Anthony Mann’s smashingly effective low-budget historical takes on the French Revolution . . . and wins! Deep dark serious fun, with a zestful pace, a purposefully jarring visual flair (lensing by John ‘Prince of Darkness’ Alton, with likely assists from production designer extraordinaire William Cameron Menzies, credited here as exec producer), a suspense-filled/action-charged story, and a level of supporting character actors rarely seen in an indie pic. Robert Cummings, sans his usual ersatz charm, makes a dashing hero, searching the back alleys of Paris to find Robespierre’s secret book of proscribed revolutionaries. It’s the only thing that can stop the unhinged zealot from becoming dictator. Old love Arlene Dahl is suspicious of Cummings' motives, and various VIPs of the distressed Republic (Norman Lloyd, Richard Hart, a marvelous Arnold Moss) are either too politically slippery to trust or stuck in jail cells awaiting M. Guillotine. Nonsense as history, of course, but great for film noir mavens, with Richard Basehart in clover as a wily, villainous Robespierre. ‘Don’t call me Max!’ Tremendous stuff.
LINK: Alas, DVDs on this much abused Public Domain film are (inter)laced with troubles. DVD Beaver helps sort things out, but you’re probably okay if you just avoid the mushy ALPHA transfer. http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/DVDReviews21/black_book_dvd_review.htm
READ ALL ABOUT IT: Victor Hugo’s NINETY-THREE (as in 1793) set the template for French Revolutionary figures for generations. But Hilary Mantel, of WOLF HALL fame, turns many accepted ideas on their (barely attached) heads in A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY.
DOUBLE-BILL: Follow Mann & Alton on their next collaboration, a crisply shot & plotted immigration drama, very rough for its day, BORDER INCIDENT/’49. From M-G-M, of all places, starring a commanding Ricardo Montalban & an unexpectedly effective George Murphy.