The Killer is Loose: He Walked By Night (1948)

March 14, 2017


He Walked By Night (1948) strips the police procedural to the bone. There are no backstories or love interests, just the case at hand, rigorously filmed by director of photography John Alton and directors Alfred Werker and Anthony Mann (FilmStruck is streaming five Anthony Mann/John Alton Noir collaborations: T-Men [1948], Raw Deal [1948], He Walked By NightBorder Incident [1949] and Devil’s Doorway [1950]). Inspired by the 1946 crime spree of former Army Lieutenant Erwin Walker, the movie is obsessed with process, of both the cops and the killer. The police methodically trudge through witness interviews and crowdsource a sketch of the suspect, while the equally conscientious criminal attempts to wipe his identity from public record. Made in the semi-documentary style popularized by The Naked City (1948), though on a lower budget, it can be no-frills to the point of abstraction, as both sides of the law disappear into the shadows of Los Angeles’ sewer system. In late 1945, after his discharge from the army, Erwin Walker began stealing electronic equipment. He pulled off over a dozen such jobs, but he didn’t get into the news until he shot two LAPD detectives when they tried to arrest him for selling stolen goods. He then became one of the most wanted men in Los Angeles, and during the manhunt killed a Highway Patrol officer. From the court transcripts it was revealed the reasons for Walker’s burglaries: “Defendant told his friend of an idea he had of inventing an electronic radar gun, which by shooting a beam would disintegrate metal into powder, and by which they could seize control of the government and enforce legislation which would increase the cost of war to a point where it could not profitably be waged, effecting this primarily by raising to a high level the salaries paid to soldiers.” He was convicted of murder in 1947 and let out on parole in 1974.


The script by John C. Higgins, with original story by Crane Wilbur, uses the broad outlines of Walker’s case history, though changes around some details. The Erwin Walker character is named Roy (Richard Basehart), who is introduced trying to jimmy open the lock of a jewelry store, before a black and white cop car cruises by and Roy becomes a cop killer as well as a thief. The investigation of the crime is led by Police Captain Breen (Roy Roberts) and his team of surly hulking detectives. The movie goes to great lengths to emphasize the hard work put in by the police force, which is depicted as a finely tuned watch cycling through witnesses with precision, as the voice-of-god narration nails home over and over. But as Raymond Chandler notes in one of his published letters, the police’s activities in the movie seem to skim the boundaries of legality, as they seemingly arrest everybody in the city with a passing resemblance to Roy’s description, regardless of evidence. Chandler wrote, “to me the really shocking thing about the picture was the assumption that the gestapo methods of the police are natural and proper. By what authority do they mark off an area and bring everyone inside it for questioning? This is nothing but arrest without warrant…”

This aggressive dragnet dredged up plenty of shady characters, but no one connected to Roy’s crimes. So next they create a composite sketch of Roy from all the burglary and hold-up witnesses who glimpsed his face, using slides of different facial features to jog their memories. This is orchestrated by the forensics guy Lee, played with “just the facts” bluntness by Jack Webb, who would later produce and star in Dragnet (which lifts “only the names are changed – to protect the innocent” from the opening crawl). Webb’s work on He Walked By Night led directly to the TV show, as Webb got to talking with technical advisor Detective Sergeant Marty Wynn.  Those conversations turned into Dragnet, which took He Walked By Nights minimalist approach to television.


The cops’ big break comes on a random interview with a milkman, who had seen a man of Roy’s appearance on one of his routes. So it is a combination of new technology (the sketch slides) and old fashioned shoe leather that finally encircle Roy. Richard Basehart has very little dialogue in the film – he’s mostly reacting to noises and other stimuli that might give away his identity. It is a performance of watchful intensity, seen in gruesome detail when he has to remove a bullet from his gut. John Alton trains his camera on Basehart’s face, beads of sweat coalescing on his brow, his lips set in a line of grim determination. What makes this one of the great bullet removal scenes is the fact that it plays against silence. There is no score blaring in the background manipulating the tone, the filmmakers force it all into Basehart’s face, and it is terrifying, no more so than the little flicker of a grin that flashes across his faces after he finishes.

There has always been a question as to the film’s authorship. The directing credit is given to Alfred Werker (Repeat Performance [1947]), though there have been numerous reports that Werner was removed (or had to step down) early in production, and that Mann directed the majority of the feature. Mann collaborated with John Alton throughout this period (twice before in 1948), and the brutal physicality of the bullet removal scene, unflinching as it stares into Roy’s face, is a hallmark of Mann’s unflinching kind of cinema. But it could also be at the suggestion of John Alton, one of those cinematographers whose signature is obvious a few frames into a movie, and He Walked By Night is filled with serrated shadows thrown by blinds in cheap offices. Max Alvarez, in The Crime Films of Anthony Mann, goes farthest in trying to assign credit for the feature. He interviewed dialogue director Stewart Stern, who said, “I don’t remember the reason Tony took over. I think Werker got sick. I think I got a call telling me that I would have to replace Werker the next day. Then Tony appeared and I’ve never been more relieved in my life! I don’t think Werker worked a day on that, but I’m not sure.” So while the timeline is unclear, and Werker may have had some influence for an early part of the shoot, it seems clear that Mann directed the majority of the film, and it is generally considered part of his filmography, part of his incredible 1948 that also includes Raw Deal and T-Men, two other crime docudramas that push the illusion of reality.


For most of its running time He Walked By Night is relentlessly focused on process, on the next clue or the next interview. The remarkable closing sequence in the sewers, which precedes a similar scene in The Third Man by a year, finds Roy using the underground tunnels as his getaway, though the cops have been sealing off the exits. Alton streams in shafts of light offscreen that reflect off the pooled water but keep Roy in shadows. Roy keeps searching for a manhole cover to emerge out of but they are stopped up by the cops. This elusive cipher, who always had an alternate escape route, is now trapped and mortal. His death is framed not as a triumph but as the natural result of an effective police force. It is a clinical and menacing end to this brutally efficient noir.


June 17, 2014

The Man from Laramie poster 1

The five Westerns that Jimmy Stewart made for director Anthony Mann proceed with the inexorable grim fates of Greek tragedy. The Man From Laramie (1955), their final collaboration, circles around the perverse machinations of the Waggoman family, rich ranch owners who are overflowing with cattle and Oedipal anxieties. Stewart is the rootless antagonist who triggers their fears into violence. These are characters weighted with symbolic significance, from the blinded patriarch to his spoiled, elaborately dressed son, but the film never sinks under that weight. Mann’s widescreen cinematography of the parched New Mexico desert keeps nature in balance with the corroded psyches of his protagonists. The West is not an expressionist tool for Mann, but a hard reality that is irreducible to his film’s characters. As Andre Bazin wrote in his 1956 review of The Man From Laramie, “when his camera pans, it breathes.” This breathing is made visible in the superb limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time, remastered from the original negative in a 4K scan, and presented in its original 2.55:1 aspect ratio for the first time on home video. It’s available exclusively through Screen Archives.


Anthony Mann and his screenwriter Philip Yordan were very consciously going after mythic resonances in their Westerns together. Yordan said he was trying to, “find again the purities of heroes of ancient tragedies, of Greek tragedies, and on this I was in perfect agreement with Anthony Mann.” Adapted from Thomas T. Flynn’s 1954 novel by Yordan and Frank Burt,  The Man From Laramie circulates around the Waggoman family, a doomed gene pool overflowing with hubris. Patriarch Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp) is an aging dictatorial ranch owner, one who built up his land through intimidation, but now desires a life of quietude. His son Dave (Alex Nicol) denies him any peace, a short-fused man-child decked out in leather fringe who lashes out against any perceived slight. Dave is Alec’s sole heir, while it is Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy) who in actuality manages the ranch, keeping Dave out of scrapes and hoping for a large slice of inheritance himself. When Will Lockhart (Stewart) rolls into town, all of the festering insecurities of the Waggoman family ooze into the open. Lockhart comes from his own broken home on a mission of vengeance – seeking the man who sold repeating rifles to the Apache, rifles that gunned down his Army cavalry brother.


Lockhart’s presence activates the Waggoman’s pre-ordained doom, foretold in one of Alec’s dreams, in which a tall slender man kills his son and destroys his family. As in Oedipus Rex, Alec misreads the symbolism of the dream, and suffers his inevitable fate. The family atmosphere is suffocating, but the world of the CinemaScope frame is airy and free. Lockhart is introduced  in a long shot in the desert, traveling from left to right in the frame, pausing to peer at the horizon. He appears as if he is the traditional Western hero, exerting his will over the land. But as the narrative will prove, no one has control other than the fates, and nature rolls along on its own, indifferent to the violence executed amid its beauty. Bazin again:

In most Westerns, even in the best ones like Ford’s, the landscape is an expressionist framework where human trajectories come to make their mark. It Anthony Mann it is an atmosphere. Air itself is not separate from earth and water. Like Cezanne, who wanted to paint it, Anthony Mann wants us to feel aerial space, not like a geometric container, a vacuum from one horizon to the other, but like the concrete quality of space. When his camera pans, it breathes.

Humanity’s imprint on the land is transient. In the opening, Lockhart finds scraps of his brother’s cavalry troop, bits of torched wagon wheel and army uniform. All signs of life have been effaced, and soon there will be nothing. The same can be said for Waggoman’s ranch, Alec’s gesture towards permanence threatened with extinction thanks to Dave and Vic’s rivalry for Alec’s affections.

The Man From Laramie (1955) 4

As the film’s instigating force, Lockhart is a man of abiding hatred. As his old coot sidekick will tell him, “hate’s unbecoming on a man like you. On some people it shows.” While Mann prefers to depict the arid landscape in long shot, his few close-ups are used to emphasize Lockhart’s humiliation. In the inciting act, Dave Waggoman orders Lockhart to be tied up and dragged through a fire. Jimmy Stewart’s face turns into an agonized rictus, his voice a swallowed down yelp. The Man From Laramie is a brutally violent film, and Mann claims to have pushed the Stewart and his character to his limit:  “That [film] distilled our relationship. I reprised themes and situations by pushing them to their paroxysms. So the band of cowboys surround Jimmy and rope him as they did before in Bend of the River, but here I shot him through the hand!.” The Man From Laramie is a gorgeous paroxysm, one that depicts suffocating, doomed intimacy in the open air. It features one of Stewart’s finest performances, pitched between his natural gentle demeanor, seen in his guarded flirtation with the Waggoman niece (Cathy O’Donnell), and  blinkered, self-destructive rage, whenever his physical boundaries are violated. He is a docile animal except when cornered, when he attempts to carve his own fate out of others’ flesh.


Man of the West: Booklet Essay


Man of the West is riven with pain. Made in 1958 during the twilight of the Western genre, it is reflective and interiorized, mapping twisted psychological landscapes over the flattened physical ones. Director Anthony Mann was obsessed with transposing King Lear into the Western, with Lear figures appearing in The Furies (1950), The Man From Laramie (1955), and Man of the West. Mann had dreams of making a more faithful Western adaptation of Lear, and would pursue it the rest of his life. He was working on a version simply titled The King at the time of his death in 1967.

In The Furies and The Man From Laramie these dissipated patriarchs are corrupted cattle barons, while in Man of the West it is a sociopathic dementia-addled bandit named Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb) – who has three sons instead of Lear’s daughters. Gary Cooper plays Dock’s nephew Link, who was once in murderous thrall to Dock, but has since reformed and married. After a thwarted train robbery Link is absorbed back into Dock’s orbit, and is forced to confront the sins of his youth.

Man of the West was initiated by producer Walter C. Mirisch, who had moved his independent production unit from Allied Artists over to United Artists. He had an affection for aging, totemic Western stars, but tried to pair them with more “adult”, and violent, subject matter. Mirisch’s first production for UA was Fort Massacre (1958), a siege Western starring Joel McCrea. McCrea played a cavalry commander pushed to madness by his hatred of the Apache. The next star Mirisch wanted to dirty up was Cooper. So he sent him the novel The Border Jumpers by Will C. Brown, which Cooper approved. Instead of handing script duties to a genre veteran, Mirisch gave the job to Reginald Rose, who came out of high-toned television dramas, and who had written the popular film adaptation of 12 Angry Men (1957).

The script was a hard and violent character study, so Mirisch then brought on Anthony Mann to bring out its psychological subtleties. Mann had recently completed a remarkable series of five Westerns with James Stewart, ending with The Man From Laramie. In Laramie Stewart wandered into the Oedipal anxieties of a power hungry cattle family, the Western landscape a battleground of macho neuroses. The family unit in Man of the West is even more perverse, an all-male gang of thieves led by a half-mad old coot.

Dock Tobin seems to have cracked since Link’s departure, his crew a sloppy bunch of thugs and idiots, including a sweaty mute (Royal Dano) and a jumpy pervert (Jack Lord) Unlike Lear, there is no one left to inherit his ramshackle kingdom (an isolated ranch).  The re-appearance of Link ignites his old dreams, and so the old man ranting in a rocking chair flails to life, scheming a big bank job. He immediately begins remembering their past exploits: ”God forgive us we painted their walls with blood that time”.  But the bank no longer exists — it’s just another figment of past glories swirling in Dock’s head.

This is one of Mann’s most precisely choreographed films, with figures constantly activating each quadrant of the CinemaScope frame. The extended night sequence set at Dock’s ranch shows his command of composition. Link, along with two civilians, have been stranded by a botched train heist. The only home within walking distance is Dock’s, so LInk plays along with Dock’s delusion until he can figure a way out. At their first meeting in the ranch house the Tobin gang and Link stand stock still as Dock weaves his way between them, as if Dock had stopped time through his reminiscences. As the evening progresses it moves from Dock’s dreams to a living nightmare. The stillness of the Tobin gang remains (Jonathan Rosenbaum has compared these compositions to Antonioni), but the threat of violence ratchets up when Billie (Julie London) enters the room. Mann begins to utilize low-angle, looming close-ups, while the flickering of the lamplight captured by DP Ernest Haller gives the room an infernal feel. Eventually Link is held at knifepoint as Billie is forced to strip. It only stops when Dock asserts his newfound virility and orders everyone out, emptying out the frame. The whole sequence is a series of constricting horizontals, a visual template that reappears in the final shootout, done in between the floor slats of crumbling ghost town homes.

The whole film feels like an ending. For Westerns at large, for Anthony Mann’s artistic peak , and for the career of Gary Cooper. It is one of Cooper’s greatest performances, borne out of intense physical debility. At the time of shooting Cooper was almost sixty, and suffering from intense back pain, which he blamed on an old hip injury. For him the production was a test of how much pain he could endure. Mirisch marveled at his professionalism: “That particular day, I saw that Coop was very upset. When I asked him what the trouble was, he told me his back pain was just excruciating. …He told me that the pain of riding his horse down that street was almost unendurable. I could see it in his face. I suggested to him that he let his double…do the ride in a long shot. But he wouldn’t hear of it. He said, ‘No, I have to do it. You have to be close on me.’ And he did do the ride down that street himself.” It is unclear if his poor health was related to the prostate cancer that ultimately killed him in 1961, but his body was failing him. His performance is heroic – one of tensed, grimacing fragility, his reformed outlaw clinging to life out of sheer will.

Though he does not portray the Lear role, he conveys its complicated emotions more than Lee J. Cobb’s more straightforward, harrumphing villainy. Cooper is conflicted, violent, and obsolete, introduced gawking at the new railroad carving through the West. He recoils from the smoke belched out by these iron leviathans. He has to board the beast, and these opening sequences are almost slapstick, as Cooper fumbles with his seat and repeatedly lunges into the passenger ahead of him. He only regains his authority by entering into Tobin’s demented dream of their shared violent past. Cooper forces his body into its familiar ramrod posture to once again face down the bad guys, with his mortality pressing down on every frame.


November 10, 2009

men in war

Robert Ryan looks exhausted in Men In War, Anthony Mann’s spare Korean War drama. He focuses all of his energy on curling his upper lip, slitting his eyes, and furrowing his brow, as you see in the photo above. He’s worried, tired, broken. He delivers the dialogue with a laconic flatness, never rising above a low rumble. His Lt. Benson confronts a dead soldier with the same intonation as he does a busted radio: “This war, you’re either healthy or you’re dead”. He continues doing his job out of inertia, prodded on by the desperate stares of his men. His weary resignation shifts into a bitter nihilism before the final battle, and Ryan handles the transition by adding a tremolo to his voice and taking off his helmet, revealing his matted-down mop of hair. Working with Mann, it’s a masterful bit of sepulchral underplaying, keyed to the battered landscape and the canny enemies that hide inside it.

Based on Van van Praag’s WWII novel, Day Without End (1949), and adapted for the screen by Philip Yordan (in collaboration with the blacklisted Ben Maddow, who is uncredited), Men In War follows Lt. Benson and his unit as they are cut off from central command and try to fight their way out from behind enemy lines. They are joined by the amoral Sergeant Montana (Aldo Ray) and his Colonel (Robert Keith), who has been shell-shocked into silence. All of these men are literally disconnected, as the opening scene finds the radio man repeatedly calling for help as Mann pans over a smoky, desolate horizon. No answer. This opening shot sets up the soldiers’ growing alienation from the army, and the incipient danger of the landscape, from which Mann and cinematographer Ernest Haller (who does fine foggy work) will wring a series of compositions emphasizing the North Korean’s mastery of the terrain. Manny Farber:  “…the terrain is special in that it is used, kicked, grappled, worried, sweated up, burrowed into, stomped on.”  Mann focuses on boots in mud and “threading lines at twilight” that emphasis the physical toll of battle. Nature is synonymous with death, and it shows in every crease on Ryan’s brow.

Mann cements this early on, in a rhyming composition between a dead, slumped over soldier, and Ryan’s resting body in a foxhole. Ryan is the walking dead, and so are his men, but they move on. While American bodies are slumped and lifeless, devoured by their surroundings, their Korean adversaries show off their knowledge of the terrain.

They have all the tactical advantages, while Ryan’s men start to reach a hysterical pitch of complaining. There are two central conflicts, one between Benson and Montana, and the other between soldier and landscape. Montana is a shoot-first, take-no-prisoners type, whose fearlessness and brutality saves lives and bruises Benson’s already wounded nobility. Benson is trying to maintain a code of honor, but events keep spiraling out of control, with Montana’s smiling head pulling a trigger to solve the problem. Benson demands that Montana take a prisoner – and he guns him down instead. When Benson inspects the body, he discovers a pistol in the hat that would probably have taken him down. Montana simply wants to get his Colonel home safe, this doddering old man the only thing left in the world that he values. Army protocol takes a beating here, which drew the ire of the U.S. Armed Services, who publicly condemned the film and refused any assistance in its production, from on-set experts to weapons and ammunition.

The Benson-Montana showdown plays out in a rather predictable manner, but Ryan and Ray imbue it with enough bleary resignation and childish psychosis, respectively, that it’s an effective microcosm of the broader drama of man versus nature. The only sense in which Mann allows these soldiers a measure of control is in his obsessive inserts of hands – especially in the exchange of cigarettes. These close-ups show the miniature world in which Benson can gain control of. Outside, Montana is overthrowing his ethics and the DPRK Army will soon overrun his men. And eventually the world right in front of their eyeballs face the reality of blood and dog tags.



September 29, 2009

experiment perilous

The Warner Archive is murdering my bank account. The latest culprits are Jacques Tourneur’s Experiment Perilous (1944) and Anthony Mann’s The Tall Target (1951). After my first purchase, documented here, I’ve tried to stay away from the service, what with its un-restored prints and overpriced DVDs ($20 is a lot for a burned disc), but they are pumping out an endless array of rare goodies that would tempt even the cheapest cinephile. I couldn’t stay away for long.

I was drawn to Experiment Perilous because of the praise of Chris Fujiwara, who in his definitive study of the director, The Cinema of Nightfall, described it as “one of Tourneur’s most personal and beautiful films.” It’s also one of his most unknown, at least from my perspective, having not heard of it until it popped up on WB’s release schedule. It’s most famous, perhaps, for containing a mesmerizing performance from Hedy Lamarr, her own favorite, as she relays in her decadently titled autobiography, Ecstasy and Me.The print used on the DVD contains adequate sharpness, but has suffered a decent amount of wear and tear over the years. There is a consistent amount of scratches and dust marks, but nothing terribly distracting. It’s watchable, if nowhere near pristine.

In 1944, Tourneur was coming off the lower budgeted success of his Val Lewton horror films, having churned out the remarkable duo I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man the year before. Handed an A-picture budget from RKO, he delivered Experiment Perilous, a Victorian age psychological thriller often compared to Gaslight, which was released the same year. It’s an adaptation of the novel by Margaret Carpenter, which screenwriter Warren Duff altered by moving the setting from the present day to the turn of the century. It was rumored that Hedy Lamarr’s request to wear period costumes necessitated the change, but Fujiwara reports that it was more of  narrative decision:

Executive producer Robert Fellows offered a more reasonable explanation: ‘It was felt that the slightly archaic quality of the heroine, who appears in the book as a cloistered and frustrated orchid, would lend itself to a clearer expression on the screen if presented against a less realistic background.’

Hedy Lamarr’s Allida is not just a “cloistered and frustrated orchid”, but is quite possibly mad. Or at least her older husband Nick Bedereaux (Paul Lukas) seems to think so. He employs Doctor Bailey (George Brent) to look into her curious peccadilloes, which include sending herself daisies and then denying doing so, and hallucinating that she is being followed.

Tourneur opens the film with a train ride, in which Bailey is introduced to Nick’s bird-like spinster sister Cissie. In a voice-over, he opines that Cissie herself might be insane, as she clucks at him about her home and family like he was an old friend. Tourneur frames him against a mud-spattered window, and then captures their mottled shadows on his suit jacket (see right). This minor contact with the Bedereaux family has soiled him, and this mark dooms him to further entanglement in their sordid story.

Once home, he joins a fashionable dinner party, admiring a snake-haired female statue his pal Clagg unveiled. Tourneur emphasizes Bailey’s connection to this image of the Medusa, joining him first in medium-shot, then pushing into a close-up. Clagg’s attempt to demonize womanhood through his art speaks to Nick’s impotent attempt to harness Allida’s sexuality, and Bailey’s low-key Perseus is here to slay that demonization.


Tourneur lavishes most of his attention on the Bedereaux home, in the stunning set design of Albert S. D’Agostino and Jack Okey. This vision is of an accumulation of knickknacks and rooms within rooms, a gilded prison to keep Allida busy and away from the prying eyes and more virile bodies of possible pursuers. Fujiwara notes:

The incredible profusion of bric-a-brac in the Bedereaux house not only makes us aware that Allida is merely another piece – albeit the centerpiece – in Nick’s collection but also creates a stifling atmosphere that correlates with Allida’s panic.

Just inspect the image I started the piece with. Allida is in the right foreground, arguing with Alec, a young poet-admirer, who stands askance at the fireplace. Nick is reflected in the far left-hand side of the mirror, blurred and indistinct. Alec, paired with Nick by the mirror, is simply another man trying to impose his vision of Allida onto her. Alec’s vision is romantic, but it is still controlling and allows Allida no voice of her own. Shunted off into the far corner of the frame, Allida is alone and increasingly fragile, the painting in the background a subtle rhyme to the mens’ artistic, almost directorial designs on her.

It’s a densely visual film – any frame I grabbed would be rich with symbolic significance. Tourneur’s narrative strategies are as oblique as his images are direct, as he obscures motivations and elides major events (the two murders which drive the plot are never shown), repressing them into Hedy Lamarr’s dewy-eyed stare and Paul Lukas’ skittish motormouth. It all adds up to a dreamlike reverie on sexual obsession and death, richly upholstered.


The Tall Target will always have a special place in my memory as the first (and so far only) film I saw at the Cinematheque Francaise. There was an Anthony Mann series running during my (only) trip to Paris, and viewing this historical noir in a the finely appointed theater (not the same place as the New Wavers sat, but the recent Frank Gehry-designed space) was a damn near transcendent experience. The inky blacks of Paul C. Vogel’s Alton-esque cinematography seemed to melt out of the frame (the Warner Archive disc captures these deep blacks remarkably well.

This counterfactual bit of history has Inspector John Kennedy (Dick Powell) attempting to thwart an assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln before his inauguration, on a train ride from Springfield, Illinois to Washington, D.C. The pacing is unnaturally taut, the performances, from Adolphe Menjou’s sickly sweet Colonel to Ruby Dee’s resolute slave, are stellar across the board, and Mann wrings incredible tension out of a scenario we already know the conclusion to (spoiler: Lincoln doesn’t get assassinated). Utilizing low-angles to convey a sense of cramped intimacy, he often frames the figures against the ceiling of the train.

This strategy leads to an astonishingly subtle tracking shot that turns Powell from predator to prey in the brief flash of his pupils. Entering a train car, Powell is in search of a gun, as he’d already been targeted by a Confederate goon. In a long shot, he waltzes in, keeping his eye on the pockets of the passengers. He espies a revolver in the pocket of a passed out schlub, and he casually sits down on the adjacent armrest. Mann cuts in to a medium shot of Powell, and then a close-up of the gun. The man rolls over onto it, making it impossible for Powell to grab it.  He winces, stands up, and continues on his way.

Mann then pushes in to an extreme low angle close-up, framing Powell’s head tightly against the lamps above his head. It is a smoothly disorienting shot, eliminating the passengers and focusing on Powell’s increasingly strained and wrinkled forehead. Then, in a flicker of his eye to the left of the screen, almost indecipherable upon first viewing, Powell registers fear. The camera arcs around him to the left, settling onto a close-up of a gun pushing into his back, ending the sequence on a note of symmetrically grim irony. It’s a 1 minute sequence of incredible grace and narrative economy, introducing Kennedy’s ruthlessness and the motif of exchanging guns, which leads to perilous consequences later on. This minor Mann would be a major work for any other artist.


July 14, 2009


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.