A pivotal and divisive figure of Forties and Fifties French cinema, Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907 - 1977) made his name as a daring iconoclast through a series of hugely influential, often controversial, films whose stylistic audacity, off-beat humor and stinging critique of bourgeois society were far ahead of their time. Clouzot’s remarkable talent with mystery and thriller narratives earned him the unfortunate yet inevitable sobriquet of the “French Hitchcock” despite the two directors' notably different approach to suspense and despite Clouzot’s profound influence upon Hitchcock, with Les Diaboliques, for example, openly acknowledged as a model for Psycho. The phenomenal and lasting success of Les Diaboliques and Clouzot's other best-known film, the gripping action epic The Wages of Fear, continue to overshadow the larger arc of his risk-embracing career and major contributions to cinema. Still little known outside of France, Clouzot's other films are only gradually being rediscovered, slowly giving way to a fuller understanding of a fiercely original artist able like none other to masterfully intertwine adrenaline-igniting entertainment, trenchant political satire, ribald comedy and heartfelt tragedy.
Clouzot's film career began as a screenwriter in the early 1930s. He divided his time between France and Germany and eventually settled briefly in Berlin where he also worked as an assistant to directors E.A. Dupont and Anatole Litvak. While in Germany, Clouzot became enamored with the brooding, shadowy Weimar cinema whose masters F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang would exert an especially lasting influence. Frequently infirm, Clouzot was debilitated by a four year struggle with pleurisy, an experience which clearly fueled the obsessively recurring motifs of illness and death in his films and which left him hungry to seize the directorial reins for himself. Soon after he left the sanatorium Clouzot's Berlin connections secured him a job at the German-run production company Continental, newly established in Vichy France, where he wrote some of his finest early screenplays before directing his debut film, the stylish whodunit, L'Assassin habite au 21. Next came Clouzot's celebrated, scandalous and still contested second film, Le Corbeau, a caustic study of deceit and embittered provinciality set in small town France during the German occupation. Released to uneasy acclaim at the height of the Vichy era, Le Corbeau unleashed a wave of attacks after the war targeting Clouzot's supposedly "anti-French" Fascist sympathies and eventually leading to a two-year forced suspension of all directorial activities, despite the film's clearly anti-Petain message. Le Corbeau also set in motion a chronic pattern of misinterpretation that plagued Clouzot's films and reputation for years to come, one that lingers even today.