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"What this country needs is an elegant, slow death. Give a man four hours to die. It's worth watching." - Robert Cummings in The Black Book
"I like [The Black Book]. In view of the poverty of the production, I think it would have been difficult to do better, and Richard Basehart made a remarkable impression." - Anthony Mann in a Cahiers du Cinema interview
The Black Book (1949), which was quickly retitled Reign of Terror, is surely one of the most stylized narrative films of the 1940s. It's unquestionably film noir, even though the urban location here is Paris in the eighteenth century, the time of the French Revolution. A narrator screams in the opening, "France, July 26! Anarchy! Misery! Murder! Arson! Fear!" Robert Cummings stars as D'Aubigny, an emissary of Lafayette operating undercover to overthrow Maximilian Robespierre, played by Richard Basehart as a sadistic monster with some entertaining dialogue. ("Don't call me Max!" he says.) Specifically, D'Aubigny is working with the underground to search for Robespierre's "black book," which contains the names of his future victims for the guillotine. (Made at the height of the HUAC inquisition in Washington, this film has obvious parallels to the black list.)
The script by Philip Yordan and Aeneas MacKenzie may be a tad far-fetched, but it serves quite well as an excuse for some brilliant visualizations. This is a film which shows what a fine director like Anthony Mann and a truly exceptional cinematographer like John Alton can do to elevate a project via imagery. Working on the lowest of budgets, they create period France utterly convincingly, and almost entirely from shadows and silhouettes. The result is a claustrophobic, oppressive noir, where danger lurks around every corner. As film historian Jeanine Basinger wrote in her book Anthony Mann, The Black Book "is a 'look ma, no hands' tour de force of directorial skill. No opportunity is missed. Shadows, bizarre camera angles, low ceilings, slick wet cobblestone streets barely illuminated, rooms lit only by candles, offbeat compositions, intense close-ups, gently lifting and descending cameras - all the Mann touches are present."
This is not to say that The Black Book is pretentiously "arty." Far from it. It's a rapidly paced piece of entertainment which just happens to be a beautiful exercise in style - a clear testament to the imaginations of those who created it as well as to the fact that, underneath it all, their primary aim was to please the audience. As Robert E. Smith has written, "everything in the film is sacrificed to speed and thrills." The picture is also very funny, with Arnold Moss a standout as the slimy politician Fouche. The film's final line, delivered by Moss, is a real corker.
Anthony Mann had cut his teeth in the preceding years by directing several excellent low-budgeters for RKO, PRC and Eagle-Lion Productions - films like Desperate, T-Men (both 1947) and Raw Deal (1948). T-Men, in fact, had been Eagle-Lion's breakthrough film. Formed from the remnants of the old PRC Films (the bottom rung on the Hollywood ladder, artistically and financially), Eagle-Lion was in existence for just five years before being swallowed up by United Artists. In that time, however, it turned out enough quality crime films to have quite an important effect on the burgeoning genre.
Hollywood took notice of this little movie. Variety's review pointed out the film's "breathtaking photography" and called it "a humdinger of an action melodrama. A thrill-chiller from start to finish [which] should place Eagle-Lion in the box office chips." Sure enough, The Black Book was a big hit for Eagle-Lion and led Anthony Mann directly to the next phase of his career. MGM's Dore Schary loved the film and immediately hired Mann to an MGM contract, and Mann wisely took Alton with him. Now they could make their movies with the resources and distribution system of a major studio. Mann's first film for MGM was Border Incident (1949), another masterful film noir, and soon he would be making A-level films. In a mere decade he'd be turning out some of the more expensive Hollywood epics of all time.
William Cameron Menzies produced The Black Book. It was one of a few producing credits for the famed production designer, who also directed over a dozen films in his career.
Producer: Walter Wanger, William Cameron Menzies
Director: Anthony Mann
Screenplay: Aeneas MacKenzie, Philip Yordan
Cinematography: John Alton
Editing: Fred Allen
Music: Sol Kaplan
Art Direction: Edward L. Ilou
Cast: Robert Cummings (Charles D'Aubigny), Richard Basehart (Maximilian Robespierre), Richard Hart (Francois Barras), Arlene Dahl (Madelon), Arnold Moss (Fouche), Norman Lloyd (Tallien), Charles McGraw (Sergeant), Beulah Bondi (Grandma Blanchard).
by Jeremy Arnold