The French Revolution As Miasmic Noir in Reign of Terror

04/22/2011 12:26 PM |

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Tomorrow night at 92YTribeca, the fine folks at Not Coming to a Theater Near You present Anthony Mann’s Reign of Terror (1949).

How to characterize this underseen, historical-espionage demi-noir except as the bad seed baby borne from an unholy alliance, after sharp-eyed noiriste Anthony Mann, Satanic-pact cinematographer John P. Alton and crazy arch-modernist designer William Cameron Menzies got together to reinvent the French Revolution and the Great Terror and ended up with something like a mutant Welles movie? Or think of them as the Robespierre, Saint-Just and Marat of B-movies in extremis after WWII, treating history like a guillotinable royal, and restoring noir reflexes to their forgotten Gothic roots.

The internecine machinations swirling around Robert Cummings’s undercover Lafayette spy are too abstruse to parse, and in the melee of ghoulish closeups, painted shadows, dark alleys and brooding deceit even the most familiar actors are almost unrecognizable. (Richard Basehart’s Robespierre does an icy Olivier imitation, while Arnold Moss’s scarecrow-ish assassin suggests a syphilitic Adrien Brody After the Fall, and thieves the movie right out from under Arlene Dahl’s preposterous deliciousness.) Sure, the screenplay (by Mann buddy and script machine Philip Yordan) seems to be counter-revolutionary, or perhaps merely anti-autocracy, if you can untangle the allegiances and backstabbings amid the stressed—out gloom. Long lost in public domain and accessible only in TV prints that have been to hell and back, the movie is showing up at the behest of The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman, in a fresh print, for the sake of its fraught, semi-sublimated parallels to the HUAC thunderhead and its sweaty concern over a lost list of named names.

[NB: Hoberman, will introduce the film and then sign copies of his new book An Army of Phantoms, in which he discusses the film.]