Judge Daryl Loomis keeps a book with the names of all his favorite cheeses.
We didn't storm the Bastille to make any man dictator.
When the French revolted against their king, Louis XVI, they created a power vacuum as they navigated the road to a republic. And just like any group of revolutionaries trying to start a government, it wasn't pretty. One of the best orators of the revolution was Maximilien de Robespierre, whose speeches roused the public and whose ideology would help him rise to the height of political power. Things would get hairy, as they do, when he was named a member of the Committee of Public Safety. At this point, his nature as an ideologue would emerge, and he began to advocate for heavy use of the guillotine. This period would come to be known as the Reign of Terror and Robespierre, though he certainly did not work alone, became something of a scapegoat for this bloody time. While it's an extremely complicated situation, director Anthony Mann (El Cid) oversimplifies it in his 1949 historical drama, The Black Book.
As we near the end of this bloody time, Robespierre (Richard Basehart, La Strada) and his wicked violence have become increasingly unpopular, but he's the most powerful politician in France, so there isn't much they can do about it. When he decides to name himself the new dictator of the land, someone must jump to action. That someone is Charles D'Aubigny (Robert Cummings, Saboteur), a freedom fighter who kills an important prosecutor and impersonates him for a meeting with Robespierre. At the meeting, D'Aubigny discovers that Robespierre is missing his black book, which is filled with the names of those he intends to execute, which include a whole lot of powerful people. If D'Aubigny can find it before his goons do, he can expose Robespierre and ruin his bloody ambition.
This is the kind of historical drama I have a hard time liking. While the performances are good and Mann's direction is as able as ever, there is so much of the story that's fictionalized it's hard to take seriously sometimes. It doesn't go out of its way to claim that it's the true account, but that rarely matters in the eyes of the public. It becomes part of the story (such as how Salieri poisons Mozart in Amadeus).
As far as I can tell, there was no such person as D'Aubigny; a creation of story writer Aeneas MacKenzie. There might well have been a black book, but I highly doubt the conspiracy that's at play in The Black Book. Plus, there a romantic subplot gets thrown in between D'Aubigny and Madelon (Arlene Dahl, Three Little Words), his contact in the government, that ultimately becomes equally as important as the historical stuff.
That's the problem: the movie never figures out whether it's a historical drama or an adventure-romance. If it was supposed to be the former, it's too trivial to be effective. If the latter, it's totally pointless. Cummings and Dahl have decent chemistry, so they might work under better circumstances, but here they just get in the way of Basehart's Robespierre, which is a particularly funny, if totally unrealistic performance.
I guess that confusion of tone in the movie explains how the movie is just as commonly known under its alternate title, Reign of Terror. My guess is that distributors would call it that when they wanted to sell it as a historical film and The Black Book when they wanted to emphasize the romance. It's a pretty common route, especially for problematic pictures like this one.
The Black Book receives a very standard bare-bones DVD from Film Chest. The 1.33:1 image has been given a decent restoration and the results are mostly good. The contrast is fairly nice, with a realistic gray scale, and black levels are relatively deep, but detail is a little lacking and there remains some dirt and damage on the print. The mono sound is average, with little noise and clear dialog. There are no extras on the disc.
The Black Book is most definitely lesser Anthony Mann. It's not exactly a bad movie, just a little mixed up is all, but because of that and its loose treatment of the story's historical aspects, it becomes hard to recommend very strongly, though fans of the performers might want to have a look.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Film Chest
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