Recently, I’ve been watching a fair bit of film noir, and indeed mulling over and discussing exactly what does or does not constitute noir. And that brings me to a borderline case, a movie that flirts with the notion of film noir, has some of its recognizable characteristics, yet stops short of fully satisfying the criteria. The Black Book (1949) was among the handful of movies Anthony Mann made just before he embarked on his influential and complex cycle of westerns. The film is a historical piece, a mystery/espionage thriller whose visual style is pure noir but whose theme lacks the ambiguity to allow me to comfortably place it in that category.
1794 – France is gripped by revolutionary fervor and the Reign of Terror, presided over by Robespierre (Richard Basehart), is at its zenith. The series of bloody purges have led to an atmosphere of distrust, insecurity and instability. With Robespierre on the verge of absolute power, plans are afoot to overthrow him while there’s still time. But that time is short; within days Robespierre will have maneuvered himself into an unassailable position and the opportunity will have passed. Enter Charles D’Aubigny (Robert Cummings), an agent acting on behalf of the exiled and imprisoned Lafayette. D’Aubigny’s mission is to infiltrate Robespierre’s inner circle, by means of impersonation, and see that the voices of dissent are provided with the means to remove the would-be tyrant before he has them silenced forever. This task is both aided and complicated by two unexpected factors. Firstly, there’s the presence of Madelon (Arlene Dahl), D’Aubigny’s former lover and his principal contact with the anti-Robespierre faction. And then there’s the black book of the title: Robespierre’s death list, a sinister little volume containing the names of those marked down for execution as and when the whim strikes him. It’s this book which forms the basis of Robespierre’s power, it’s impossible to be sure whether one’s name is included and that uncertainty weakens any potential opposition. However, the book has gone missing and the hunt is on to retrieve it before a critical meeting of the ruling Convention. Whoever gains possession of the black book holds the balance of power – able to install Robespierre as absolute dictator or to destroy him completely.
Personally, I feel The Black Book functions well as an allegory for the time it was made. WWII had ended a few short years before and the memory of the terror and slaughter was still fresh in the minds of everyone. It’s no great stretch to see the film as a warning against the dangers of dictatorship; even as the world had witnessed the end of one hateful regime another has risen up to take its place. The purges and sham trials depicted in the film bring to mind the repression and fear of the Stalinist eastern bloc. However, I think too that the critique of the cult of personality and the atmosphere of betrayal and backstabbing can also be viewed as a subtle reminder that even stable democracies can be manipulated by political opportunists under certain circumstances – the paranoia accompanying the red scare of the post-war years was already rearing its head in the US.
Anthony Mann built his reputation on his crime and noir pictures and that influence was carried through to a greater or lesser extent in most of his subsequent films. Thematically, his westerns continued to be psychologically complex even though the visuals (once he began to work in color) moved in a different direction. The Black Book, photographed by John Alton, is much more straightforward when it comes to theme and characterization. The hero is simply heroic; there’s no internal conflict struggling for dominance of the character and no sense that fate has the odds stacked against him. From the viewer’s perspective it’s always very clear who the good guys and the bad guys are, even if some of the motives aren’t quite so apparent. Still, the movie looks like a textbook example of film noir. Mann’s composition and Alton’s lighting create a dark and dangerous world for the characters to inhabit: high overhead shots suggestive of detachment, low angle ones bringing ceilings into focus and emphasizing a cramped, restrictive world, deep and impenetrable shadows slicing menacingly across faces or threatening to consume them totally.
Robert Cummings is generally thought of as a lightweight lead and sometimes dismissed on those grounds. I’ve always liked his crime/mystery roles though – The Chase, Sleep, My Love, Saboteur, Dial M for Murder – and have rarely found him disappointing. If anything, I feel his natural charm lends a touch of vulnerability to his characters. I have no complaints about Cummings’ performance in The Black Book, he handles the tense, suspenseful scenes well and is convincing enough when the need for action arises. Arlene Dahl is good too as the former lover who now has to work closely with the man she once abandoned. A rekindled romance does develop but it never has that tacked on feel that can make such plot devices tiresome. That this aspect works is largely down to Dahl, her coquettish insolence is both refreshing and attractive. Richard Basehart too is very effective as Robespierre; there’s a stillness and calm about him that becomes quite unnerving, only the glittering eyes hinting at the murderous zealot lurking within. As good as the leads are, Arnold Moss steals practically every scene he appears in as Fouché, the oily, Machiavellian politician who’s naked self-interest is a wonder to behold. In support, there are nice turns delivered by Charles McGraw, Beulah Bondi and Norman Lloyd.
For a long time the only way to see The Black Book was via ropey transfers of battered prints. However, Sony put out a MOD disc in the US that seemed to far surpass all previous releases. I never picked up that disc but when Koch in Germany announced their own pressed release of the title I decided to bite. I don’t know if the Koch disc is derived from the same source as the US edition but I can certainly say that I’ve never seen the movie looking better. There are isolated speckles but the print used is in pretty good shape and shows off Alton’s photography to very good effect. Additionally, this disc has the full, uncut version of the movie (as does the US MOD edition) restoring the censored scene that was absent from many of the earlier releases. There are no subtitles offered, just the original English soundtrack and a German dub. Having suffered through some appalling transfers of this film in the past, it’s a real pleasure to be able to see it looking crisp and clean. It may not be proper film noir, but any fan of that style of cinema should get a lot out of this movie – Mann and Alton present some stunning and memorable images. Bearing in mind there’s a satisfying and exciting story here too, I have no hesitation in recommending the film.
28 thoughts on “The Black Book”
Marvellous review Colin – I will definitely get the Koch release in that case as I have always been disappointed by the PQ on the versions available. I think you are spot on about its place on the Noir pantheon though of Cumming’s better films I would definitely add The Lost Moment, which has long been a favourite of mine. The way it reflects the McCarthy period so early on is pretty uncanny. Off to order the DVD right now!
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Thanks Sergio. I actually forgot about The Lost Moment, which incidentally is also available as part of Koch’s noir line.
I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in the least with this release – it is a major step up from any versions I’ve seen up to now.
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I think I got to see this at the NFT as part of their John Alton retrospective way back when and his collaborations with Mann are all superb but you must have the most seemingly atypical one here but it deserves to be better known.
Those who are into Mann and Alton’s work will of course be familiar with, or at least know of, the movie but it probably is rather more obscure to general viewers. I think the reason for that is twofold: (i) the poor quality prints that circulated for years and (ii) the unusual amalgam of historical/thriller/noir melodrama.
It’s such a classy little film though.
I’m sure you’re right there but as you rightly point out the subtext also really gives it extra ballast when watching the movie in context that also helps elevate it and worth watching decades later and without having to make any real concessions to the era that produced it – quite the opposite in fact.
Oh that aspect certainly helps it, no doubt of that. Given that Mann’s reputation has steadily risen over the years, it should be more of a celebrated movie. I sometimes think that the fact he’s so strongly identified as a director of westerns and noir pictures has meant some other works that don’t quite fit either category – The Tall Target springs to mind here – tend to get lost in the mix.
Great write up mate, and for a change I actually have this one so I don’t have to run off and order it! We spoke recently about finding the edges of Film Noir – something I think we both agreed can be a bit fuzzy sometimes. Maybe it’s the John Alton aesthetic, or Charles McGraw lurking in the background, but for me I have no problem accepting Black Book as Noir. It dwells in the same shadowy borderland as Val Lewton’s I Walk With A Zombie, Cat People, The Seventh Victim, and The Body Snatcher – brilliant movies all. Just one quick note on the opening scene, possibly the most effective use of rear projection I’ve ever seen. Talk about taking a limitation and turning it to your advantage – Absolutely nightmarish!
Cheers Chris. And good to hear I haven’t come up with something else to send you off in search of!
I think the film is borderline noir, although I wouldn’t have any major objection with anyone categorizing it as the full-blown form. Those Lewton titles you mention also get awful close, especially The Seventh Victim. Actually, that one probably is full-on film noir, and a terrific all-round movie to boot.
Haven’t seen “The Black Book” in ages. But the review inspires me to find it and watch again. I agree about Robert Cummings’ work as a film noir actor. He was so much more than the “Love that Bob” stereotype. His work in “King’s Row” is also notable even though most folks usually recall Ronald “Where’s the rest of me” Reagan in this movie. I also love the character actors in “The Black Book” including one of my favorites, Charles McGraw who was a film noir stalwart, standing out in the original “The Narrow Margin”. Great review!!
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Thanks Garry, nice to hear I whetted your appetite to see the film again. It’s also good to see more compliments for Cummings’ acting – I kind of understand why he tends to get pigeonholed as a bit of a lightweight but it’s not really fair and does his work a disservice.
As is so often the case, the character actors add a lot of depth and enjoyment to the movie. McGraw is nicely gruff and menacing in this one.
I ‘ve heard of this film under the title Reign of Terror. Can’t say I share your opinion of Bob Cummings in drama, but I would like to see this one after reading your fine review.
Maybe I’ll change my view!
And that’s another great poster.
You’re probably in majority regarding Cummings and, as I said to Garry, I do kind of see how he’s undervalued as a dramatic lead. I guess he’s probably one of those actors whose performances either click with you or they don’t.
And yes, the film is sometimes referred to by its alternative title, Reign of Terror.
Great write-up, Colin, and a fine film to cover. I have to be honest and say that, before I read your review, I took it as a straightforward period adventure, but it certainly does work as a noir piece – you could replace the setting for a contemporary American city and the soldiers for cops and it’s pretty much all there. What an interesting experiment in setting such a story in Revolutionary France.
On Cummings, for me he doesn’t quite hit the mark – I tend to see him as not quite able to carry a lead role, a lack of command of the screen maybe. As you say, the really memorable performance here is Arnold Moss, with his Orson Welles diction and utter duplicity, in fact it’s the latter that makes him effortlessly the most interesting character in the film.
Thanks Mike. I feel the film works on whatever level the viewer cares to approach it. As a period thriller it’s very successful, and it checks many of the noir boxes too.
I’ll grant there is something in what you say about Cummings lacking “command” on screen. He was never going to carry an out and out tough guy role, but I don’t have major issues when he was cast in parts which largely depended on playing to his likeability. Aside from the films already mentioned here, I thought he was fine in that early Twilight Zone episode he headlined. He was also in another noir I’ve yet to see, The Accused.
And yes, Arnold Moss is just wonderful in this movie, as slippery and unscrupulous as they come.
I’d like to refer back to Sergio’s post at the start of this excellent strand. I also attended the John Alton retrospective at the National Film Theatre in London (probably about 1973-4??) and saw this film there. Only time I have seen it and, as I recall, the print wasn’t the best. I possibly still have the NFT performance notes for the film. Must have a delve……….
I’d love to hear what those notes said about the movie Jerry, if you locate them of course.
Some films, whether good, bad or indifferent, remain fixed in one’s mind over lengthy periods of time; for me, “The Black Book” is one. As a pre-teen, this film was shown at our local theatre under its more exciting title, (at least to me, at that age), as “Reign of Terror” and, after viewing the “coming attraction” preview, waited with anticipation for next week. It proved to be dark and exciting but I lost track of the film over time, until, many years later, I found it listed under its “original” title, “The Black Book”.
I was pleased that it did not disappoint when I re-visited the film some years ago and was surprised to see a very young (Rusty) Russ Tamblyn, in a very early role.
Colin, thanks for an interesting review.
Thanks Rod. I think it’s certainly the mark of a good film when it not only sticks in the mind over a long period of time but also lives up to expectations when viewed many years later.
And apart from Tamblyn, there are lots of familiar faces appearing in the movie, often only briefly. That’s another reason the film makes for worthwhile viewing.
Nice post. I’ve seen this via one of those battered prints and enjoyed it. What a cast. I agree about Cummings, I find him a pleasant, watchable lead too; as I was getting into “old” movies one of my first big exposures and faves was Dial M so he’ll always have a special place to me, and I love him in The Chase. I’m one of these people who describes things as “noirish” (maybe too much) without being able to explain it exactly sometimes, so I appreciate your exploration of the edges, and agree that this one has that look and feel.
Ah, good to see a bit of support for Cummings, although I guess we’re in a minority on that score.
On Dial M for Murder, it was one of the first Hitchcock movies that I saw on TV and it made quite an impression on me. I too have retained a great fondness for both the movie and all involved to this day.
Hello Colin, found your site via Sergio’s Tipping My Fedora. Your question about what exactly constitutes film noir is quite timely for me as I have been asking myself the same question regarding books for my blog: Murder in Common.
Specifically, I am looking at today’s noir, from the hard-boiled to the hapless PI and all in-between. Some authors can create that atmosphere with a deft turn of phrase; others seem to rely on circuitous plot. It’s all an adventure.
Great post, thanks.
Hello June, thanks for stopping by. Sergio’s sent me plenty of traffic over time, and blogs to explore. I’ll be pooping over to your site shortly to have a nose around.
Deciding what noir really is seems to be a kind of never ending task; just when you think you’ve got a handle on it you suddenly realize there are other aspects you’ve neglected. Unlike some, I don’t worry too much about the location or time period involved. I think it is vital though to have conflicted, morally ambiguous characters, even better if that happens to be the protagonist. Overall, there has to be a sense of fatalism, a feeling that dangerous circumstances (not necessarily criminal activities, though that does help) threaten to overtkae and engulf the hero/anti-hero.
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Finally got around to this one, and I was rather surprised just how much I enjoyed it. Even though I’m a fan of the director, and director of photography, the French Revolution just never grabbed me as a possible venue for a noir, so I avoided this one for years. Boy was I wrong to do that. Great review.
Any era of upheaval offers opportunities for exploring darker areas and themes, but I know what you mean too about this era seeming a slightly unusual fit for such a movie. But it does work extraordinarily well and it’s great that it’s now possible to see the film in fine condition, which adds immeasurably to the whole viewing experience.
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Add King’s Row and You Came Along to Cumming’s outstanding work in drama, all of which somehow disappeared or vanished from memory, his and ours, after his great success on television. Certainly and without question his film work, and I mean both the quality of his performances as well as the overall quality of the pictures, see Stagecoach as an example, simply diminished.
Yes, his later career was much less satisfying.