Home Video Hovel: The Black Book, by Scott Nye
You can’t judge a book by its cover – even a black book. You look above, at that image, and probably say, “well, that looks like a good use of my hard-earned money. Certainly the best way to own this excellent thriller. Restored in High Definition!” Anthony Mann’s The Black Book (a.k.a. Reign of Terror) is a fantastic film, a French Revolution drama by way of film noir (complete with the titular MacGuffin), and I cannot urge you strongly enough to check it out. Do not do so by way of this new DVD from Film Chest, which has poor clarity, little in the way of contrast, and bordering-on-incomprehensible sound. A much better DVD was released by Sony a few years ago, and is still available. By all means, buy that.
As with so many like it, Film Chest is able to peddle these subpar wares because the film has, for decades, been in the public domain, which leads even the best of films to be issued on DVD with anything ranging from a simple digital encode of a VHS to a 16mm print to just a straight rip of another company’s transfer. This sort of ragtag status of uncertainty is oddly befitting the film itself, which concerns an underground attempt to overthrow Maximilien Robespierre (here played by the great Richard Basehart), a controversial figure who headed the Committee of Public Safety when it instituted a policy of Terror, which you can probably surmise was one of the more extreme tactics of the Revolution. At the outset of this film, he holds tremendous power in France, and is trying to leverage that to become the nation’s dictator. The extent to which this power-mad portrait of him corresponds with history is up for much debate, but suffice to say he makes for a formidable foe in cinematic terms.
The ins and outs of the plot become terribly complicated, involving no small deal of espionage (including, quickly, assuming another’s identity), as Our Hero Charles D’Aubigny (Robert Cummings) comes to learn of Robespierre’s Black Book, a list of people he intends to execute. This list has allowed him to keep potential enemies within the Revolution at bay, as only he knows who is on the list. The book, however, has recently been stolen, and there’s a mad rush to get ahold of it, and, thus, the power of France itself. It’s all terribly contrived, sure, but like any good film noir (and despite its costume drama trappings, this is as pure as noir comes), this is all window dressing for the true terror that lurks in the heart of men, and the attempts of the few innocent men to get through the week with their heads above water, or at the very least still attached. Literally, in the case of the Revolution.
The poor quality of Film Chest’s disc is especially grating, given how gorgeous this film truly is. Mann’s frequent cinematographer, John Alton, uses the era’s limited means of creating artificial light to his full advantage, often leaving so much of the screen in shadow that it’s a wonder we can understand the action at all. Yet the characters are never sacrificed to the shadows, unless the shadows come to overtake them. It’s a beautiful balance of darkness and light, vaulting a traditionally emotional aesthetic into the realms of the political. The darkness here isn’t merely metaphoric; deadly forces truly surround D’Aubigny at every turn, and his capacity to see his mission through will alter the fate of his country.
See The Black Book. But find other means of doing so. Film Chest has done good work in the past with troubled sources, but this should have been left to rest.