Thanks to Glenn Kenny for alerting me (and the rest of the world) to the fact that one of Anthony Mann’s most neglected masterpieces, Reign of Terror, aka The Black Book, is now available in a nice new burn-on-demand DVD from Columbia Classics, which you can order through the fine folks at the Warner Archive. This is joyous news – the film has wallowed in some strange obscurity for years, not just because it was public domain (and hence available in a lot of crappy, fly-by-night editions but no good ones) but also because it’s a bit of an unclassifiable oddity.
Mann would, of course, eventually gain notoriety for his corrosive, psychological Westerns (The Man from Laramie, Man of the West, The Naked Spur, etc.) and darkly operatic historical epics (El Cid, Fall of the Roman Empire), but his early career took off thanks to a series of low-budget film noirs, many of them made with the great cinematographer John Alton. Reign of Terror was one of these, but it’s not just a noir; it’s also a period piece. It’s a stylized adventure set amid the chaos of the French Revolution as well as an over-the-top gangster movie where the chief baddie is Maximilian Robespierre, and where the plot is basically a hard-boiled re-imagining of his downfall.
The film begins in medias res, with an ominous narrator introducing us to the key players in the Terror (“Maximilian Robespierre -- a fanatic with powdered wig and twisted mind!”) and setting the stage in theatrical fashion: “In 48 hours, France becomes a dictatorship. 48 hours. Unless…” The story is a thoroughly fictional one, featuring Robert Cummings as Charles D’Aubigny, entrusted by the exiled Marquis de Lafayette to go undercover in Paris, posing as a bloodthirsty prosecutor to gain Robespierre’s (Richard Basehart) confidence. D’Aubigny is soon entrusted by the chief villain to search for his “black book” -- an elongated enemies list which, if it fell into the wrong hands, could lead to revolt. Robespierre admits that he needs the fear the book’s existence breeds to rule: As long as people aren’t sure whether their names are in it or not, they will go out of their way to display their loyalty. Along the way, D’Aubigny also has to contend with Robespierre’s chief of secret police, Fouche (the great character actor Arnold Moss), who seems to be out for his own good, even as he pretends to do his boss’s bidding.
Make no mistake about it, despite its period setting, Reign of Terror is a noir – it’s got an antihero ping-ponging between loyalties to various mob factions, a visual aesthetic full of deep shadows, stark lighting, and distorted lenses, not to mention a narrative steeped in paranoia and a femme fatale whose icy demeanor betrays a good soul (Arlene Dahl, aka Lorenzo Lamas’s mom). It’s even got some great, twisted gangster dialogue. (Robespierre to Fouche: “I don’t know whether to promote you or denounce you.” Fouche: “Where in all Paris would you find anybody as disloyal, unscrupulous, scheming, treacherous, cunning, or deceitful as I? Oh, you’d have to do some tall looking, Max.” Robespierre: “Don’t call me Max!”)
It’s probably not a coincidence that Reign of Terror was released two years after the first Hollywood blacklist was instituted in 1947. But to see it as a specifically political allegory would probably be wrong – and, indeed, it’s hard to parse out just what kind of political point the film is even making. As J. Hoberman reveals in his excellent study of American cinema during the early years of the Cold War, Army of Phantoms:
Still known as The Bastille, the movie was languishing on the shelf in March 1949 when [Producer Walter] Wanger happened to read an account of the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace that claimed unnamed, Communist-influenced culture critics had used “an intellectual reign of terror” to coerce writes and musicians into supporting the peace conference. Always topically minded, the producer seized on the phrase. “The best way to make a lot of dough with this,” he wrote associate Max Youngstein, “would be to go all out and maybe have some of the ads warn the public that we will be going through a REIGN OF TERROR in this country if we don’t watch out and that there is a REIGN OF TERROR all over the world.”
Hoberman also adds that Communist critics like Georges Sadoul at the time took exception to the film, even though “in the American context, the Jacobin terror unavoidably suggests HUAC.” That’s all just a way of saying that Reign of Terror’s ostensible politics, such as they are, are surface-thin and mostly opportunistic.
No, in the end, what makes Reign of Terror so special isn’t its political dimension, or even how well it adheres to, or explodes, various genre conventions. What makes it great is that it’s an incredibly well-made, gripping, exciting film. Not unlike Hitchcock, Mann is a very material director – that is, he understands how to give objects weight and importance, so he can then use and manipulate them to create suspense. Witness the scene where our heroes’ escape is almost thwarted by an old man fumbling with a key at a locked gate. Or the scene where the black book is inadvertently left on a bed, on which Robespierre’s chief henchman then decides to take a nap. It all seems effortless, and yet so few directors can do this sort of thing with the kind of ease and grace Mann displays here.
Mann also possessed an incredible gift for action, thanks in part to his eye for intense physicality. His films are full of brutality, but never of the casual kind: His camera comes in close to shots of physical violence, which serves to up the narrative ante and to heighten our involvement. (The amount of abuse Jimmy Stewart endures in his Mann Westerns more than justifies their revenge narratives.) When one of the villains gets shot in the mouth near the end of Reign of Terror, Mann makes sure it occurs in close-up, confronting us with the cruelty of a moment that should, by all pre-existing conventions, be a satisfying resolution. But by rubbing our noses in it, he complicates the issue. Indeed, everywhere you look, you’ll find small little details that suggest a deep irony lying beneath the film’s often broad-strokes narrative: Consider a brief cameo at the very end of the film by a young man named Napoleon Bonaparte.