Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Reign of Terror, dir. Anthony Mann, 1949

D'Aubigny meets Madelon in Strasbourg having killed Duval
In response to my blog on The Dark Knight from last month, my colleague Peter Stanfield told me “anyone who thinks The Dark Knight has anything to say worth hearing has an enfeebled mind” and instructed me to watch Anthony Mann’s Reign of Terror, 1949. As a fan of Mann’s westerns and not familiar with the two historical dramas (Reign of Terror and The Tall Target, 1951) the very turn to the French Revolution as subject matter was a surprise to me. Although Reign of Terror has more redeeming qualities than the latest batman film, I wouldn’t go so far as to hail it as the final word on the French Revolution. Indeed, Mann’s film is as opportunistic in its use of Robespierre as a character as Nolan’s is in its reference to his genre of juridical process.

I wonder, but am not convinced that Mann would have thought he had anything to say about post-Revolutionary France in Reign of Terror. Rather, the subject matter – as most critics would have to agree – is no more than the perfect vehicle for the signature Mann indulgence in an excess of style and the creation of a twisting and turning narrative of suspense. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that Reign of Terror does not seem to have anything at all to do with France, the Revolution, or its post-Revolutionary “reign of terror.” Moreover, the film doesn’t even pretend to be a vision of post-Revolutionary France through Hollywood eyes. If it is about anything — though I am not convinced it is — the film creates a political drama that speaks to the turmoil of the United States at the time of the HUAC hearings that were escalating at the time of the film’s release. The “reign of terror” in the title is prefaced on the possession of a black book with the names of all Robespierre’s enemies , the ones who must be killed for their wont to disagree with his dictatorship – sound familiar? What makes the connection to the mid-century Hollywood blacklist is the absence of any explanation of what those on the list might have done to arouse Robespierre’s ire, other than question his decisions. Even the apparently faithful, but mercurial Fouch√© is discovered to be on the list.

But as I say, the depiction of the French Revolution and the obvious reference to the HUAC hearings is not what makes Reign of Terror worth watching – 

D'Aubigny's femme fatale, Madelon, in captivity
The film is, in many ways, a narrative of pure form: it becomes about the deceits, mistaken and hidden identities that drive it forward. And what makes it brilliant is that all of its narrative twists and turns as they follow the search for the black book, and then its transfer like a baton between Robespierre and the revolutionaries, and back again, are drawn in the most extraordinary use of light. If Reign of Terror is a film fuelled by double-crosses, not looking, mistaken identities, deceptions, escapes, and instant retribution for those who are held momentarily in the beam of the torch, all of this is communicated through lighting, or more often, the lack of it.

Throughout, the set is cloaked in so much darkness that, rather than racing through the streets of a recognizeable Paris, we are thrust into a claustrophobic, ominous world of unpredictability and threat. The film is also filled with closeups in which the one being looked at cannot be seen, thus creating a whole drama of not knowing, not trusting, not revealing that, once again, is echoed through the use of chiaroscuro. And extreme angles match the excessive lighting, as do the lines and objects that facilitate deception and detection, entrapment in the frame and in the secret passageways of Robespierre’s headquarters. Who is in the shadows, who can’t be seen, who is behind a curtain or an invisible door? Who is really someone else? Who looks like someone else, but is really who they say they are –all of it is enabled by the lighting. 
Robespierre at his desk
To give just one example, D’Aubigny, the revolutionary hero who will save the day, poses as Duval, a prosecutor with blood on his hands from Strasbourg, who D'Aubigny kills before appropriating his identity to get close to Robespierre. And D'Aubigny's only mask is the shadow cast over his face when he meets an old lover who can bring him to Barras, the one man who can stop Robespierre assume the seat of dictatorial power. And again and again throughout the film, D’Aubigny will escape the clutches of the psychopathic Robespierre because he has the camera and the lighting on his side, which in this film means, turned away from him. 

I am not sure why Peter told me to watch the film, but I am sure that in its extreme and sometimes brilliant uses of light and lighting, Reign of Terror reaches towards a baroque parody of film noir even before the classical period has run its course. Which, unlike, The Dark Knight, makes Reign of Terror ahead of its time.

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