Michael Atkinson applies his typical flourish to a rundown this week for The L Magazine:
How to characterize this underseen, historical-espionage demi-noir except as the bad seed baby borne from an unholy alliance, after sharp-eyed noiriste Anthony Mann, Satanic-pact cinematographer John P. Alton and crazy arch-modernist designer William Cameron Menzies got together to reinvent the French Revolution and the Great Terror and ended up with something like a mutant Welles movie? Or think of them as the Robespierre, Saint-Just and Marat of B-movies in extremis after WWII, treating history like a guillotinable royal, and restoring noir reflexes to their forgotten Gothic roots.
The internecine machinations swirling around Robert Cummings’s undercover Lafayette spy are too abstruse to parse, and in the melee of ghoulish closeups, painted shadows, dark alleys and brooding deceit even the most familiar actors are almost unrecognizable. (Richard Basehart’s Robespierre does an icy Olivier imitation, while Arnold Moss’s scarecrow-ish assassin suggests a syphilitic Adrien Brody After the Fall, and thieves the movie right out from under Arlene Dahl’s preposterous deliciousness.) Sure, the screenplay (by Mann buddy and script machine Philip Yordan) seems to be counter-revolutionary, or perhaps merely anti-autocracy, if you can untangle the allegiances and backstabbings amid the stressed—out gloom. Long lost in public domain and accessible only in TV prints that have been to hell and back, the movie is showing up at the behest of The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman, in a fresh print, for the sake of its fraught, semi-sublimated parallels to the HUAC thunderhead and its sweaty concern over a lost list of named names.
Full disclosure, Reign of Terror holds a very special place in my heart. It was my primordial encounter with one of my soon-to-be favorite directors. It was also my first double feature ever in New York at Film Forum, billed with Mann’s equally astounding historical-noir-genre-mongrel The Tall Target. The screening is organized by the website Not Coming to a Theater Near You, which I contribute to, and it promises to be a good crowd and overall good time.
If that isn’t enough of a sell, Mann scholar Jeanine Basinger agrees that “A strangely humorous, darkly violent film with just the right mix of nonchalance and commitment, Reign of Terror is one of my personal favorites in Mann’s work.” She elaborates in her landmark study Anthony Mann:
The script has an almost campy quality, in which the dialogue might be interpreted as a early spoof of the genre […] However, the movie is not a joke – it contains unsettling violence at an unusual level for 1949. When Fouchet complains about Robespierre, demanding of the crowd, “Shut his mouth!” somebody does exactly that – Robespierre is shot right in the mouth, a very violent image. Arlene Dahl is hung up and tortured… even a kitten gets kicked.
[…] Reign of Terror moves at a dizzying pace, creating a tension that never stops. It’s almost a game. There’s capture and escape, recapture and escape, played at a breakneck pace until the final conclusion. The movie represents a total triumph of form over content – or perhaps, form over lack of content. Mann uses every stylistic device he had learned and uses them well. Reign of Terror is pure fun, a “look ma, no hands” tour de force of directorial skill. No opportunity is missed. Shadows, bizarre camera angles, low ceilings, slick wet cobblestone streets barely illuminated, rooms lit only by candles, offbeat compositions, intense close-ups, gently lifting and descending cameras – all the Mann touches are present.
“Whatever you do, don’t miss Reign of Terror,” Doug Dibbern advised when he discussed Film Forum’s Mann retrospective last year for MUBI:
…one of the most fascinating genre hybrids anyone has ever seen: a film noir about the French Revolution. Because of its oddness, everyone who writes about Mann seems embarrassed to admit how much they like it: Basinger calls it a “personal favorite”; only Richard Corliss has the temerity to call it Mann’s “masterpiece.” The independent producer Walter Wanger was trying to make a cheap A film or an expensive B-film for the distributor Eagle-Lion, which had been tossed around between J. Arthur Rank, who was trying to break into the American market, and a guy named Arthur Krim, but this was just at the moment when Wanger’s career was disintegrating under siege from the IRS. Because of these odd production circumstances, Mann and Alton had freedom to experiment. And they did. The movie includes some of Alton’s most imaginative work—the inkiest of shadows, the most canted angles, mirror reflections that create the illusion of depth, and some amazingly creative rear projection work in the crowd scenes. The male and female leads aren’t as charismatic as you’d like, but their dullness gives the film a sense of brutal despair rarely seen in a historical costume epic.
I’ve seen Reign of Terror twice already on the big screen and will gleefully be returning for a third round. Basinger reiterates:
Critic Richard Corliss paid tribute to the beauty of the cinematography of Reign of Terror, calling it [cinematographer John] Alton’s “masterpiece” and quoting Alton’s statement that “in dark there is mystery.” Corliss says that “Alton put this theory into practice, spectacularly; he became the master of visual mystery.” Seen in an actual film print (the DVDs do not have the sharp contrasts of the original), the velvety blackness of Reign of Terror confirms this opinion. Every scene reflects visual mastery, whether it’s a long shot of a dark landscape with a lonely rider racing across while a windmill churns – or an intense semi-profile of the gorgeous face of actress Arlene Dahl, a dangerous light glinting off the white of her eye like shards from a diamond.
Critic Sean Axmaker (a name that could come straight out of a Mann movie!) casts his vote for Reign of Terror as “the most unique film noir ever made” over at his eponymous blog:
All the hallmarks of great film noir – scheming and backstabbing characters, hard-boiled dialogue, narrow urban streets and dark alleys wet with rain and crowded with disreputable figures, and of course the shadowy visuals and extreme camera angles of an unpredictable world – are dropped into the chaos and cruelty of the French Revolution, here run by the most ruthless gang of criminals ever seen. Richard Basehart’s Maximilian Robespierre (“Don’t call me Max!”) is the icy criminal mastermind and Robert Cummings puts on his best sneering tough-guy act as an undercover agent who is sent by Marat to infiltrate the Committee of Public Safety and break Robespierre’s death grip on the revolution. Wouldn’t you know that Cummings’ Paris contact is former lover Arlene Dahl? Their reunion is a shock of recognition quickly turned into jaded indifference, wounded hearts playing at calloused detachment while trading hard-boiled expressions of lingering betrayal. Of course, passion still simmers under those cool poses of apathy. Arnold Moss is Robespierre’s mercenary henchman Fouché, an oily, enterprising operative whose allegiance is only to himself, and Charles McGraw has a small role as one of Robespierre’s more vicious thugs.
And last but certainly not least, Jim Hoberman gives a capsule-sized tease at the Village Voice. Hoberman will be on hand to introduce the screening, in promotion of his new book Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War, which he will be signing following the feature:
Having already directed three highly atmospheric crime films, Anthony Mann imbued this evocation of French Revolution with a comparable mood of urban anxiety. An urgent, almost Wellesian film of endless treachery and perpetual night, Reign of Terror opens with a flaming montage and a hysterical voiceover decrying “the weapons of dictatorship.” Although Richard Basehart’s Robespierre makes a weak Stalin, Reign of Terror is a far better political gangster movie than either The Red Menace or I Married a Communist.