Robespierre wants to be proclaimed absolute dictator of France in a few days' time, but he realizes that if his enemies make public the contents of his black book, this will never happen and he himself will almost certainly be condemned for his aspirations to power. To find the missing book, he sends for a judge from Strasbourg known for his harsh sentencing of enemies of the Revolution (500 condemned in one month alone). This "hanging judge" is assassinated, however, and his place taken by an impostor intent on exposing Robespierre's treachery, Charles D'Aubigny (Robert Cummings). The rest of the movie is essentially a thriller that details D'Aubigny's attempts, aided by his mistress Madelon (Arlene Dahl), to avoid detection and find the missing book.
Those familiar with the films noirs of Mann from the late 1940s and the Westerns he made in the 1950s, considered landmarks of their genres, will recognize elements of both in Reign of Terror. Made almost at the end of Mann's series of noirs and just before his first Western, it can in many ways be seen as a transition between the two. Themes found in Mann's versions of both those genres are also present in Reign of Terror—impersonation, underworld power struggles, loyalty and betrayal, order versus anarchy, the crushing of ordinary people by the lawless, interpersonal conflict that can erupt into what for its time must have been quite shocking physical violence. D'Aubigny might almost be an undercover agent in one of Mann's noirs, like Dennis O'Keefe's character in T-Men, and Robespierre the leader of a criminal gang the agent infiltrates. Similarly, he resembles one of the heroes portrayed by James Stewart in the Westerns, a man trying to bring a criminal to justice, as in The Naked Spur. The black book itself acts as the movie's "McGuffin," in the same way as the stolen loot O'Keefe seeks to retrieve in Raw Deal or the rifle James Stewart tries to track down in Mann's very first Western, Winchester '73.
The rather bland Cummings might seem a surprising choice to play the hero in a romantic intrigue, but he is actually good, playing the role straight, his voice pitched lower than usual, in a restrained performance quite different from the glib, almost camp persona of his 1950s television sitcoms. Basehart is even better as the notorious Robespierre. The highlight of his performance comes near the end of the film with his impassioned speech to the bloodthirsty mob after the contents of the black book are indeed revealed. When he tells the mob that to die for liberty would be a privilege, is he sincere or is it a clever ploy devised by a master strategist to win their sympathy and save his own life? The scene is especially intriguing coming soon after another scene in which he attempts to cajole a young boy into revealing the whereabouts of the black book with gentle, silver-tongued blandishments as cunning as those of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Film noir stalwart Charles McGraw also makes a strong impression as Robespierre's uncouth, sadistic chief henchman. But the acting honors in the movie surely must go to Arnold Moss as Robespierre's ally/rival Fouché. He is by turns menacing, sarcastically flippant, and slyly calculating. One moment he seems trustworthy, the next moment entirely duplicitous.
|Robert Cummings and Arnold Moss search for the black book.|
At the same time, Mann's use of outdoor locations, uncommon in the generally set- and interior-bound early noirs, points ahead to his Westerns. Near the beginning of the movie is a striking landscape shot of a lone horse rider seen from a distance slowly moving horizontally across a gently arcing hill, the hill and tiny rider silhouetted against a cloudy sky just after sunset, a shot that wouldn't seem out of place in a Western. The film includes a thrilling action sequence that also prefigures Mann's Westerns, in which D'Aubigny escapes Robespierre by jumping through a glass window (which in a Western would most likely have been the window of a saloon). This is followed by an extended chase with D'Aubigny and Madelon in a wagon, pursued by mounted horsemen through the streets of Paris and then through the countryside, again a scene that might have come directly from a Western.
Receiving credit as producer is the great William Cameron Menzies, noted production designer (Gone With the Wind, For Whom the Bell Tolls) and occasional director (the 1936 version of H. G. Wells's futuristic Things to Come, the 1953 sci-fi classic Invaders from Mars). IMDb lists him as an uncredited art director on Reign of Terror. Even though he doesn't receive formal credit, his hand is evident throughout the film in its production design, and he should receive recognition at the very least as an indirect contributor to the film's strong visual appeal. The baroque bedchamber of D'Aubigny's mistress Madelon, the bakery containing Robespierre's headquarters, Robespierre's torture chamber in the basement of the bakery, his private quarters with their bookcase-lined walls that conceal a secret room—all these settings are tremendously atmospheric, far more so than their economical and rather minimal construction would lead one to expect.
Reign of Terror might fall short of greatness, but it does contain enough spectacular parts to make it a pleasure to watch. Connoisseurs of artistic mise en scène will find much to relish here, and because the film stands on the cusp between Mann's noir and Western periods, admirers of his work will find it indispensable to an appreciation of his development as a director.
This review originally appeared on R.D. Finch's blog The Movie Projector and is reprinted with Mr. Finch's permission.