Reign of Terror/The Black Book (1949)

reign terror 1.png

Depending on where you look Anthony Mann’s 1949 film comes under two different titles that are both equally apt. Reign of Terror denotes its roots in the French Revolution of the 1790s that saw the ousting of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette while putting Maximilien Robespierre at the helm of one of the most ghastly mobs known to man.

Any lover of history can call most everything in this picture into question but that’s almost beyond the point. This is not a tale that claims historical accuracy but a story of claustrophobic intensity that takes an era and builds an intriguing and gritty little drama out of all the sordid, twisted details. Perhaps more importantly than that it begins to draw parallels to the contemporary moment and that’s where the second title comes in.

The black book is the object that causes men to kill and lie and deceive one another because within its pages dwells great power to dictate the outcome of this kingdom on the precipice of something new. Whether or not that proves to be an optimistic direction very much depends on who gains access to said book. Robespierre (Richard Basehart) has lost it, the chief of the secret police Fouche (Arnold Moss) is intent on acquiring it for his own, as is a ring of staunch patriots looking to pilot their beloved nation back toward stability. That is only the main narrative thread. It seems like little coincidence that a black book shares great similarity to a blacklist.

In the 1950s, whether a concrete document existed hardly mattered because having your name added to this industry list was enough. Though not the same as being sent to the guillotine, for an actor or director it was tantamount to the death of a career as many found themselves out of work for years afterward.

While High Noon is often noted as one of the most high-profile blacklist allegories, The Black Book might be one of the most striking since it dares to find a point of reference between volatile and bloody history many years prior and the current reality. There’s nothing subtle about it.

Thus, whatever you want to label it, Reign of Terror or The Black Book, it proves to be a fascinating amalgamation of historical drama, film noir, and political allegory. Somehow it manages to be a low budget epic combining some wonderful talents that go beyond just Anthony Mann but to producer Walter Wanger, legendary cinematographer John Alton, and set designer William Cameron Menzies.

On the whole, it’s an unsentimental portrait comprised of severe low angle close-ups and shadows that spell film noir forwards and backward. It’s deliciously atmospheric, brooding with darkness and matched by ferocious stylized violence that sizzles in every moment of conflict. The sequences in front of the guillotine against the backdrop of the masses even conjure up the frames of Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc and it’s true that this picture ironically recycled sets from Joan of Arc from the year prior.

Looking at film from the perspective of a historian, one of the greatest enjoyments comes when I am able to view content that has a similar theme running through it whether a specific director, actor, genre, or subject. In a flurry of activity, I’ve been able to derive a greater appreciation for the talents of Robert Cummings in particular.

Though this might sound reductive, much in the way that Joel McCrea is called the poor man’s Gary Cooper, Cummings just might be the poor man’s Jimmy Stewart and I say that because he has the same type of everyman quality that’s easy to latch onto.

Although I could never see Stewart pulling off a period role like this and though not entirely authentic, Cummings is a fine protagonist navigating the back alleyways and roads of deception and treachery that dictate the life of a citizen of the New Republic. Even when he does something that might be suspect there’s inherent trust the audience attributes to him.

Meanwhile, stunning Arlene Dahl looks ravishing in period costume but she also becomes a multifaceted companion of Charles D’Aubigny (Cummings) and one of his only points of contact who proves reliable and resourceful. Otherwise, the picture is crammed full of all sorts of characters with varying allegiances and intentions, not to mention cameos from such figures as the Marquis de Lafayette and Napoleon.

If it’s not quite like the blacklist then you figure out how very easily it could be. The film takes so many about faces and turns by the denouement it’s hard to know who is in the right or wrong or more important yet who ended up on the right side of history — the ones who wrote the victor’s narrative — because oftentimes they are the ones who go down as the heroes. Whether that is true or not is up for considerable debate.

4/5 Stars

La Strada (1954)

220px-La_Strada_PosterFederico Fellini’s La Strada is in the tradition of other films like Chaplin’s The Circus (1928) and even Nightmare Alley (1947). He even goes so far as to feature two regular Hollywood performers in Anthony Quinn and Richard Basehart. This film is prominent for helping the Italian master achieve mainstream success, and it functions as a sort of crossroads. It still has one foot planted in a neorealist world with the other slowly entering a world of whimsy. It also suffered a production schedule that was as plagued with problems as the characters depicted therein.

The plot itself is relatively straightforward following a volatile strongman (Quinn) who buys a shy young woman off her mother to travel from town to town with him. He’s a real entertainer, and he teaches her most of what he knows so she can assist in the act. However, when they’re not working together, and the show is done, he goes right back to treating her badly and making life quite miserable for her. Zampano’s not the understanding sort.

Giulietta Masina has a starry-eyed quizzical face that elicits not so much a negative response, but one of perplexment. It’s the perfect visage for say a clown (which she masquerades as) since it can be so jovial and in the same instant sad and somehow distant. As her life on the road progresses she finally forgets loyalty and goes on her own to get away from Zampano’s abuse. While being alone she comes across the performance of a skilled acrobat (Richard Basehart) and what follows is a rocky partnership in a rat tag act that once again includes the strongman. But the constant heckling and joking of “The Fool” gets on Zampano’s nerves until things start to get violent. Once he gets out of prison for his behavior, he and Gelsomina get back together, but a run-in once more with his old nemesis turns out badly.

This time all the wind is taken out of her sails after what happens. She is a mime without any emotion, hardly any life left in her. One night Zampano leaves her behind in the night never to see or hear from her again. His existence from then on is as dismal as Gelsomina’s outcome.

Fellini himself suggested that La Strada was a very personal film, and it brings into question if he had a bit of Zampano and Gelsomina inside himself. La Strada also lacks the excess of his later films, instead contenting itself with simple roads and humble people — a stream of beautifully austere images without much extravagance. Also, with the character of Gelsomina comes a wistfulness that drives the tone of the film. As she contemplates with “The Fool,” everything must have a purpose, because if even a pebble has no purpose then everything is pointless. It’s in many ways a dismally bleak film, but still enduringly interesting.

4/5 Stars

Fourteen Hours (1951)

fourteenhours1Fourteen Hours is a taut little thriller, based on real circumstances that occurred in New York in 1938. The film opens with a young man standing on the ledge of a tall hotel in New York City. An unsuspecting waiter happens upon him and a traffic cop (Paul Douglas) spies him from the street below. All of a sudden, a mundane day gets a little more exciting for all the wrong reasons.

Henry Hathaway’s film has the kind of self-contained drama of a modern film like Phone Booth (2002) and a media frenzy that is in some ways similar to Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951). Really when you break it down it’s essentially about two men. Robert Cosick (Richard Baseheart) is the despondent and disturbed man tottering on the edge of destruction. He needs a friend. He needs guidance. The rapport built between him and Charlie Dunnigan (Douglas) is what keeps him where he is.

Outside of this main dynamic, we have a lot of smaller events all happening at once. The gruff deputy chief Moskar (Howard Da Silva) tries to work on the inside of the hotel to get the man indoors. A psychiatrist with a hypnotic stair (Martin Gabel) tries to divvy out advice to Dunnigan and others. Meanwhile, Robert’s histrionic mother (Agnes Moorhead) and his plain-speaking father both make appearances, but to no avail. They even finally track down his girl Virginia (Barbara Bel Geddes) in the hopes that she can get him down. All the while the journalists scrounge around for a good story that they can feed to their papers because this is news!

fourteenhours3Down in the streets below young people (Debra Paget and Jefferey Hunter) look up wishing they could do something. The cynical cabbies decide to make a wager on when the man will jump since they aren’t getting any more business for the time being. Even Grace Kelly makes an appearance (her debut), as a young wife who is about to go through with her divorce. But the man on the ledge flusters her and she and her husband have a happy ending.

Hour after hour drags on as Dunnigan continues to work on Robert to get him to come in. He loses his temper once, converses about fishing for floppers, and talks fondly about his wife. By far Paul Douglas is the standout because he has such a genial quality that makes his new found friend, and the audience, trust him. He’s a good egg as they say, and at the end of the day, he gets to walk off with his wife and son after a good days work.

I think it’s true that the film was remade as Man on the Ledge, but I doubt that I would ever want to see it after this film. Don’t get me wrong, it crawls a little bit in the middle, but the combination of this human drama and the plethora of characters lent itself to a generally interesting tale. Also, it’s never static visually. Hathaway gives us a lot to look at. I will admit that several of the storylines were flimsy and unnecessary, but it was still fun to see Grace Kelly for at least a few moments.

3.5/5 Stars