To say that REIGN OF TERROR, (Anthony Mann, 1949), AKA THE BLACK BOOK, is like a comic strip version of history is not to insult it, I feel, but to compliment and define its particular wild brio. To put it another way, as Fiona did after watching the first few minutes, “This film is nuts!”
Screening the film at home after seeing it for the first time in New York at the Film Forum (bought the T-shirt), I was struck anew by the Jack Kirby forcefulness of everything — this is a three-auteur movie (discounting the writers, as everyone always does), and all three of them are perfectly in synch and turned up to eleven: William Cameron Menzies designs and John Alton’s cinematography alike stress the bold, graphic and simple, with Anthony Mann adding a particularly extreme form of his choreographed aggression and thrust.
Why liken it to a comic book? One obvious clue is the film’s relentless Americanism — the celebration of Frenchness and democracy, and the incessant hammering at tyranny make it feel like a leftover WWII project, although the show-trials and talk of citizenry and revolution no doubt made it resonate among anti-communists at the time. The dialogue, by the prolific and sometimes brilliant Philip Yordan and the less-familiar Aeneas McKenzie (a Scottish islander who wrote for Borzage, Dieterle, Wellman, Dmytryk, Curtiz and DeMille, specializing in historical and military subjects) is fearlessly pulpy and Americanized, and the delivery backs it up. There’s not a single English accent to add spurious “class” and “verisimilitude” — it’s ridiculous to suggest that Arnold Moss’s crisp Brooklynese (“Whyncha eat yer bun?”) is any less authentic than the plummy tones of Michael York in THE THREE MUSKETEERS. Tout le monde aurait parlé français.
(When I met Glenn Kenny for dinner and mentioned what I’d been seeing, he greeted this title with an immediate cry of “Don’t call me Max!” echoing Robespierre’s funniest line. Robespierre, not normally a funny guy.)
Apart from the visuals, which really blur the distinctive styles of the three main contributors — chiaroscuro single-source expressionism from Alton, bulging closeups, aggressive symmetry and violent displacement upwards and downwards courtesy of Menzies, and punching and swiveling movements from Mann — there’s the narrative style, which seems to transfer the crazed twistiness of Hitchcock’s espionage stories to a historical setting — true cloak and dagger. The strategies and counterplots barely make sense and could never have been implemented in the film’s breathless hurtle through 24hrs of intrigue and assassination, but as long as there’s a reversal, suspense sequence, chase or new disguise adopted every five minutes or less (and there is, at least for the first and last half hours) the impossibility is judged irrelevant.
The cast is so amazing here that it can afford to squander Norman Lloyd (a veteran Hitchcock plotter) as a sympathetic agent, and Charles McGraw as a thug with barely a line (McGraw’s beard softens his chiseled weapon of a face, and the lack of lines robs us of his unique voice, which he must have got from having to introduce himself so often: “McGraw,” sounding both gravelly and raw, is exactly like his throaty utterances. You can’t SAY his name unless you drink some flaming whisky first).
In first place, we have Robert Cummings, or the Terror of Strasburg”, as I’m now going to start calling him. Cummings is probably nobody’s favourite Holywood leading man these days, if he ever was, but he’s pretty good here, especially in his spiteful sparring with Arlene Dahl. His character has had some kind of ill-defined CASABLANCA-style falling-out with the former cheesecake model prior to our story’s start, expressed in some spicy GILDA sexy-hatred dialogue and hot snogging.
With those two (especially her) filling the conventional roles, the rogues’ gallery occupies most of the rest of the cast, and here things get seriously interesting. Richard Basehart is an interesting fellow (in Joseph Losey’s sluggish FINGER OF GUILT, Basehart essays what may be cinema’s first John Huston impersonation — see also Sterling Hayden in THE FINAL PROGRAMME, Clint Eastwood in WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART and D-Day-Lewis in THERE WILL BE BLOOD) and here he plays Robespierre as a dry, sexless-yet-somehow-perverted plutocrat and psychopath, a fanatic who uses his verbal skills and air of authority to conceal from everybody, including perhaps himself, his designs on power.
Jess Barker as the dangerous Saint Just is almost colourless by comparison, but scores with the way he disintegrates when things suddenly turn against him. But the real heart of the film, modern, campy and exuberant, is Arnold Moss as Fouché. Looking like the depraved elder brother of Adrien Brody, all hooded eyes, pointy, hooked chin and nose, a Mr Punch with a permanent erection, he sidles his way into our affections with his louche, droll demeanour and self-confessed treachery. When Cummings, playing up his cover story as a torturing swine, remarks that the guillotine is too mercifully swift, he suddenly finds himself in a flirtatious conversation about torture in which Fouché looks about to jump on his bones.
Sinister homosexual villains are a staple of Mann’s films, so much so that it’s tempting to assume some inner psychological component is on display, and not necessary simple (if it ever is simple) homophobia. Villains were the only male characters really allowed to step outside the ordained standards of masculinity, after the Production Code nixed out the comedy sissies of the early thirties, so having fiendish sexual inverts as bad guys would be one way to explore the subject (directors like Leisen and Cukor found other ways, but they weren’t making two-fisted men’s adventure stories).
Saw the movie in New York with Jaime Christley, who suggested that Mann’s enthusiasm for violence is what breaks through the beautiful mix of sensibilities. I mean, you can trace every aesthetic component of the film to Mann’s sensibility — all the visual tricks and tics displayed here recur in his work — but they’re also very much Alton and Menzies’ style. So the savagery (characters shot in the face at close range, the effect achieved by spraying them with stage blood) and sexual ambiguity is how Mann asserts himself. There’s a line from Robespierre about France existing in ” a perpetual state of violence,” and Mann takes that as his cue for the whole film. Even fluttering doves fly into shot as if fired from a sling.
The middle of the film, where Cummings and Dahl’s relationship has become boringly civil, and we escape the turmoil of Paris for a rural pursuit, is frankly less enticing than the hurlyburly machinations of Act 1, but a change of pace was probably necessary lest the narrative frenzy shake the cinemas apart like Lawrence Woolsey’s Rumble-Rama in MATINEE. The ending, a bloodbath followed by an ironic historical joke, is splendid, and it’s nice to see Arnold Moss survive: the Production Code would probably have insisted he die for his wickedness, but the historical record dictated otherwise.