Cast & Crew
In Austria in 1794, the exiled French general, the Marquis de Lafayette, sends his loyal emissary, Charles D'Aubigny, to Paris to stop the ruthless deputy of the National Convention, Maximilien Robespierre, from assuming dictatorial powers. D'Aubigny is to murder Duval, Robespierre's corrupt new public prosecutor from Strasbourg, whom Robespierre has never met, and take his place. Meanwhile, Robespierre tells François Barras, a leader of the opposition party, to present a motion to the Convention that would grant him absolute power, but Barras refuses. D'Aubigny finds Duval, stabs him to death and changes into his clothes. A few minutes pass and a lovely woman named Madelon, who is working for Barras, arrives and, in the dark, makes contact with D'Aubigny, who she knows has replaced Duval. She is to be D'Aubigny's contact with Barras, who wants to ensure that Robespierre never becomes a dictator. When D'Aubigny lights a candle, he discovers that Madelon is a former lover. After she leaves, police chief Fouché greets D'Aubigny, whom he believes to be Duval, and takes him to a bakery, which conceals Robespierre's secret headquarters and arsenal. Robespierre tells "Duval" that he has written a death list, the names of the enemies of France, in a small black book, but has misplaced it. Robespierre reveals that several members of his own committee are included on the list. He gives D'Aubigny power over all police personnel and threatens him with death if he does not recover the book within twenty-four hours. Later, D'Aubigny goes to a local café and meets Robespierre's confidante, Saint-Just, who tells D'Aubigny that he does not believe that he is Duval. Two men try to detain D'Aubigny, but Madelon appears suddenly and takes him to Barras, who says that he does not have the black book. Suddenly, Fouché's agents arrive and attempt to arrest Barras, but D'Aubigny claims that Barras is his prisoner and shows them his authority from Robespierre. However, Saint-Just is waiting nearby and takes Barras prisoner. Madelon thinks that D'Aubigny has betrayed Barras and orders him shot, but relents when he promises to free Barras. Later, Saint-Just tells Robespierre that Duval's wife will be visiting that day from Strasbourg. Meanwhile, D'Aubigny visits Barras in prison and tells him that three members of his party have been killed and that the party is being divided. D'Aubigny suddenly realizes that Robespierre has had the book all along and will use it to reinforce his position at the Convention. When Madelon impersonates Madam Duval and warmly greets D'Aubigny as her husband, Robespierre and Saint-Just are convinced by her performance until the real Madam Duval arrives. D'Aubigny and Madelon manage to escape and D'Aubigny rushes to the bakery's back room, where he finds Fouché searching for the book. When D'Aubigny finds it and reads Fouché's name inside, Fouché attacks him, but D'Aubigny chokes him. D'Aubigny and Madelon then escape with the book and are pursued into the countryside by Saint-Just and his men, but find refuge on a farm. Although D'Aubigny flees to safety, Madelon is captured and tortured by Robespierre and Saint-Just. At the Convention, as Barras is brought to trial, Tallien, one of his supporters, passes the book among the members of the Convention, who see their names inside it. While D'Aubigny attempts to rescue Madelon, Robespierre demands that the Convention declare him sole and absolute dictator of France. Although Robespierre claims that he has fought to give France back to the people, the Convention members turn against him and Barras denounces him. After Robespierre challenges them to find another leader, he is shot in the mouth and taken to the guillotine. D'Aubigny goes to Robespierre's secret torture chamber and rescues Madelon. Later, a soldier remarks to Fouché that the art of being a Frenchman is knowing what comes next, but adds that he is neither a Frenchman nor a politician. When Fouché asks his name, he replies, "Napoléon Bonaparte."
William Cameron Menzies
William Cameron Menzies
Jay Morley [jr.]
Jack R. Rabin
Roy W. Seawright
Joan St. Oegger
Gwen Van Upp
James T. Vaughn
The Black Book (aka Reign of Terror)
"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
The Black Book (aka Reign of Terror)
The film was released in the summer of 1949 as Reign of Terror, but when it played New York in the fall of that year it was retitled The Black Book, which was its original working title. The film opens with a brief prologue, narrated by actor Norman Lloyd, which introduces several of the main characters while describing the situation in France. In the final scene, in which "Fouché" speaks with Napoléon Bonaparte, the character of Napoléon is only seen from behind. Napoléon's voice was supplied by actor Shepherd Strudwick, but Strudwick himself does not appear in the film. At the conclusion of the film, the words "The End" appear on screen, after which the words "Of the Reign of Terror," appear directly below.
The story is loosely based upon events and historical figures of the French Revolution of 1789. The main part of the story takes place in 1794. While many of the film's characters correspond to actual people, the central character, Charles D'Aubigny, appears to be wholly fictional. A August 25, 1948 Hollywood Reporter news item includes Isabella Ward in the cast, but her appearance in the released film has not been confirmed. The film, which was shot on location at Sherwood Forest and Chatsworth, CA, marked the feature film debut of character actor Dabbs Greer (1917-2007).