REIGN OF TERROR (aka: BLACK BOOK, THE)
(director: Anthony Mann; screenwriters: Aeneas MacKenzie/Philip Yordan; cinematographer: John Alton; editor: Fred Allen; music: Sol Kaplan; cast: Robert Cummings (Charles D’Aubigny), Richard Basehart (Maximilian Robespierre), Richard Hart (Francois Barras), Arlene Dahl (Madelon), Arnold Moss (Fouche), Norman Lloyd (Tallien), Charles McGraw (Sergeant), Beulah Bondi (Grandma Blanchard), Jess Barker (Saint Just), Arnold Moss (Fouché), Wilton Graff (Marquis de Lafayette); Runtime: 89; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Walter Wanger/William Cameron Menzies; Alpha Video; 1949)
“It’s a French Revolutionary drama made like one of Mann’s film noirs.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Anthony Mann (“Side Street”/”T-Men “/”El Cid”) directs this effective but artificial looking period melodrama. It’s a French Revolutionary drama made like one of Mann’s film noirs. It’s coscripted by Aeneas MacKenzie and Philip Yordan (he wrote “Johnny Guitar”), and the great film noir cinematographer John Alton dazzles us with his shadowy view of a fearful Paris and by using odd camera angles to highlight the ongoing anarchy. The film amazingly succeeds despite the two American leads, the limited Robert Cummings and the decorative Arlene Dahl, being miscast. On the other hand, the film was fortunate to get a great sinister performance by Richard Basehart as Robespierre.
Don’t expect an accurate interpretation of history, because this is a fictionalized Hollywood version of true events. All the action tales place in the time period just after the French Revolution of July 26, 1794. It’s also interesting to note the film was made during the HUAC witch-hunt, and one can easily substitute black list for black book. The film was made on the cheap for Eagle-Lion.
It has the patriot Charles D’Aubigny (Robert Cummings) as the only one in France who can stop the bloodthirsty, smooth-tongued, twisted revolutionist, Maximilian Robespierre (Richard Basehart), from becoming a dictator in 48 hours. Lafayette is in exile in Austria, a general without an army or a country, but he gives his emissary Charles the green light to do his own thing to save France from Robespierre. The brutality is revved up to such a bloody high point, that it seems as if the Marquis de Sade turned in the screenplay. One sinister character says “No one goes to bed in Paris, it’s not safe.”
Charles impersonates the notorious German executioner, Duval, with the nickname of the “Butcher of Strasbourg.” Duval was summoned by Robespierre to find his missing Black Book, that contains his secret file and the names of his future victims for the guillotine. The prosecutor is given power over everyone in France, except for Robespierre, and ordered to find it in 24 hours or suffer the consequences. Robespierre says he will not be dictator if the book is not found and is in the hands of his adversaries.
Duval introduces himself to Robespierre’s henchmen by moaning about the efficiency of the guillotine, and he says with a straight face “What this country needs is an elegant, slow death. Give a man four hours to die. It’s worth watching.” He then must make his way stealthily across the mean cobblestone streets of Paris to help the honest and more moderate revolutionist François Barras (Richard Hart) remain in power to serve the people because he is in the best position to ruin Robespierre’s plans to be dictator. Arlene Dahl plays Madelon, a Barras cohort and someone who rejected Charles four years ago as a lover, leaving him still embittered with her. Arnold Moss plays Fouché, the treacherous, ruthless, two-faced, untrustworthy head of Robespierre’s secret police, who has his own agenda. Norman Lloyd plays Tallien, the loyal protector of Madelon; Jess Barker plays the handsome Saint Just, the sadist who faithfully carries out Robespierre’s orders and suspects that Charles isn’t who he says he is.
The film if not historically sound is at least visually sound; it builds its case by exploiting all the violence and political anxieties of the period. It moves through the night like a cat burglar stealing one’s sensibilities before one can see that they have been taken by a master thief. It offers great filmmaking for such an unconventional telling of the aftermath of the French Revolution, that could just as easily be thought of as a crime thriller or even a Western.
REVIEWED ON 6/24/2007 GRADE: B