STREAMING SATURDAYS! Film Noir Meets the French Revolution in THE BLACK BOOK
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“We’ll always have Paris.”
In this case, the Paris of powdered wigs and guillotines. The Black Book (also called Reign of Terror) may be the only film noir set during the French Revolution—and if that sounds odd, it’s no more peculiar than the film’s origins.
“In 1949, David O. Selznick had just made Joan of Arc with Ingrid Bergman, which was not very successful,” explained co-star Norman Lloyd (then a mere slip of a boy at 100) when he introduced the film at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival. “But the lavish sets for the picture remained. He kept staring at those expensive sets, grumbling, and proposed to art director William Cameron Menzies that they make use of them.
“He said, ‘Here is all this pricey wood and canvas—let’s make some money on it! Let’s find a script!’ So this may have been the first set-driven movie,” Lloyd laughed. “So if any of you have ideas about crashing into motion pictures, build a good set! And if they ask me my inspiration working on the film, I’d say, ‘They used the most beautiful wood I’ve ever seen!
“Then ironically, after all that, Selznick dropped out in the middle of the picture and Walter Wanger took over,” he continued. “But by then we already had Menzies, a spectacular cinematographer in John Alton, and Anthony Mann directing, so we were good.”
Alton’s stark interplay of shadow and light and canted camera angles would easily suit the dark, rain-slicked streets of 1940s Los Angeles, but somehow work just as well in 18th-century France, where the villainous Robespierre (Richard Basehart) seeks to retrieve his “black book,” a long list of political enemies he hopes to send to the chopping block. Enter Charles D’Aubigny (Robert Cummings), a French spy who, with the help of his former lover Madelon (Arlene Dahl in lusty-wench-wear), goes undercover to seize the book and bring the bloody reign of terror to an end.
Alton, Menzies (who also co-produced) and Mann are pretty much a Murderer’s Row of moodiness, and their gifts are on full display here.
“They didn’t have all the money in the world that Metro had for sets and so on,” Dahl told author James Curtis in his superb book, William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come. “But they had Menzies, who could take two walls and make it look like a great ballroom by hanging a chandelier just right, and John by getting the camera angle just right, they could make twelve people look like millions of people. And also because of the design of the sets, they could make it look lavish because of the camera angles and the way the set had been designed. I mean, it really looked like a much bigger picture than it was.”
Add to that Mann’s legendary visual sense, and you have a nifty little film worth watching.
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