Henry Sheehan once speculated that the current vogue for film noir stems from the fact that the heightened stylishness of the pictures allows viewers without much sensitivity to lighting and camera angles to pretend they know something about film style—Mise en Scene Made EZ. Anyone can look at The Third Man and spout something about unsettling, crooked angles and ‘the influence of German expressionism.’ Film noir suggests a pre-packaged stable of themes, situations, and, above all, postures and attitudes: in today’s terms, it’s shorthand for a caustic, cynical wallop of baroque style that’s notable for its position as an implied opposite to the dangerous melodrama assumed typical of vintage Hollywood product. Old movies are dreary things you see on TV and can’t believe anyone was ever cowed over. Film noir is something that makes you sit up and marvel at the coarseness of the sensibility—and to think, right alongside those silly, sappy things. Instead of laughing at vernacular dialogue that now comes across as camp to the untrained ear, the noir buff prefers to indulge in stylized banter that was pure excess in its day.
Needless to say, the predilection for noir often but not always entails some condescending notion about what the movies used to be. Amidst a sea of weepies, here’s something modern and sexy. Noir buffs will pack the house for the most undistinguished, ‘re-discovered’ noir but steer clear of contemporaneous masterworks. Film noir, a term never used by its practitioners but applied liberally by critics and copyright holders, wouldn’t be such a frustrating conceptual framework were it a more productive one. The greatest noirs, it seems to me, are constricted, rather than made more legible, by that label. Sexual humiliation and moral degradation form the thematic heart of the genre, yet to simply pass off the pathetic scent of Scarlet Street as the apogee (or would it be nadir?) of noir pessimism seems to diminish the unique achievement of that picture. And even Kiss Me Deadly doesn’t approach the apocalyptic fatalism of Criss Cross, which ends with Burt Lancaster and Yvonne de Carlo escaping to the figurative edge of the earth—still unprotected, still ill at ease, still waiting only for death.
Reign of Terror, directed by Anthony Mann and photographed by John Alton, stands as a great noir that forces modern viewers to accept an even more elastic definition of that elusive style-genre. Unlike most noirs, Reign of Terror moves outside the city and outside the cynical present into the tortured anarchy of the past. Set in 1794, it’s a gloss on the French Revolution that turns the fall of Robespierre into the most rollicking string of outlandishness criminal episodes that Feuillade never made.
It unfolds with the impossible but unassailable dream logic of a séance. Among its special details: an underground bakery that hides plutocrat henchmen; a quest for a single black book hidden somewhere in the rows and rows of empty ones; a bodyguard conquered by a gang of children armed only with pillows; a man strangled to death in one scene and perfectly conscious (and duplicitous) in another; guards who fire into a cage of a condemned prisoners without provocation; two lives spared with the promise of poultry; the same two saved later because a heavy kicks a kitten against a wall. It concludes with this divine joke: the only man whose word might free your lover from death has just been shot in the mouth, never to speak again. To subsume all of these surreal moments under the aegis of film noir expands the aesthetic possibilities of that style but shackles them to a set of expectations that remains stale and unedifying.
All of the above hints at why the film is interesting; an account of its singular skill and sophistication should demonstrate why it is good. Reign of Terror surely ranks as one of the most resourceful B picture programmers. Mann does not present the storming of the Bastille or any comparable spectacle. The crowd scenes are accomplished with clumsy rear projection photography. But most of the picture unfolds under endless shadows. The first meeting of Robert Cummings and Arlene Dahl is a fine example of the whole. He stands behind her in his dark hotel chamber, maintaining his grim composure and hoping that his allegiance to oppositional leader Barras will constitute the right answer to her question about loyalty. The wrong one will land him a knife in the abdomen. His face barely emerges from the shadows, yet hers seems submerged in them, a lovely spectre with tentative corporeality. They hold the pose while they exchange their dialogue, They deliver the lines so coldly and nervously that, for perhaps only a moment, they do seem like little more than figures drafted to demonstrate all the gradations of light that an ace cinematographer like Alton can pull out of a set-up like this. The shot exudes such palpable desperation, such eloquent fear that both actors will dissolve into shades. This is more than noir moodiness—this is a moment wherein line and weight and depth alone wholly express the urgency and fright of recognition and obscurity dictated by the plot.
Reign of Terror, then, is a drama of connection and communication. Its mode occasionally slips into excess, as when Danton and others leer into the camera, eyes cast straight ahead, forehead engulfing the screen, and deliver an exhortation. It is a direct, disarming mode of address that could, in any other context, come across as crude theatrics. But as Reign of Terror takes as its subject the thorny divide between democracy as an ideal and democracy as a back-stabbing, intrigue-heavy mode of political practice, the style is appropriate. These direct appeals to the mad mob in the audience stand as but one kind of rhetorical conflation practiced by Mann in Reign of Terror. Logically enough, a story of popular uprising in one period finds its expression in the popular narrative entertainment of another. A low genre and style designed to shake and startle its spectators to the core with thrills becomes the closest aesthetic and emotional equivalent to the political upheaval of a distant revolution. This is not the kind of historical film that draws a simple parallel between modern anxieties and portentous allegorical modes of the past, such as The Seventh Seal. Instead Mann demonstrates that the modern thriller, with its immediate emotional register and synaesthetic ambitions, approximates and replicates the paranoia of the past.
These parallels work so well because the film functions expertly as a thriller. Its assaults and conspiracies come across splendidly because Mann and Alton construct each episode with admirable rigor. They try as much as possible to keep all the action in a single shot, resorting to shock cuts only sparingly. Instead of letting a kidnapping or a beating simply interrupt the action (through a cut), they offer terror as an intrusion upon the continuity and harmony of the compositions themselves. Attacks come from within—brute violence that halts a character from crossing the frame or traversing its depths.
Again, though, the thematic unity of the thrills is the remarkable thing about Reign of Terror. The film’s anxiety over identity and loyalty has struck some as veiled commentary about the coming HUAC storm. This interpretation is too simple, both because it obscures the other major cultural message that might reasonably be taken from the film (one about fascism and mob rule and totalitarian dictatorship perpetrated through democratic means, whether in 1794 or 1933) and because its fears are more elemental. Reign of Terror justifies and elevates the Hollywood thriller because it, however improbably, aims to show that the routine tropes familiar to anyone with a knowledge of serial novels, detective pictures, propaganda stories, neighborhood theater productions, comic books, and the like actually drive the forces of history.