THE BLACK BOOK (1949)
aka REIGN OF TERROR
A French Revolution story told like a film noir. In 1794, Robespierre, calling himself the voice of the people, has instituted his Reign of Terror in the aftermath of the revolution, denouncing dozens of supposed villains and collaborators whose names he keeps in a secret Black Book. Robespierre can keep his hold on the Republic because no one knows who might be in that book to be arrested and executed next. When his former ally Danton is called out and killed at the guillotine, the few friends Robespierre has left, including Saint Just, Barras and Fouché, get nervous. Robespierre decides to have himself declared dictator at the next general assembly, in 48 hours, but his Black Book has gone missing and he calls in Duval, known as the Butcher of Strasbourg, giving him absolute power to find the book before his enemies do, worrying that they will band together to fight him. However, Duval is actually Charles D'Aubigny, a spy working for Lafayette, and he and his underground cohort, the lovely Madelon, must deal with the shifting loyalties of those around them, and the growing suspicions of Robespierre, as they try to get hold of the Book for themselves.
This is probably not historically accurate, but it is a damned good spy thriller: fast paced, exciting, well-acted (though no one really even tries for a French accent), and beautifully photographed in the deep shadows of film noir by John Alton and director Anthony Mann. The biggest surprise is how good the usually lightweight comic actor Robert Cummings is as Duval/D'Aubigny; I wouldn't have thought he'd have the gravitas to play the hero of a historical action thriller, but he pulls it off nicely. He also pulls off the movie's best line, in character as the executioner Duval, explaining why he opposes death by guillotine: "What this country needs is an elegant slow death; give a man four hours to die—it's worth watching." As good as Cummings is, Richard Basehart (pictured) steals the show as the vicious Robespierre, always stoic and cruel. Arlene Dahl is satisfactory as Madelon, and the solid supporting cast includes Arnold Moss as the tricky Fouché, Jess Barker as Saint Just, Norman Lloyd as another underground spy, and Beulah Bondi as a rural grandmother who gets caught up in the intrigue. The fairly low budget is hidden by the inky shadows, the claustrophobically low ceilings, and the reliance on close-ups on faces: sweaty, distressed, grimacing. I’d never heard of this film before TCM showed it; it's in the public domain and available from a number of video companies, though the print quality is quite variable. An excellent little gem. [TCM]