The Criterion Collection

TITLE:”Ripley’s Game”

RATING: R(Occasional graphic violence, profanity and sexual candor)

CREDITS:Directed by Liliana Cavani. Screenplay by Charles McKeown and Miss Cavani, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith. Cinematography by Alfio Contini. Music by Ennio Morricone

RUNNING TIME: About 110 minutes

DVD Edition: New Line Home Entertainment

After World War II, the fact that Henri-Georges Clouzot had made “Le Corbeau” for a German-owned company, Continental Films, left him open to charges of collaboration that resulted in a temporary ban on both the picture and the director.

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