THE BLACK BOOK was originally released as Reign of Terror, but if you wanted to chase the wag a tad it could be dubbed “Rain of Noir”, as this frenzied 1949 dive into the high body count of the French Revolution swipes the stylized visual flourishes and flippant patter used in atmospheric and tawdry crime sagas and excitingly deploys them in a historical period piece. Tommy guns are absent, but the trusty guillotine is set on automatic.
“Paris. Never a dull moment.”
Power-drunk Maximilien Robespierre, his thirst for enemies of the ‘Committee of Public Safety’ to liquidate never sated, is poised have himself declared dictator of France. But his precious ‘Black book’, holding the list of those he intends to execute, has vanished. He gives feared prosecutor ‘Duval’ authority to find the crucial item. But Duval is actually patriot ‘Charles D’Aubigny’, secretly working for the Marquis de Lafayette and justice. Vive le whatever-it-takes.
“The real pleasure of my work went out with the guillotine. It’s all over too fast now. Even hanging, that lasts for a few moments. No, Citizen Fouché. What this country needs is an elegant, slow death. Give a man four hours to die, it’s worth watching.”
Buoyed by reception from back-to-back crime capers T-Men and Raw Deal, director Anthony Mann joined producer William Cameron Menzies and ace cameraman John Alton (“It’s not what you light – it’s what you DON’T light”) to craft this low-budget, high-quality 89-minute bruiser. Legendary art director and production designer Menzies (Gone With The Wind, For Whom The Bells Tolls, Invaders From Mars) was no doubt a major influence on the look, which cut corners by reusing sets from Executive Producer Walter Wanger’s Joan Of Arc. With a witty screenplay by Philip Yordan and Æneas MacKenzie, a choice cast pitched in, and the team whipped up a compact thriller that sports an intensity that’s almost delirious. The actors verve in chewing up slyly nasty barbs, the wild camera angles, extreme closeups and jarring violence mirror the convulsive, dislocating momentum of the Revolution run riot. Atmosphere-rich, with the narrow, slippery cobblestone Parisian streets in partial illumination, the shadowy, candle-lit interiors a furtive warren of lowered ceilings and raised tension.
“You know, at first glance, one could almost mistake you for a human being.”
Based on memories of his old TV comedy series and some smarmy roles in late-career movies like Beach Party, The Carpetbaggers and the remake of Stagecoach, it’s a neat surprise to see Robert Cummings, 38 here, score playing a robust action figure (he’s the hero) so convincingly. Just two years into his film career, Richard Basehart, 34, burns with smug wrath as Robespierre. Fresh face Arlene Dahl, 24, adds beauty and spice, and ever-harsh baddie Charles McGraw makes a formidable torturer. Most fun is the great character actor Arnold Moss, as the ruthless Joseph Fouché, chief of the secret police, an insinuating, self-amused snake: he gets some of the best lines and looks to be delighted to uncoil his cultivated baritone voice in full, diction-perfect flavor.
“There’s a revolution going on. Don’t stay out late.”
Produced for $771,623, Cogerson shows a gross of $1,900,000, putting it #142 for the year. FiddleDigits to the hindmost, seek out this witty, fairly gruesome thriller: it’s a dandy. In the cast: Richard Hart, Norman Lloyd, Beulah Bondi, Jess Barker, Dabbs Greer, John Doucette and Russ (then still Rusty) Tamblyn, in his second film part, age 15.