BASTILLE DAY CINEMA: REIGN OF TERROR (1949)

July 14, 2009

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What better way to celebrate Bastille Day than to honor the greatest French Revolution film noir of all time on its 60th anniversary?  None, I say! The baroque madness of Reign of Terror is shared by three great Hollywood artisans: director Anthony Mann, cinematographer John Alton, and production designer William Cameron Menzies. Mann and Alton cranked out  T-Men for the Eagle-Lion studio in 1948, which became a minor hit, earning $1.6 million on an investment of $424,000. Eager to cash in, the studio had the duo squeeze out the magnificent Raw Deal later that same year.

Looking to class up their operation, Eagle-Lion entered a distribution deal with independent producer  Walter Wanger to churn out some serious minded historical spectacles. Having worked on the John Ford-Gregg Toland collaboration The Long Voyage Home and Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, among others, he was supposed to bring respect to this neighbor to Poverty Row. He was given seven figure budgets for two films: Tulsa (1949, a Susan Heyward Western), and The Bastille.

It soon became clear that Eagle-Lion had overextended itself, and The Bastille was downgraded from an ‘A’ picture to a programmer (the budget was supposedly hacked to around $750,000). Working quickly to change the film from a big-budget spectacle to a historical potboiler, Mann handed Aeneas MacKenzie‘s heavily researched script to Philip Yordan. MacKenzie specialized in period piece paegantry, having written Michael Curtiz’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and who later went on to write the script for The Ten Commandments. Yordan went in for more pulpy fare, and became a trusted scribe for Mann, working with him all the way through The Fall of the Roman Empire in 1964. It’s usually an impossible task to assign authorship to scripts that have gone through multiple rewrites, but in this case I think it’s safe to say that Yordan’s fingerprints are all over this. The tongue-in-cheek humor (Robespierre: “Don’t call me Max!”…note that Yordan also wrote Johnny Guitar (1954)) and noir machinations seem to be miles away from the stodgy reconstruction of Ten Commandments.

Perhaps I should briefly note the plot…an emissary of the Marquis de Lafayette, one Charles D’Aubigny (Robert Cummings) has been tasked to go undercover and filter information from Robespierre back to the leader of the opposition, Barras (Richard Hart). His contact is an old flame, Madelon (Arlene Dahl). Standing in his path are Robespierre himself (Richard Basehart) as well as his lieutenants, Fouche (an unforgettably obsequious Arnold Moss) and Sant-Just (Jess Barker). Without the period trappings, it’s a police procedural, with a climactic chase and all the rest.

Confronted with a sudden lack of funds, Mann’s team had to improvise, and they did it brilliantly. There are a few visual motifs that Mann sets up with Alton, including a simple one involving mirrors, denoting duplicity and vanity, and generally marking the characters for doom. In the first image, Robespierre’s ally is snuffed out after admiring his visage. In the second and third, Madelon is shunted into the background as a trembling ghost – as she has yet to fully gain D’aubigny’s trust. The last shows Robespierre’s face in full plumage before it gets blasted off.

William Cameron Menzies had to whip up a crowd of thousands with a cast of hundreds. Leger Grindon’s book, Shadows of the Past, from which I’m drawing the production history, notes that in filming the National Convention:

The designer squeezed a hundred extras onto a small rising gallery of benches, flooded the set with irregular shafts of light, and then photographed and enlarged the scale of the image. These shots were integrated through rear projection with the foreground of the Convention. The crowd fills the flat space of the background and spills, limitless, over the edges of the image.

His inventive use of rear-projection in conjunction with his other tricks truly pulls off a sense of dizzying magnitude. In its uncanny vastness, Menzies’ tricks adds to the feeling of vertigo that the characters are trapped in, and which might possibly would have been lost in the higher budgeted version.

Alton’s cinematography is all claustrophobic menace, with an unusual amount of distorting extreme close-ups that emphasize the caricatured nature of the whole enterprise (while also obviating the need for elaborate sets). The grotesque figures that Alton frames lend the film a comic book sensibility, pulled straight from the pages of Classic Comix. One could draw a line straight from Frank Miller’s oeuvure to this film, for better or worse, right down to it’s darker than dark palette and shocking violence (a gunshot to Robespierre’s mouth is excised in some prints of the film. There is also kitty kicking, torture, and various other thwacks to the head).

 

According to Grindon, Reign of Terror opened in 1949 during the week of Bastille Day in Los Angeles. It performed modestly, pulling in under $40,000 before closing after 11 days. Before releasing the film in NYC, Eagle-Lion completely changed the marketing for the film, emphasizing the action elements while barely mentioning the French Revolution backdrop. The title was changed to The Black Book when it was released that autumn in New York (it’s been released under both titles on home video, although Reign of Terror has become the standard, as evidenced by the recent VCI release, which is supposed to display the best image quality currently available). Despite another middling box office showing, it eventually turned a profit after two years of bookings.

TCM is screening the film on September 7th at 1PM, so there’s no excuse. Rent the DVD or settle in with TCM, but by all means watch this sterling example of creativity seeking ingenious ways around a lack of cash.

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