Anthony Mann’s Reign of Terror (aka The Black Book, 1949) has my vote for the most unique film noir ever made. All the hallmarks of great film noir – scheming and backstabbing characters, hard-boiled dialogue, narrow urban streets and dark alleys wet with rain and crowded with disreputable figures, and of course the shadowy visuals and extreme camera angles of an unpredictable world – are dropped into the chaos and cruelty of the French Revolution, here run by the most ruthless gang of criminals ever seen. Richard Basehart’s Maximilian Robespierre (“Don’t call me Max!”) is the icy criminal mastermind and Robert Cummings puts on his best sneering tough-guy act as an undercover agent who is sent by Marat to infiltrate the Committee of Public Safety and break Robespierre’s death grip on the revolution. Wouldn’t you know that Cummings’ Paris contact is former lover Arlene Dahl? Their reunion is a shock of recognition quickly turned into jaded indifference, wounded hearts playing at calloused detachment while trading hard-boiled expressions of lingering betrayal. Of course, passion still simmers under those cool poses of apathy. Arnold Moss is Robespierre’s mercenary henchman Fouché, an oily, enterprising operative whose allegiance is only to himself, and Charles McGraw has a small role as one of Robespierre’s more vicious thugs.
The plot turns on the scramble for Robespierre’s “black book,” where he’s listed the names of enemies and victims soon to be condemned and sent to the guillotine, and the subsequent gang war free-for-all as everyone looks to grab power by grabbing this tome is a perfectly appropriate metaphor for the chaos and cutthroat power struggle of the real life reign of terror.
Produced by Eagle-Lion Films, it’s the strangest of genre mixes, a costume crime thriller with a continental setting and an American pulp sensibility. The hard-bitten dialogue is all urban street patter and gangster speak and the tough love romantic banter borders on camp (I like to see it as genre conventions pushed to florid extremes). The exteriors may be cobblestone streets filled with racing carriages and 18th century Parisian peasants, but John Alton’s stark, shadowy lighting streaks across the wets stones like a New York City street at night and casts hard, inky shadows for the characters to duck into like thugs running from the cops. The extreme angles and looming foreground objects do a great job of hiding the limitations of the décor while creating an unstable world and suggesting the horrors and the crowds just outside the frame. Director Anthony Mann, always one to punctuate his volatile dramas with grotesque blasts of sadistic violence, caps this with one of his most memorable parting shots. That it is historically accurate only makes it more delicious.
Reign of Terror has been one of the hardest cult noirs to see. I managed to hit a couple of screenings in various films series over the past 25 years but otherwise made do with a poor quality videotape from a late-night cable showing I made a couple of decades ago. More recently, I picked up a wretched DVD from PD outfit Alpha Video, which was hardly better video quality than my VHS copy and managed to misframe the film so badly that a significant portion of the image was offscreen. Now VCI has come to the rescue with Classic Film Noir Vol. 3, a disc that, while hardly stellar, is a vast improvement over the Alpha Video edition. There is some minor damage to the print and the image is soft compared to the noir classics released by Warner and Fox, but it is perfectly watchable with good contrasts and clean soundtrack. And it’s a double feature with another poverty row noir shot by the great John Alton: The Amazing Mr. X (1948), directed by Bernard Vorhaus and starring Turhan Bey, Cathy O’Donnell and Richard Carlson. This minor cult item is more curiosity than classic but features marvelously moody photography. This print is a bit softer than Reign of Terror but still perfectly acceptable.