#485: Reign of Terror/The Black Book
Initial release: 1949
Director: Anthony Mann
When you see Anthony Mann’s name plastered on a film, you know in that moment that you’re almost certainly in for a really good western or a really good film noir (unless it was made in the 1960s, in which case it might be a really okay historical epic.) Throughout the 1940s and 50s, Mann made a name for himself with his cerebral films, full of dark shadows within and without.
Reign of Terror is one of his more interesting films from his 1950s film noir period. The very name is evocative of revolutionary brutality, and indeed the film is set in Revolutionary-era France. In this version of the French Republic, Robespierre has gone utterly mad with power, using his claim to the will of the people to sentence people to the guillotine, even his friends. And rumor has it that he plans to announce a bid for absolute dictatorship at the next committee meeting. There’s just one problem: his little black book that has a list of all the enemies of the people has gone missing. Without it, he can’t reasonably lay a claim to the idea that he alone can protect the Republic.
(In reality, one of his last acts before his downfall was to announce that he had a list of everyone who was an enemy of the state, but refused to name names. While there were a lot of factors in his arrest and ultimate fate, his failure to explain clearly who he was thinking of had his detractors concerned about another purge, which pushed them into action against him.)
Meanwhile, the Marquis de Lafayette tasks patriot Charles D’Aubigny with finding a way to stop Robespierre before he can become dictator. Charles does this by killing and replacing Duval, one of Robespierre’s agents in Strasboug, whom Robespierre has summoned to Paris. Robespierre tells him to find the missing book, which then becomes the focal point of the plot — thus granting the film its re-release title, The Black Book. It is for this book that people lie and kill, because whoever has it controls the destiny of the country.
Released just as the second Red Scare was taking off and the infamous Hollywood Blacklist was only a few years old, Reign of Terror and its infamous death list feels like a blatant attempt to link the political climate of the post-war period with the earlier Reign of Terror. While the original story was written by Aeneas MacKenzie (who also wrote Ivanhoe,) credit for the final script can probably go to Philip Yordan, who often acted as a front for blacklisted screenwriters (once claiming that he preferred them because they were better writers who charged less.) With that kind of pedigree one can easily see the similarities between HUAC and a paranoid Robespierre who would send his own friend Danton to the guillotine in the name of protecting the Republic. And on top of all that, a fasces appears on the podium that Robespierre speaks at in the film’s finale — completely ahistorical, but effective in getting the point across. As someone who’s taken a milder view on the so-called “Reign of Terror,” it’s perhaps better to ignore the historical context of the story and consider the political context of its production.
And what a production. Mann has cranked out the dictionary definition of noir here, all deep shadows and low angles, peopled by some of the sleaziest folk you can imagine. Despite a tiny budget, Mann and a dedicated production crew that includes none other than legendary cinematographer John Alton have put together a stunningly gorgeous flick that manages to make the French Republic feel dark, dangerous and enticing. Robert Cummings feels at home in Charles’ shoes, bouncing off historical figures as he scrambles to find that book, with Arlene Dahl to anchor him as the film’s female protagonist, whose relationship with Charles is hinted to be torrid, just enough to get you invested without diving too deep into a tangential story.
Reign of Terror won’t be terribly educational, as these things go, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a darker noir that also doubles as period piece, a glimpse not necessarily into the revolutionary fervor of a bygone age but into the dark heart of the McCarthyist nightmare.