Noir out of Time: “The Black Book” and “The Tall Target”

Anthony Mann established his A-list credentials with a string of edgy, psychologically driven 1950s westerns. But Hollywood’s Mann of the west paid his dues on a handful of B movies and honed his chops—and his eye for sharp composition—on a cycle of hard edged crime thrillers before springing his dark vision of the American west on Hollywood. Working with impoverished budgets but an extraordinary cinematographer (John Alton), he turned bland sets and anonymous backlots into lonely locations swallowed in fog or lost in the night, lit only by dim pools of illumination and slashes of light. He also had a tendency to take his criminal exploits out of the traditional urban settings and into unexpected settings without losing his distinctive mix of hard-edged style and grit. Here are a pair that traveled farther afield than most.

Reign of Terror (aka The Black Book, 1949) has my vote for the most unique film noir ever made. All the hallmarks of great 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.

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Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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