Monday, July 14, 2008

Bastille Day

July 14 is Bastille Day, the French national holiday, marking the start of the French Revolution in 1789. TCM has been celebrating the day with an entire morning and afternoon of movies set against the backdrop of the French Revolution: two versions of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, and the Norma Shearer biopic Marie Antoinette feature prominently. A very interesting "little" picture, however, that wouldn't get as much attention, is The Black Book.

The Black Book deals specifically with the end of the Reign of Terror, the period in 1793 and 1794 when Maximilian Robespierre (played here by Richard Basehart) was running the Revolution with a ruthless iron fist. The "black book" refers to Robespierre's "enemies list", which Robespierre intended to use to trump up charges against his political enemies and consolidate his political power as dictator. Whether or not the real Robespierre had the names in a book form is a matter for debate, although he almost certainly did have an enemies list. But it's convenient for the sake of a Hollywood movie that there actually be a physical black book.

The actual plot of the movie is told almost as an adventure story/thriller, with the enemies of Robespierre desperate to get their hands on the black book, and Robespierre having claimed the book has been stolen by his enemies and that he needs it back. Given the task of finding the black book is the chief prosecutor of Strasbourg, a certain M. Duval. However, he gets killed at the beginning of the story by our hero, played by Bob Cummings, who then assumes the identity of Duval.

The story is quite a fun one, with lots of twists and turns, and narrow escapes. Since the essential plot elements all deal with crossing and double-crossing ones enemies, and pretending to be somebody other than who you really are, it can get a bit difficult to figure out what's going on. However, since it's got a lot of thriller elements to it, the complexity (or should it be duplicity) actually adds to the experience.

What really detracts from the story, hoewver, is the copy of the print. The movie was made by tiny Eagle-Lion films, originally under the title Reign of Terror, and later re-released with the title we see on TCM's presentation and the DVD. Obviously, the movie must have fallen into the public domain at some point, as the print is a very bad TV print, very murky and with relatively poor sound quality. This is a huge shame, since the story is quite good and told very well. In addition to the fine leads of Cummings and Basehart, there's Arlene Dahl playing the female lead, Norman Lloyd (the bad guy in Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur) as one of Robespierre's enemies, Charles McGraw (the male lead in The Narrow Margin) in a smaller role as a sergeant, and veteran character actress Beulah Bondi as an elderly farmer who shelters Cummings and Dahl.

If you can stand a movie with a terrible print quality, I can strongly recommend The Black Book.

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