Noirvember #5: Reign of Terror (1949)

reign of terror

The thing about film noir is that nobody really agrees on exactly what makes a film noir a noir. The plots for this genre are all over the place. But the one thing everybody agrees upon is that a film noir has a certain style, a certain look. It is all about the light and the shadows. Noir had a way of lighting a set and a character like nothing else.

Normally you wouldn’t say a movie about the French Revolution could be a film noir, but director Anthony Mann who was no stranger to the genre having directed He Walked By Night, one of the great noirs, films Reing of Terror just like it was a perfect fit.

In this version of events, Maximilian Robespierre (Richard Baseheart) is not satisfied with having led France into a revolution, overthrowing the King and instilling a reign of terror by beheading anyone who opposes him, he wants to be dictator for life as well. Charles D’Aubigny (Robert Cummings) is tasked with infiltrating the Jacobin Party in order to find a Black Book. In this book written all the names, Robespierre intends to kill at one time or another. Since nobody knows whose name is in the book, everyone is afraid to oppose him. But if the book is opened to the people then the people may decide the time has come for Robespierre to face the guillotine.

Or something. The details of the plot get a bit muddled as it goes along. But it looks fantastic. The sets are brilliant and the lighting is full of bold, dark shadows. It is the sort of film where you can forget what is happening in the actual story because you are so mesmerized by how it looks.

Cummings is good but it is Arnold Moss who steals the show as one of Robespierre’s henchmen who wouldn’t mind seeing him at the wrong end of a guillotine if it helps line his own pockets and gains him a little more power.

Reign of Terror is definitely worth the watching.