Directed by Anthony Mann; produced by William Cameron Menzies
In 1794, Maximilien Robespierre (Richard Basehart) aims at gathering absolute power to himself in order to complete the French Revolution. Part of this goal is to be achieved by the destruction of his enemies by any means, usually death, and a list of them, and why he wants them dead, is written in a book. It has disappeared and, since it contains the names of even his supposed friends whom he plans to send to the guillotine, he needs it recovered. For this purpose, he summons an ally to Paris. That ally is killed by Robespierre’s foes, however, and an imposter (Robert Cummings) put in his place. The stage is set for a Byzantine game of treachery, murder and blackmail.
This is one of the most interesting of movies directed by Mann, known principally for his westerns. The interest lies not in the plot, which is actually a sub-standard mystery, with an almost half-hearted romance thrown in. I can’t imagine that these aspects of the story received much thought.
What entertains in The Black Book is the direction, photography and acting, and they certainly make the film worth seeing. Mann gives the movie a nightmarish quality, with extreme close-ups of enraged faces, images distorted by light and shadows, claustrophobic sets with low ceilings and pressing crowds. In several pivotal scenes, the ugly bloodlust of the mob is influential. The Black Book is rather like a sub-conscious version of the actual Reign of Terror.
The actors portray their characters well. Basehart, a year after playing a psychopath in He Walks By Night, is a stand-out as the fanatical Robespierre, a man who believes only he can lead the people to a better life, and that that path must lead through rivers of blood. (How often has history thrown up that sort of leader?) There is no corruption to Basehart’s Robespierre, though; his fanaticism is pure, as is his devotion to the Revolution. That makes him scarier than any authoritarian just out to feather his nest. There is a scene near the end when Robespierre’s words work to turn the mob to his own advantage. This is fictional, as is most of the film, but is probably indicative of the man’s oratorical skill; it certainly was indicative of Basehart’s.
The other actors do as well. Cummings, in an atypical role, plays essentially a film noir tough guy in lace and a cut-away coat. Arlene Dahl is good as the femme fatale, though no one would believe her in the disguise she adopts as a peasant farmer’s wife. Arnold Moss is suitably Machiavellian as Fouché, later the head of Napoleon’s secret police (and, historically, much more monstrous than Robespierre). Minor roles are filled by actors who went on to long careers: Charles McGraw as the slovenly thug who does Robespierre’s bidding, Russ Tamblyn as a country boy, Dabbs Greer as an easy-going guard at a bridge, and Shepperd Strudwick as the voice of Napoleon.
Another interesting aspect of The Black Book is that few of the characters, even those on the ‘right’ side of the struggle appear to be attractive people. Even Barras (Richard Hart), the “honest man” hoping to save France, seems opportunistic, and most of those involved in fighting Robespierre are as ready to kill as their enemies. Cummings and Dahl are the most appealing, but the viewer cares less about their appearances in the film than he does about others’.
Simplistic plot aside, The Black Book is worth an evening’s viewing. Bogart would have been badly miscast in it, but it is nevertheless his style of movie, a blood-brother to The Maltese Falcon, with muskets and knee-breeches.