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With: Robert Cummings, Richard Basehart, Richard Hart, Arlene Dahl, Arnold Moss, Norman Lloyd, Charles McGraw, Beulah Bondi, Jess Barker
Written by: Philip Yordan, Aeneas MacKenzie
Directed by: Anthony Mann
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 89
Date: 10/15/1949

The Black Book (1949)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Torn France

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Tough guy director Anthony Mann and the genius cinematographer John Alton worked together six times. Four of them were on films noir -- T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), He Walked by Night (1948), and Border Incident (1949) -- where Alton's stark, high contrast blacks and whites really highlighted despair and panic. The fifth collaboration was on a Western, Devil's Doorway, also fairly noirish. But the sixth was something of a costume movie, The Black Book -- a.k.a. Reign of Terror -- and not so easy to describe.

The Black Book is set during the French Revolution, and people wear period clothing. They speak in English, even though they're supposed to be French. Yet far more than just a movie in which people talk to each other in rooms, The Black Book has spies, escapes, secret meetings, and pretty women. It's a clever puzzle that must be solved before the clock runs out.

Evil Robespierre (Richard Basehart) wishes to become dictator of France. The good guy is Charles D'Aubigny (Robert Cummings), who goes undercover as a man named Duval, whom Robespierre has summoned to Paris. D'Aubigny learns that Robespierre's "black book," which has all the names of all the people he wishes to sentence to death, has gone missing. If it falls into the wrong hands, Robespierre cannot be named dictator.

To be honest, the movie is so odd that it's difficult to figure out exactly what the rules are for the first little while, but then it settles down and finds a rather gripping groove. And, it helps that Alton's incredible work is once again on display here, finding strange angles at night, or showing the encroaching darkness in enclosed spaces. Mann's direction is quick and unpretentious. All period/costume movies should be this fun.

The Black Book is in the public domain and is available streaming for free as well as on cheap DVDs. The Film Chest has attempted to release a remastered version to stand above all the others, and the quality is better than it might have been, though it's far from the HD quality promised on the box.

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