Monday, July 19, 2010

Reign of Terror (1949)

Country: US
Director: Anthony Mann

Anyone interested in the works of Anthony Mann, the subject of a recent three-week long retrospective festival at the Film Forum in New York, would be well advised to take a look at his unusual 1949 film Reign of Terror (also known as The Black Book). It was shown at the Film Forum on Bastille Day, July 14, and on the same day on the Turner Classic Movies channel, where I saw it.

Reign of Terror, 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.

Sam Juliano said...

"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."

Aye R.D., great point, as are so many others you make in this extraordinary piece, one I am absolutely thrilled to read!

You see, I was at the said Film Forum on July 14th (Bastille Day)to watch this film, as I was for every other of the 32 films offered in the three-week festival. It was paired that day with SIDE STREET, a solid Mann film noir.

The celebrated cinematographer John Alton (one of noir's all-time greats in fact) made this quite a feast for the eyes, and I must agree with you when you contend it's really a (historical) costume drama, feigning as a noir. Yeah Cummings is absolutely a bland actor, but no real damage is inflicted on the film in this sense, as he really does deliver here, as does Moss, as you rightly note.

I also saw HE WALKED BY NIGHT at this festival (which included all the significent noirs save for RAILROADED, and included every Western and epic) and thought Alton's work was close to what he did here, but on balance I must agree with you. I do also see Menzies' hand in the production design.

Good point on the transition, and on the themes that are common in Mann's cinema.

Shame that I'll never see this extraordinarily pristine and creamy print again, save for a DVD master, as the DVDs we have are either terrible in quality or missing key passages.

This film was really a rollicking good time, and it's great to read after-the-fact such a marvelous treatment.

John said...

Excellently done posting on a director that has been getting a lot of attention lately. I can't believe I missed this film when it was shown on TCM, my brain must have been asleep! It is one I have wanted to see so needless to say I am disappointed.

From what you write it fits right in with some of Mann's life-long themes, the struggle between "loyalty and betrayal" and "order versus anarchy." I just watched THE NAKED SPUR, a film that contains similar ideas. What a great film! James Stewart who you always think of as Mr. Nice Guy has a real dark side here, something he explored in other films he made with Mann and again with Hitchcock in "Vertigo."

Like yourself I have always found Bob Cummings a rather dull actor, in fact Hitchcock's SABOTEUR, a good film would have been better with a different leading man.

R. D. Finch said...

Sam, thanks for your comments. I've been following your references at WONDERS IN THE DARK to the Mann festival at the FF, so I anticipated your interest in this post. Before about two years ago, the only Mann film I'd seen was "El Cid" when I was in junior high school! I didn't really know enough about film to know what to make of it. In the last couple of years I've seen the Mann-Stewart Westerns (my favorite is "The Naked Spur" followed by "The Man from Laramie"--I know you rank them in the reverse order) and his other Westerns as well as the major films noirs. "Raw Deal" is my favorite followed by "T-Men." I must say that "Railroaded" struck me as easily the weakest of these. The print of "Reign of Terror" that TCM showed seemed to be an excellent one, as they usually are on this channel.

John, you might have missed this because it was listed under its alternate title, "The Black Book." I've wanted to see it for a long time too, and to my knowledge this is the first time TCM have shown it in recent memory. I love "The Naked Spur." It's probably my favorite Western after Ford's "Stagecoach" and "My Darling Clementine." All of the Mann-Stewart Westerns are well worth watching. If you didn't catch it, you might want to look at a very early post I did on James Stewart and particularly his work with Hitckcock and Mann and how they seemed to tap into his dark side. Here's the link:

Gordon Pasha said...

R.D. A film well worth the space to which you have allotted it. And a very interesting writeup. Turner Classic Movies showed it on July 14 as part of their Bastille Day tribute and, like you, I found the quality of the print shown was excellent. (I cannot speak to missing sections as I had not seen the film in some time.) I almost did not watch it this time because of poor prints encountered in the past. But I tried and was rewarded.
(I envy those who saw it at The Film Forum – my first encounter was in a theatre.)

Yes, Arnold Moss excelled, it was interesting to see Charles McGraw in a Brigadier Gerard outfit, and Beulah Bondi blended perfectly into the black and white canvas. That was her world. Best. Gerald

R. D. Finch said...

Gordon/Gerald, welcome to TMP and thank you for your comment. I have been enjoying your very thorough and knowledgeable comments at GOODFELLA'S. I've always liked Beulah Bondi. It seems her work in films was just winding down at this point, and it was good to see her in her small but effective role as the grandmother here.