Depending on where you look Anthony Mann’s 1949 film comes under two different titles that are both equally apt. Reign of Terror denotes its roots in the French Revolution of the 1790s that saw the ousting of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette while putting Maximillien Robespierre at the helm of one of the most ghastly mobs known to man.
Any lover of history can call most everything in this picture into question but that’s almost beyond the point. This is not a tale that claims historical accuracy but a story of claustrophobic intensity that takes an era and builds an intriguing and gritty little drama out of all the sordid, twisted details. Perhaps more importantly than that it begins to draw parallels to the contemporary moment and that’s where the second title comes in.
The black book is the object that causes men to kill and lie and deceive one another because within its pages dwells great power to dictate the outcome of this kingdom on the precipice of something new. Whether or not that proves to be an optimistic direction very much depends on who gains access to said book. Robespierre (Richard Basehart) has lost it, the chief of the secret police Fouche (Arnold Moss) is intent on acquiring it for his own, as is a ring of staunch patriots looking to pilot their beloved nation back toward stability. That is only the main narrative thread. It seems like little coincidence that a black book shares great similarity to a blacklist.
In the 1950s, whether a concrete document existed hardly mattered because having your name added to this industry list was enough. Though not the same as being sent to the guillotine, for an actor or director it was tantamount to the death of a career as many found themselves out of work for years afterward.
While High Noon is often noted as one of the most high-profile blacklist allegories, The Black Book might be one of the most striking since it dares to find a point of reference between volatile and bloody history many years prior and the current reality. There’s nothing subtle about it.
Thus, whatever you want to label it, Reign of Terror or The Black Book, it proves to be a fascinating amalgamation of historical drama, film noir, and political allegory. Somehow it manages to be a low budget epic combining some wonderful talents that go beyond just Anthony Mann but to producer Walter Wanger, legendary cinematographer John Alton, and set designer William Cameron Menzies.
On the whole, it’s an unsentimental portrait comprised of severe low angle close-ups and shadows that spell film noir forwards and backward. It’s deliciously atmospheric, brooding with darkness and matched by ferocious stylized violence that sizzles in every moment of conflict. The sequences in front of the guillotine against the backdrop of the masses even conjure up the frames of Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc and it’s true that this picture ironically recycled sets from Joan of Arc from the year prior.
Looking at film from the perspective of a historian, one of the greatest enjoyments comes when I am able to view content that has a similar theme running through it whether a specific director, actor, genre, or subject. In a flurry of activity, I’ve been able to derive a greater appreciation for the talents of Robert Cummings in particular.
Though this might sound reductive, much in the way that Joel McCrea is called the poor man’s Gary Cooper, Cummings just might be the poor man’s Jimmy Stewart and I say that because he has the same type of everyman quality that’s easy to latch onto.
Although I could never see Stewart pulling off a period role like this and though not entirely authentic, Cummings is a fine protagonist navigating the back alleyways and roads of deception and treachery that dictate the life of a citizen of the New Republic. Even when he does something that might be suspect there’s inherent trust the audience attributes to him.
Meanwhile, stunning Arlene Dahl looks ravishing in period costume but she also becomes a multifaceted companion of Charles D’Aubigny (Cummings) and one of his only points of contact who proves reliable and resourceful. Otherwise, the picture is crammed full of all sorts of characters with varying allegiances and intentions, not to mention cameos from such figures as the Marquis de Lafayette and Napoleon.
If it’s not quite like the blacklist then you figure out how very easily it could be. The film takes so many about faces and turns by the denouement it’s hard to know who is in the right or wrong or more important yet who ended up on the right side of history — the ones who wrote the victor’s narrative — because oftentimes they are the ones who go down as the heroes. Whether that is true or not is up for considerable debate.