Thursday, July 15, 2010

reign of terror (a. mann, 1949)

Four of the most distinctive artists in American cinema had their hand in this "period noir": William Cameron Menzies (who produced the film, and played a chief role in its visual design), the versatile Philip Yordan (who co-wrote the screenplay with Æneas MacKenzie), John Alton (who executed the Menzies and Mann aesthetic with hard shadows, harsh diagonals, and dozens of leering, harrowing closeups), and Anthony Mann (whose direction of brutality is not diluted by the fact that nearly every scene witnesses an act of violence). The prologue counts off the key figures of the French Revolution, their faces butting into the lens in a manner that recalls an outsized silent melodrama, or a crime serial. The plot is pure, self-devouring nonsense - Robespierre's hit list goes missing, and he hires an impostor to find it before his bid for dictatorship exceeds its sell-by date. As with V for Vendetta (Alan Moore's novel, not the Wachowski brothers-produced film adaptation), terror and panic is sourced directly from corruption in power (although the mob is implicated, too, in two scenes that bookend the film), and most of the villains are done in by their very natures, and that of their co-conspirators. Most, but not all: Arnold Moss's limp-wristed take on Fouché leavens the somewhat blander star turns by Robert Cummings and Arlene Dahl. Memorable moments include a barkeep/pimp giving Cummings the runaround as he fishes olives from dark fluid; "There's a revolution, don't stay out late!"; Charles McGraw with a mouthful of food, barking obscenely at Beulah Bondi; the introduction to Robespierre, "of powdered wig and twisted mind!"

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