BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE BLACK BOOK (A.K.A. REIGN OF TERROR)

By • Mar 26th, 2012 •

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In THE BLACK BOOK, Anthony Mann’s deliciously dark, sumptuously entertaining period thriller set during the French Revolution, Richard Basehart, who plays Robespierre, lets his wig do the talking. Who ever thought a prop covered with white powder could be so expressive? Then again, Mr. Basehart’s wig is photographed by John Alton (AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, THE BIG COMBO), who lights this seemingly dense hunk of hair in such a multiplicity of ways, first pale and shimmering, then dark and frightful, that one begins to understand Robespierrre’s larger than life, almost hypnotic appeal to the French masses. This is not to criticize Mr. Basehart, who projects an over-the-top intensity that communicates the essence of blind ambition in one glance.

What’s more to the point is that for the first time on home video, one’s own glance can be so richly rewarded. Mr. Mann and Mr. Alton’s strangely pleasurable nightmare of exaggerated shadows, mysterious mirror reflections and labyrinth-like hidden rooms has just been released in a gorgeous MOD taken from the original negative. Finally, one can view this delirious film free of all the swirling detritus and cracking soundtracks of those unwatchable public domain DVDs, which, in the opinion of this reviewer, is not only cause for celebration, but should be shouted from rooftops.

This is a movie that continually has one rubbing one’s eyes in both disbelief and terror. Stylistically a crazy cross between a poverty row CITIZEN KANE full of deep focus tracking shots and an action packed revenge western edited like Don Siegel on steroids (with a virtuoso chase on horseback through a forest that would be more at home in Lilliput Land than the outskirts of Paris) BLACK BOOK is a work that burns all its bridges even when it is in the act of constructing them.

The plot concerns a missing book which lists all of Robespierre’s rivals who have a date with the guillotine, searched for by two agents of the republic working undercover, played by Robert Cummings and an unbelievably glamorous Arlene Dahl. With the aforementioned Mr. Basehart and a sinisterly elegant Arnold Moss as a devious political appointee the stand-out performers, BLACK BOOK’s story is told through the use of an unmoored camera whose wild movements seem to express the disorder of this specific period of French history, as well as the constant realigning, both personal and political, of its characters.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Arlene Dahl looking so beautiful. Mr. Alton has photographed her through clouds of lace, enveloped her eyes with a diamond-like glimmer, and encompassed her skin with a myriad of soft undertones the purity of which simply boggles the mind. Around Ms. Dahl is a world of shadows within shadows, accentuated by a wide-angle lens that transports both the characters and the action into a sphere of pure abstraction.

Mr. Cummings’ and Ms. Dahl’s breezy performances put one in mind of a screwball comedy submerged in a war torn landscape (not unlike Ernst Lubitsch’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE). Somehow this lightness exhibited by the main performers works within the macabre visuals that surround them, as well as Aeneas Mackenzie’s poetic dialogue, which finds metaphors expressing the concepts of political terror that parallel Mr. Mann’s use of doubling, especially in the compositions and camera movements. Mr. Mann frames his actors and these sinister shadows inside windows as well as the constricting patterns of shelves, mirrors and bars, with a fluid camera that is continually attempting to discover other, more open spaces, paralleling the main characters’ attempt to escape, only to become shut up again within another constricting frame.

While the concept of undercover is an major trope of late 40’s Hollywood thrillers, it takes on added resonance in the work of Anthony Mann, whose films express an affinity with the fates of complex antiheroes who are poised on the cusp between good and evil, working out a deep ambiguity both in the persona of the actors he cast (such as Gary Cooper in MAN OF THE WEST or the conflicted characters with a penchant for violence played by James Stewart) as well as in Mr. Mann’s mise-en-scene, bringing out all the possibilities between light and darkness, both formally and thematically.

Certainly BLACK BOOK has its roots in the closed and tragic universe of Fritz Lang, in particular FURY and RANCH NOTORIOUS, where innocent protagonists are caught up in an ever widening cycle of violence, just as Robert Cummings’ initially innocent and carefree character in BLACK BOOK being forced to become “the butcher of Strasbourg,” his alias, in order to defeat Robespierre. (A similar, more violent situation is in T-MEN, where the hero, an undercover cop, is forced to acquiesce to the murder of his partner.) What is most distinctive about Mr. Mann’s direction in BLACK BOOK is the aforementioned sense of ambiguity, seen as a continual change in Mr. Cummings’ character between being hunter and hunted, and finding both pleasure and fear in this dilemma, in addition to his own unresolved feelings about this double state of being, which is reinforced by the way the film is shot and edited.

The producer of BLACK BOOK was William Cameron Menzies, an Oscar winning production designer (GONE WITH THE WIND, THE THIEF OF BAGDAD) who invented many of the special effects and miniature production techniques used in films from the 1920’s through the 70’s. Although he is not credited as art director, one can see Mr. Menzies’ work throughout BLACK BOOK, for instance, in the use of a trio of riders in silhouette on a distant hill with a miniature farmhouse protected by a cascading oak tree (as in GONE WITH THE WIND), or the climactic meeting in the chamber of revolutionary delegates, the gesturing crowd portrayed by a back projection behind darkly dressed extras, the black and grey tones keyed to the torch lighting used in the foreground, which not only sustains a sense of monumentality, but also creates a visual compression that accentuates the feeling of claustrophobia and impending doom brought out by Mr. Mann’s use of the camera. There are also a number of spaces in the film containing chambers within chambers, for example, Robespierre’s headquarters hidden behind a bakery (one of the characters mentions Robespierre “likes to eat fresh bread when he wakes up in the morning.”), filled with torches and strange shadows through which the camera runs riot, similar to the use of actual locations in Mr. Mann and Mr. Alton’s prior’s films, such as the tear-gas filled tunnels under Los Angles in the climax of HE WALKED BY NIGHT.

Mr. Menzies and Mr. Alton’s contributions create a stylish surface of shadowy filagree that simultaneously contradicts Mr. Mann’s visceral mise-en-scene, while forming a constant dark undertow which enhances these images, bringing out the themes of collaboration and opportunism, which places one not only in the world of 1789, but also that of 1949. One need merely glance at the list of cast and crew, with names such as actor Norman Lloyd and composer Sol Kaplan, who were about to be blacklisted, to receive another, very contemporary meaning from the film about political paranoia and abuse of power.

For those who care, the Columbia logo is attached to the head of the film, followed by the Eagle Lion insignia. The soundtrack is so clean and precise that though there are no subtitles, I could make out every word clearly. Sol Kaplan’s surging and extremely chromatic orchestral score, simultaneously triumphant and melancholic (think of Mahler crossed with Offenbach), is also extremely well-served by the enhanced sound.

A one of a kind film that has been previously impossible to find in decent condition, BLACK BOOK, finally available as a pristine MOD from Columbia Classics, is a period noir crossed with an action-packed serial that will leave you on the edge of your seat. It is also a film in which both director Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton came into their own as creative artists, as well as Arlene Dahl’s most luminous invocation, and two memorable performances by Richard Basehart and Arnold Moss.

Highly Recommended. Film: ****1/2 Transfer: ****

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