Noir Out of Time: "The Black Book" and "The Tall Target"
Anthony Mann casts a hard shadow over Abraham Lincoln and the French Revolution
Anthony Mann established his A-list credentials with a string of edgy, psychologically driven 1950s westerns. But Hollywood’s Mann of the west paid his dues on a handful of B movies and honed his chops—and his eye for sharp composition—on a cycle of hard edged crime thrillers before springing his dark vision of the American west on Hollywood. Working with impoverished budgets but an extraordinary cinematographer (John Alton), he turned bland sets and anonymous backlots into lonely locations swallowed in fog or lost in the night, lit only by dim pools of illumination and slashes of light. He also had a tendency to take his criminal exploits out of the traditional urban settings and into unexpected settings without losing his distinctive mix of hard-edged style and grit. Here are a pair that traveled farther afield than most.
"Reign of Terror" (aka "The Black Book," 1949) has my vote for the most unique film noir ever made. All the hallmarks of great noir – scheming and backstabbing characters, hard-boiled dialogue, narrow urban streets and dark alleys wet with rain and crowded with disreputable figures, and of course the shadowy visuals and extreme camera angles of an unpredictable world – are dropped into the chaos and cruelty of the French Revolution, here run by the most ruthless gang of criminals ever seen. Richard Basehart’s Maximilian Robespierre (”Don’t call me Max!”) is the icy criminal mastermind and Robert Cummings puts on his best sneering tough-guy act as an undercover agent who is sent by Marat to infiltrate the Committee of Public Safety and break Robespierre’s death grip on the revolution. Wouldn’t you know that Cummings’ Paris contact is former lover Arlene Dahl? Their reunion is a shock of recognition quickly turned into jaded indifference, wounded hearts playing at calloused detachment while trading hard-boiled expressions of lingering betrayal. Of course, passion still simmers under those cool poses of apathy. Arnold Moss is Robespierre’s mercenary henchman Fouché, an oily, enterprising operative whose allegiance is only to himself, and Charles McGraw has a small role as one of Robespierre’s more vicious thugs.
The plot turns on the scramble for Robespierre’s “black book,” where he’s collected the names of enemies and victims soon to be condemned and sent to the guillotine, and the subsequent gang war free-for-all as everyone looks to grab power by grabbing this tome is a perfectly appropriate metaphor for the chaos and cutthroat power struggle of the real life reign of terror.
Produced by Eagle-Lion Films, it’s the strangest of genre mixes, a costume crime thriller with a continental setting and an American pulp sensibility. The hard-bitten dialogue is all urban street patter and gangster speak and the tough love romantic banter borders on camp (I like to see it as an example of genre conventions pushed to florid extremes). The exteriors may be cobblestone streets filled with racing carriages and 18th century Parisian peasants, but John Alton’s stark, shadowy lighting streaks across the wets stones like a New York City street at night and casts hard, inky shadows for the characters to duck into like thugs running from the cops. The extreme angles and looming foreground objects do a great job of hiding the limitations of the décor while creating an unstable world and suggesting the horrors and the crowds just outside the frame. Director Anthony Mann, always one to punctuate his volatile dramas with grotesque blasts of sadistic violence, caps this with one of his most memorable parting shots. That this particularly gruesome gunshot wound it is historically accurate only makes it more delicious.
Long one of the hardest cult noirs to see, VCI came to the rescue in 2009 with "Classic Film Noir Vol. 3," a disc that, while hardly stellar, is a vast improvement over the Alpha Video edition. There is some minor damage to the print and the image is soft compared to the noir classics released by Warner and Fox, but it is perfectly watchable with good contrasts and clean soundtrack. And it’s a double feature with another poverty row noir shot by the great John Alton: "The Amazing Mr. X" (1948), directed by Bernard Vorhaus and starring Turhan Bey, Cathy O’Donnell and Richard Carlson, a minor cult item that is more curiosity than classic but features marvelously moody photography.
Jump ahead a few years for Mann and a few decades for his characters and meet "The Tall Target" (1951), another rare period piece noir with a superb twist: it's set in 1860 and the tall target of the title is President-elect Abraham Lincoln. Dick Powell plays the lone police detective who believes in the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln on his journey to be sworn in as President and, in a fit of pique, slams his badge on the desk and storms out of the station to board the midnight train to the capitol. That his gesture cripples his effectiveness—without his badge, few believe that he is a cop, let alone on a mission to stop a murder—is just one of the nice touches in a film full of dynamic images and marvelous grace notes. It’s a low budget production by MGM standards but no B-movie; there is great production value here, but with so much of the action on the train, it’s saved for city scenes as the train rolls through a period-perfect town bustling with life. Shots of the train, backlit and charging through the night, are magnificent, and unexpected period details—the train is pulled into the Baltimore station by horses because of an ordinance to keep it from blowing smoke through the middle of town—keeps enlivening the action with stranger-than-fiction flourishes.
But it’s Mann’s control and confidence as a director that makes it so irresistible: a fight under the wheels of a train about to leave the station, the camera peering through the spokes and pistons and blasts of steam; a measured walk down the aisle of a train looking for suspicious characters transformed into a hijacking with a simple camera move; a mysterious passenger dropped off in the inky shadow of night while the train is delayed for an important parcel; verbal games between Powell (whose character is named, I kid you not, John Kennedy) and various suspects, blowhards and bystanders, especially with Adolph Menjou as a hospitable officer traveling with his men to Baltimore. What the film really lacks is a cast to sell the stakes of the drama. Powell lacks the grit and hard drive of a true a Mann hero and Marshall Thompson hasn’t the presence to give his cultured southern plantation son a sense of command, let alone make him threatening, but Will Geer (soon to be blacklisted for his political activism) is note-perfect the ubiquitous train conductor whose entire being is focused on getting the train to run smoothly and on time. It was Mann’s last noir; he had essentially made the leap from urban crime director to western director with "Winchester ‘73" and for the rest of the decade, he helped transform Jimmy Stewart from lovable leading man to ruthless man of the west. It's also one of my favorite oddities of the genre and one of the best looking noir classics to emerge from the Warner Archive Collection of DVD-R releases.
"Reign of Terror" is available on "Classic Film Noir Vol. 3" from VCI
"The Tall Target" is available from the Warner Archive Collection
Please give in to the darkness by donating to the Film Noir Foundation for the restoration of Cy Enfield’s 1950 Try and Get Me (aka The Sound of Fury), one of the many orphans of independently-produced film of the classic studio era.
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