A State of Violence

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.

“Why aren’t there Arnold Moss Clubs all over the world, celebrating his greatness?” asks Fiona.

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.

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23 Responses to “A State of Violence”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by dcairns, Catherine Grant. Catherine Grant said: It's Anthony Mann Week at @dcairns' place: https://dcairns.wordpress.com/2010/08/10/a-state-of-violence/ […]

  2. David Boxwell Says:

    Moss does a slimy Mexican henchman in BORDER INCIDENT–less prominently featured, but still fun to watch. Basehart is magnificent in HE WALKED BY NIGHT (don’t miss this one, even though Mann is not on the credits).

    Alton’s starlights on Arlene’s eyes and teeth (!) are ravishing. Cummings’ role should have been played by, I don’t know, Tyrone Power. RC has zero sex appeal in anything he ever did.

  3. Saw this many years ago and loved it.

    My goodness I’d forgotten that Norman Lloyd was in it! I’ll be sure to ask him about it the next time I see hom — whcih should be soon as awards season is upon us in L.A. and he goes to all the parties.

  4. It’d be very interesting to hear his impressions of Mann. Have been promised gossip on this front from actor Brian Pettifer (the Lindsay Anderson trilogy), who heard it from Andrew Keir (Fall and Rise of the Roman Empire), but I won’t be able to gather it for a month or so.

    Moss makes a surprisingly credible fake Mexican! At any rate, the racial caricaturing is no worse than Alfonso Bedoya’s, although I guess at least AB came by it honestly.

  5. David Boxwell Says:

    What’s most striking about WCM’s production design is how purely abstract it is–no attempts at frou-frou French rococo on this budget! And, as a result, the anachronisms can play out most convincingly.

  6. Christopher Says:

    love Bob Cummings..but I think hes better suited to modern and more lightweight comical shennanigans than the Reign of Terror..an’ all them guys.

  7. Yes, the tavern is particularly striking, it’s just boxy walls with no ceiling beams, the sense of detail is created by the actors, their costumes, and the lighting.

    I thought Cummings did better here than I’d have expected, considering it’s not his kind of role at all. As Capra said, “Cast against type and it will be interesting” (a rule he believed in so strongly he never followed it himself). I could certainly see Tyrone Power working well, or even a staunch heroic type like Joel McCrea (who seemed able to do ANYTHING).

  8. Christopher Says:

    I imagine Cummings is good..I haven’t seen this..I don’t think even in ’49 Cummings’s “type” had yet been established so he was probably game for anything…I guess I just don’t see him in a leading role..I bet hes interesting in this.

  9. love the Kirby comparison–that’s exactly right!

    intrigue has never been less subtle than this!

    and it definitely works–both aesthetically and (as you point out) as a HUAC era paranoia fest (Robespierre definitely comes off as a Stalin type here)

    I want to add to the Cummings praise too–I thing he did rather well for himself in a number of different genres… Kings Row, Moon Over Miami, Dieterle’s The Accused, Devil and Miss Jones, The Chase (an even more bizarre film than Reign of Terror), Saboteur, etc… I think he adds something to each of those films–and several others

  10. My Cummings problem is similar to David Boxwell’s, above: he can definitely fill a variety of roles, but I’m usually conscious there’s somebody I’d rather see doing it. I’d prefer Joel McCrea in Saboteur, Ty Power in this, Joseph Cotten in Dial M For Murder. But it’s a personal thing. And I do like the way he handles the squabbles with Dahl: she has enough sex appeal for two.

  11. Tony Williams Says:

    What about Charles McGraw as a sinister French revolutionary soldier? Don’t forget his presence here!

  12. Oh, I couldn’t. But it’s a shame he has so few lines, that tectonic rasp of a voice needs to ring out, spelling DEATH in blood-drenched block caps!

  13. good rubric for judging a performance–I agree completely with your examples (I can just hear McCrea saying “We’ll win, if it takes until the cows come home”… he’s much better suited to Barry Kane than Hitchcock’s choice–Gary Cooper)

    for Cummings–I do think he was the best man for the job on Kings Row (a lot of people seem to deplore his performance, but I think it’s quite amazing–he’s basically a weak, indecisive intellectual for about 98% of the running time–how many other films revolve around that kind of character? who else–other than a non-leading man type like Hume Cronyn–could have done it?); likewise on The Chase (where his weak likability–although employed very differently–once again does wonders) and The Accused, where a more decisive type would have been overbearing in the part

  14. I still have to see The Accused, but as a Dieterle Week seems reasonably likely sometime, I will!

    Yes, these less compelling leading men have their uses. King’s Row is an amazing film no matter who’s in it — even Reagan excels, until the bathos of his last big scene (probably impossible for anyone to play).

    On the subject of non-leading men, I just re-watched Fall of the Roman Empire, and Stephen Boyd’s Livius definitely presents problems, both as an actor and as a character. Kind of the same problem as King’s Row.

  15. Dieterle week would be beautiful!

    haven’t seen Fall of the Roman Empire–I definitely should! For my money, Kent Smith is the greatest of the ersatz leading men–and that’s not a criticism, from where I sit–some people really ARE ersatz… why not tell stories about ’em?

  16. I can’t say I’m a Bob Cummings fan, he often comes across as a junior Frank Morgan but with less gravitas. He dithers and futzes far too much for “comedic effect” in my book, at least for a romantic lead, but as a foil he isn’t bad and may have had some success playing in a semi-Glenn Ford/late Dick Powell mode as a little guy caught in a plot that is way beyond him but fins a way to stumble through to some measure of victory. Not Gilda sort of films, but more in The Green Glove kinda way. He manages to be fairly convincing when suggesting his lightweight front was concealing more devious plans.

  17. Kent Smith astounded me in Renoir’s This Land is Mine! by being, like, GOOD. And interesting, kind of. Impressive, certainly. A far cry from his Cat People work, but there’s something about his casting in that which works also, there’s an idea at work, undercutting his positioning as nominal hero. And Lewton and Tourneur both loved low-key performances, and even low-wattage ones.

    Having Cummings murder a man in cold blood in the first ten minutes of ROT certainly helps set him up as something more than what we see. And then having the victim’s widow turn up is a useful reminder of his (otherwise imperceptible) bad-assedness.

  18. One of my favorite non-leading men was David Brian, he had a strange ability to project both intelligent and brute menace even when he wasn’t supposed to. Don DeFore could whip out a killer supporting part, such as his lightning-strike as Bill Schell in “Ramrod”, a great example of casting against type, but could you ever see him as a leading man? I thought not. One of the best was in this film, too – Basehart, who always seemed like he was holding something back – except in the self-surgery scene in the aforementioned “He Walked by Night”, still an excruciating bit of film and acting genius. Cummings was like a plug-in night lite, for the Studios and the public, a nice, safe, glow on the screen. He made money for the studios in a harmless manner, and this film shows you either liked him as a three-dimensional character, or you thought him lacking. I like the film because of it’s weird casting and frenetic aspects.

  19. Yeah, the whole movie is unreeling at the top of its voice, like it’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It suits the subject.

    I wonder how Mann conveyed his intent to the actors, did he explain it all carefully, or just drive them to snapping point? I’m hoping to hear from somebody who was told stories by Andrew Keir about making The Fall of the Roman Empire, maybe I’ll get some insight into his process then.

  20. […] all Americans. One thinks of the poor guy suspended by his thumbs in a baker’s basement in REIGN OF TERROR, as Arnold Moss politely asks Robert “Terror of Strasbourg” Cummings “Whyncha eat […]

  21. […] the end-all be-all of great designers. (The combination of Menzies, Anthony Mann and John Alton for Reign of Terror, which screened as part of Film Forum’s Mann retrospective, was my rep highlight of 2010.) […]

  22. Dave Levine Says:

    Any number of excellent actors could have played Dubigny but by 1949, Tyrone Power was aging and acting was never his strong suit (Just looking pretty was enough for most female fans). Ralph Meeker was one but too “macho” I’m sure for other posters here. This was Cummings’ first “macho” role and he did his best. Defintely one of Basehart’s finest roles and he was surrounded by so many excellent American charactor actors. It would have been nice to see the most Conservative actor in Hollywood, Adolphe Menjou in some role. After all, he was French! Richard Hart was weak as Baras but Louis Jourdan would have been excellent in his place. Charles McGraw didn’t have more than a line probably due to his Brooklyn accent. However, I never noticed Arnold Moss’s NY accent. And, by the way, I didn’t get the impression that Fouche (Moss’ character) was a homosexual…a bit feminine? Yes. I also don’t get the comparison of the film to the HUAC. I thought Jess Barker as St. Juste was terrific. The film in many ways was authentic. It was about a bloody period of French history and it had a humorous side to it that was very catchy if not a bit unbelievable.

  23. One could argue that an authentic French accent would have derailed the skewed, surreal reality the film conjures, which can contain Charles McGraw more readily than it could anything realistically Gallic. After all, if the whole population of France talks American, where would a guy with a French accent have come from? I like that the movie doesn’t really bother with the cod-Britishness usually deployed when representing foreign countries.

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