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.