Tuesday, February 09, 2016

THE BLACK BOOK (1949)


Turner Classic Movies recently showed one of the increasingly rare films directed by Anthony Mann that I had yet to see. Of course this thrilled me because I have yet to see any film directed by Anthony Mann that was not at least very good. He's one of those guys back during the days of the studio system who seemed to be able to move comfortably between genres and produce good films no matter what was asked of him. Oddly, this movie was being shown on TCM not because of the Mann pedigree  but because it was produced by the great William Cameron Menzies. Now I've been a fan of William Cameron Menzies ever since I discovered who he was (andI've even talked about him here on the blog briefly before) but I'm going to focus on this film from the perspective of being an Anthony Mann film.


THE BLACK BOOK (1949) is also known under the title REIGN OF TERROR and focuses on the rise of Robespierre during the French Revolution and his attempt to install himself as the country's dictator. The cast includes Richard Basehart as Robespierre and Robert Cummings as his foil. The film follows the broad outline of the historical events but plays fast and loose with details, as you might expect from Hollywood. Villain Robespierre takes hero Charles D'Aubigny (Cummings) into his confidence when the dastardly scoundrel loses his little black book. But this isn't a list of potential dates with Parisian floozies! This black book is filled with the damning evidence that keeps the ambitious politician's rivals fearful of him and without it Robespierre's chances of becoming the next ruler of France is over. The film very quickly becomes a fast and smart chase story with D'Aubigny in constant mental and physical battle with various groups as he tries to maintain his cover identity (which is keeping him safe from Robespierre's people) and trying to prove his real identity to those opposed to the scheming and powerful man while he frantically hunts for the book that will save both him and his beloved country.


This movie is tight, intelligent moving from scene to scene so fluidly that it's 90 minutes seem more like 60. Mann uses tight shots to hide the relative poverty of the production which was pulled together by Menzies get more use out of the sets built for the box office bomb JOAN OF ARC (1948). Mann cleverly frames most of his images so that the foreground provides information that adds to the main action taking place in the middle of the screen. The cinematography is incredible using light and shadow to great effect exactly as was becoming the standard in Noir crime films of the era. He and Menzies also use some effective back projection to increase the number of extras in crowd shots and to, along with smart sound design, give the often cramped sets much more depth.


In a lot of ways THE BLACK BOOK's plot is a variation on a classic Film Noir storyline but placed within the French Revolution. If you squint you can see the outline of DOA (1950) story played out her a full year earlier and in fancier clothing! This film is very much in line with the others Mann made around the same time such as T-MEN, RAW DEAL and RAILROADED (all released in 1947) and the brilliant BORDER INCIDENT (1949). He knew how to build suspense and he seems to have been able to coax great work out of his actors. I am never disappointed with one of his movies and I need to see the rest of them. I guess I need to find a copy of  MOONLIGHT IN HAVANA (1942)!



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