Robespierrre, a powerful figure in the French Revolution, is desperately looking for his black book, a death list of those marked for the guillotine and his key to the French dictatorship. It would mean his death if it fell into the wrong hands. He hopes that his agents will recover it, but if it falls in to the wrong hands, it would mean his ruin. Written by
Mann, Alton view French Revolutionary adventure through film noir's lenses
Out of the chaos and carnage of the French Revolution, Anthony Mann fashions not a sweeping historical epic à la A Tale of Two Cities but a tight and shaded suspense story. His gifted collaborator is director of photography John Alton, whose preference for the murky suggestively limned with light was never so evident as in his work here, in country inns and the cellars of bakeshops and the cobbled pavements of torchlit Paris.
The plot centers on Robespierre (a peruked Richard Basehart), who has embarked on a spree of mock trials and executions of his rivals in preparation to having himself proclaimed dictator; he's just disposed of Danton. A less than adulatory element loyal to the ideals of the newly formed Republic, but not to its current leaders, aims to stop him. One of their operatives (Robert Cummings) infiltrates Robespierre's inner circle by posing as the `butcher of Strasbourg,' a regional tyrant as bloodthirsty as Robespierre himself.
But in the circle of men closest to the power of the state, trust is a commodity in short supply; they watch their own backs and scheme to stab each others'. It's Cummings' job to negotiate this maze of duplicity and locate Robespierre's `black book,' in which he records neither his amatory conquests nor vintages he's sampled but his next victims. Exposure of this book will mean Robespierre's downfall. With the aid of proto-Bondgirl Arlene Dahl, Cummings races the clock in a round of near-fatal wild goose chases.
Reign of Terror remains a costumed adventure a chase movie but Mann paces it swiftly and slyly. And, fresh from some ground-breaking work in film noir, he and Alton give it a compellingly sinister look. Most period pieces are lit as if on the equator at high noon; this has to be the inkiest costume movie ever filmed (even Charles McGraw, as a bearded soldier of the Republic, goes all but unrecognizable). The darkness doesn't limit itself to the lighting the script, by Aeneas MacKenzie and Philip Yordan, rustles with ambiguous motives and queer twists. There's even an ironic note of premonition sounded at the end, when the slimy survivor Fouché (Arnold Moss), asks the name of a young soldier. `Bonaparte,' comes the answer. `Napoleon Bonaparte.'
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