Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Reign of Terror (1949)

Anyone interested in the works of Anthony Mann would be well advised to take a look at his unusual 1949 film Reign of Terror (also known as The Black Book). The film, which takes place in France in 1794, five years after the French Revolution, opens with the public condemnation and execution of Danton, engineered by Maximilien Robespierre (Richard Basehart). Immediately afterward, Robespierre finds that his secret black book, containing a "hit list" of the other rivals he intends to denounce and persuade the street mobs to condemn to the guillotine, has been stolen.

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.
But the thing that will keep your eyes glued to the screen the whole time is the sheer visual panache of the film. Cinematographer John Alton and Mann made a formidable team in the three noirs they worked on together (four, if you include Mann's uncredited contribution to He Walked by Night, also with Basehart), but to my mind, visually Reign of Terror surpasses even the most impressive of those. The movie may technically be a historical thriller, but it is in many ways a film noir masquerading as a costume picture. The high-contrast lighting, camera placement and movement, dynamic composition, and depth of field all bear the clear stamp of film noir.

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.


  1. Excellent post about REIGN OF TERROR a.k.a. THE BLACK BOOK! I happened to stumble across it on TCM one day, and having seen and very much enjoyed a number of Anthony Mann's noirs, I found myself hooked; it's kind of a suspenseful costume noir! :-) Arnold Moss steals the show, and for me, it didn't hurt that Moss looked strikingly like an older version of one of my favorite actors, Adrien Brody. :-)

  2. I love these reviews since this is one of my favorite genres and I'm being exposed to so many films that I haven't yet had the pleasure of seeing. (Although you're making my 'must see' list pretty long) it's well worth it! : )
    Great review!

  3. R.D., I've got to find this movie now. I love books and films about the French Revolution and bloody aftermath, and I'm surprised I haven't seen this. Your description is very compelling, and I like all of the actors involved.

    I have to say that your comparison of Mann's films, the segue into westerns, is one of the best pieces of insightful critique I've seen. You have done an excellent review! Congratulations for that!

    One more thing -- that movie poster!! OMG, does that look like a Hammer horror film poster or what?! I would glance at that and never realize the movie was a serious drama, nor what it was about. All you really see is the beautiful busty girl in distress. Well, that's Hollywood -- gotta sell tickets! LOL

  4. I have yet to see a really good, crisp copy of this film. The fact that it works through the mess that I have seen is a testament to good storytelling.

  5. Insightful and well written post! I have not seen this movie, and you've made it sound like a solid feature. I especially like that you focused on a transitional film with shades of two separate genres that Mann frequented. Thank you for posting at the Café!

  6. R.D., I was so enthused when I read your review that I ordered a DVD of REIGN OF TERROR. I love Anthony Mann AND films about the French Revolution (e.g., SCARAMOUCHE, A TALE OF TWO CITIES)--so how could I lose? I'm looking forward to checking out Mann's use of the landscape, which is integral to his James Stewart Westerns. I can't imagine Menzies producing a film and not having a hand in the set design...so am looking forward to seeing that, too. (By the way, Caftan Woman, the DVD from VCI is supposed to have a good print--I'll let you know). This was a superb post, with just the right mix of analysis, plot summary, and background info. I'll comment again about I watch the movie!

  7. My husband made me a fan of Anthony Mann westerns. I truly think we would love to see this. I need to look into adding "Reign of Terror" to our film collection. Insightful and very informtive post, R.D.!

  8. Thank you one and all for the kind words. It's thoughtful comments like these that motivate me to keep blogging. I caught this on TCM when they showed it on Bastille Day last year (the print seemed quite good), and the original post appeared soon after that. Thanks to the Film and TV Cafe for reprinting it!

  9. R.D. Finch, I am late with my comment, so hopefully you will see it. I feel somewhat embarrassed to admit, as a historian of French history, that I have never seen this film. It seems like one I might want to watch . LOL!!! I really enjoyed reading your review. I like how you make comparisons with Mann's other film genres...this gives good insight into overlapping themes in his work.

  10. R.D., I watched REIGN OF TERROR last night and loved it! It was fascinating to watch a period-set film noir. The overhead shots, the deep shadows with faces moving in and out of light, and the dark-edged characters are all classic noir traits. But I also liked how Mann pulls the viewer into the film by having characters jut toward the camera and by having limbs or objects move out from (seemingly behind) the camera. The most effective use of this techique is when an arm appears from where the viewer is sitting (!) and grabs the real Duval by the throat. It's a rather potent murder scene...and it turns out the killer is our hero. The landscape scenes you described are breathtaking. And I was also intrigued by the use of rear in the crowd scenes. I have no doubt that the decision was budget-driven, but Mann has the rear screen out of focus in the background and fading into a blackened area at the edge of the screen. It's an unususal effect that had me wondering, for a second, if it was really a rear screen. To my surprise, Robert Cummings was a pretty good hero and Arlene Dahl was certainly fetching. I was a little disappointed in Basehart, one of my favorite actors, who was a bit one-note as Robespierre. In contrast, Arnold Moss was a delight as the two-faced Fouche. Thanks for an awesome review that inspired me to see a terrific film.