Reign of Terror (The Black Book) (1949)
Director: Anthony Mann.
Starring: Robert Cummings (Charles D'Aubigny), Richard Basehart (Maximilian Robespierre), Richard Hart (François Barras), Arlene Dahl (Madelon), Arnold Moss (Fouché), Norman Lloyd (Tallien), Charles McGraw (Sergeant), Beulah Bondi (Grandma Blanchard), Jess Barker (Saint Just).
1789 The French Revolution
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
"July 26, 1791. Anarchy, misery, murder, . . .fear. These are the weapons of dictatorship. One voice is heard: the screech of the guillotine. France lies bleeding. Paris, an open wound. The grab for power is on."
Maximilian Robespierre, Saint Just, Fouché, Danton, François Barras, Tallien are just some of the players. In 48 hours France will be a dictatorship. Unless.
Meeting on foreign soil in Austria, Charles D'Aubigny rides to speak to Gen. Lafayette. He says all the freedoms they fought for in the French Revolution are being destroyed in this Reign of Terror. Maximilian Robespierre is planning to become a new dictator. Charles says that only the general can stop this now. Lafayette says he's in exile now, a political prisoner. He says Charles will take his place. He gives him his ring to show that he has the blessing of Lafayette.
Charles rides to a windmill and opens the door and finds he has a knife to his throat. The stranger demands to know who he is, so Charles shows him the ring. The man is very glad that Charles brings news from Lafayette and tells Charles that he has arrived in the knick of time. "The plans are all set."
Robespierre demands the death of soldier Danton. Danton calls Robespierre a dictator and pleads with the crowd that they could be him one day, condemned without a trial. Mrs. Danton pleads with Robespierre, saying that he and Danton together saved France. Robespierre says that the people's will is death, but the wife says that the people just do what Robespierre wants. She pleads with him: "Stop playing God." Robespierre is unbending. He goes into his office where he finds Fouché sitting in his chair. Fouché is the chief of the secret police. Robespierre says to Fouché: "I can't decide whether to promote you or denounce you." Fouché tells him that he is not dictator yet, but Robespierre just says: "I will be." Fouché says he can't succeed, at least, not without his help.
François Barras comes into the office, upset at what has happened to Danton. Robespierre dismisses his concern. He hands him a paper he wants Barras to introduce to the convention. Barras says: "Why this would make you dictator of France." The man is so angry that he leaves the room. Fouché tells Robespierre that he needs Barras, for he is the only man who can present the idea of Robespierre becoming a dictator. Robespierre says when he starts having the friends of Barras executed one by one, Barras will come around. Robespierre tells Fouché that he sent for a champion executioner from Strausburg named Duval. He wants Fouché to greet the man on his arrival.
Duval arrives at the tavern where he is to be met by Fouché. Duval is given a room to sleep in until his escort arrives. As Duval examines how he looks in the mirror a hand comes up from behind him and starts chocking the new arrival. A beautiful woman named Madelon arrives wanting to speak to Duval. She rushes up the steps to meet with Duval. Charles is in the room and he lets her in. The room is dark and Charles demands to know what message she brings. She is very cautious until he identifies himself as someone on the side of Barras, not Robespierre. Now the woman relaxes. She tells Charles he can help stop Robespierre be carrying letters from her to Paris.
Charles lights a candle and Madelon recognizes that it's Charles. Madelon seems pleased, but Charles has a grievance against her. She owes him an explanation. Four years ago they had an appointment to meet, but only Charles showed up. Madelon tells Charles to come see her after he has spoken with Robespierre. Madelon leaves and as she goes out Fouché comes in. Charles now plays the part of the infamous executioner Duval. He and Fouché go see Robespierre. Robespierre speaks with Duval alone.
Robespierre says that the people of France have become a little too blood-thirsty and there is only one man who can control them: Robespierre. He tells Duval that he has a black book which contains the secret file of the lists of the names of the enemies of France and the proof of their crimes. The book contains the names of those to be executed, but yesterday the black book disappeared. He suspects that Barras is behind this disappearance. Right now Barras is in hiding and won't show himself until the meeting of the convention. So he wants Duval to recover that black book, because it could be used against Robespierre, who now appoints Duval as an agent of the Committee of Public Safety. He will even have power over Fouché. Robespierre then warns Duval that he does not tolerate failures.
When Charles comes out, Fouché tells him that they can work together. Charles just gives Fouché some excuse and gets in a carriage and leaves. In the tavern where he is to meet Madelon, Saint Just comes up to Charles and introduces himself. He says he is the shadow of Robespierre. He asks Charles to join his group, but Charles says no. He tells Charles that he doesn't think he is Duval.
Two men grab Charles and throw him into a room. They tell him that Saint Just is an enemy. Madelon shows up and Charles objects at being man-handled by her men. She tells him to come upstairs with her. In her room she kisses Charles. Charles tells her she can't undo four years with one little kiss. So she kisses him again, but he says he is not going to renew his acquaintance with her. Barras shows up and tells Madelon that he trusts this man Charles.
Charles was hoping that Barras had the black book, but Barras doesn't have it. Friends come in to warn everyone that the cafe is surrounded by the secret police. Charles and Barras go out a back way, but Fouché and his men are there and they arrest Barras. Charles as Duval shows Fouché the paper from Robespierre giving him power over the head of the secret police. Fouché is stunned and leaves immediately.
Charles and Barras now run to a coach but Saint Just is already occupying the coach. He tells Barras to get into the coach and tells Charles that he will see that Barras gets to the prison. Charles starts walking away, but a man grabs him. The man brings Charles to Madelon complaining that Charles delivered Barras up to Saint Just. Madelon tells the man to take Charles out and shoot him. Charles pleads with Madelon that she can't exact such a high price for her kisses or his refusal to kiss her. The group decides to trust Charles. He is told that there are only three of their men who might have the black book. Madelon and Charles go to the the home of one of the three, only to find him dead. Fouché pops in to gloat over this turn of events. He reveals that he knows about the black book. The other two men of the three are also dead. Charles asks if Fouché was responsible, but Fouché just acts as if he is completely innocent.
Outside Charles kisses Madelon passionately and asks: "Still want to shoot me?" Now they both kiss each other.
Saint Just tells Robespierre about his doubts that this man Duval is the real Duval. Duval's wife will arrive at noon and they can find out the truth then. Charles comes in and asks Saint Just if he was the one who killed the three candidates that might have the black book? Charles then complains that he can't get anywhere if Saint Just keeps killing the people he wants to question. Robespierre says: "Dead enemies make good friends." Charles counters with a good question? Why were none of the three rooms of the suspects not disturbed? Why weren't the room searched? Robespierre turns to Saint Just for an answer, but the man only tells Duval to find out himself.
Charles goes to visit Barras in prison. Barras wants to strangle Charles for betraying him. So Charles has to take out Lafayette's ring and show it to Barras. Charles then tells Barras that Saint Just assassinated the three men who might have had the black book. But the rooms weren't searched. Why? Charles says he thinks Robespierre has the book, but pretended it was stolen. Charles now calls for the jailer to let him out. Barras tells Charles that if he gets hold of the black book, give it to Tallien, who will have the courage to use it against Robespierre.
Saint Just arrives to tell Charles that he is not getting out just yet. Charles shows Saint Just his paper from Robespierre, but Saint Just just burns it. He says he will stay in prison until he brings Mrs. Duval to see him. When Mrs. Duval arrives, they let Charles go see her. The woman says nothing at first, but then covers Charles with kisses. Saint Just is shocked and so is Charles. Charles is released. A little while later the real Mrs. Duval arrives to talk with Robespierre. Saint Just accompanies Mr. and Mrs. "Duval" out the gates and runs into the real Mrs. Duval, but she tells him she will speak only to Robespierre.
The gates are opened and out go Charles and Mrs. "Duval". Charles gets into a carriage where Madelon is seated. When the mystery visitor says that she is Mrs. Duval, the police jump in a carriage and chase after the escaping carriage. The police carriage is blocked by a worker's wagon. Charles jumps out at the bakery of Robespierre. He goes downstairs, there only to be confronted by Fouché. Now Charles tells the man he is willing to work with Fouché. Fouché says he wants to share power with Barras. Charles agrees. Now Charles tells Fouché that the black book never left Robespierre's possession. It's in his possession in his room in the bakery. Fouché has a good laugh and says he underestimated "Max". Fouché now picks the lock to the room. The two men search the room, but the walls are covered with black books. So they go though the books one at a time.
They stop searching when they hear a noise at the door, but it only turns out to be the dog, who comes in the room and goes to a book with food hidden inside it. The real black book is next to the book found by the dog. Now Fouché tries to stab Charles. They fight and Charles strangles Fouché until he falls unconscious. He then tries to get out of the bakery before Robespierre and his men can catch him. Charles has to fight his way out of the bakery, but he succeeds. He throws the driver off his carriage seat and rides away.
Charles goes to a pre-designated place in the market. He gives the owners the passwords and is let into the back of the store. Madelon is there waiting for him. Charles will keep the black book until the convention meets tomorrow. Charles and Madelon, now changed into less fancy clothes, take off in another carriage. Saint Just arrives with his men shortly after Charles and Madelon leave. He has the two shop owners arrested and gives the order to "make them talk".
Saint Just figures that he can catch Charles at the farm. Charles and Madelon are held up by a guard checking the papers of travelers in the area. The guard delays the couple because he wants them to promise him to bring him two chicken when they come back this war from their farm. Madelon agrees and they are allowed to proceed.
At the farm Saint Just and his men come riding up. Charles grabs his coat (but forgets about the book beneath it) and goes out the back way with Madelon. Saint Just comes in and he threatens the grandmother that if she doesn't tell them where the two strangers went, then her son and daughter-in-law will both be killed tomorrow. Grandmother is frightened, but says nothing.
Charles and Madelon hide in the barn. Just's men start searching the barn. Saint Just is in the kitchen of the farmhouse and when a little boy comes into the kitchen Just starts being friendly to him, but the kid says defiantly: "I didn't see anybody."
Just decides to take a nap for half an hour. Grandmother gets him a pillow, but as she puts it on the bed she sees the partially-exposed book under the covers. Just tells the woman to stop adjusting the pillow. Grandmother has just enough time to slip the book under the pillow. Luckily it's a huge pillow and Just uses only one small part of it to lay his head on.
Charles realizes that he left the black book on the bed. He goes over to the window of the children's room and tells them something. Soon the children start a pretend fight. Charles grabs the horses and off he goes with them. Madelon uses the confusion to grab the black book. She runs out and joins Charles on one of the two horses. They get away. They ride past the two road guards, but Madelon's horse is shot from underneath her by one of the guards. Charles goes back to get her. The two decide to hide out until the clouds cover the full moon. When the night becomes very dark, Charles takes off. But Madelon is caught. They start to torture her. Fouché shows up and tells Robespierre that there is a much easier way to get the black book from Charles. Madelon is cut down and she falls unconscious. Fouché grabs one of her earrings and tells Robespierre that this will be more persuasive than their torture.
Tallien tells Charles that now they can stop Robespierre with the black book. A couple of guards bring in Fouché and throw the man at the feet of Charles and Tallien. Fouché gets up and shows Charles Madelon's earring. He says to Charles that it's either Madelon or the black book.
The convention starts. Robespierre is there and so is Fouché (but the rebels hold a gun next to his ribs). At the convention the black book is passed amongst the public. The men who look at it are shocked.
Charles comes to save Madelon. The guard takes Madelon into a secret room and Charles doesn't find anyone in the room.
Robespierre demands that the convention make him dictator. The people at the convention say absolutely not. They now call for the head of Robespierre. Robespierre and Just try to leave the convention, but are stopped by the soldiers and the crowd. The soldiers put the two men into a private room. A man in the crowd shoots through the closed door. Saint Just starts to panic. Robespierre says his children (the people) won't turn against their father. When the crowd busts through the locked doors, Robespierre starts giving them a speech. They listen for awhile but soon knock him down, tie him up and cover his mouth. Charles bursts in and goes to Robespierre and asks where is Madelon? But the crowd takes Robespierre away to have him guillotined.
Charles returns to the room where Madeline had been held. The guard hears Charles making a lot of noise as he searches through the room. As the guard starts to get up, he overturns a bottle of wine. Charles gives up searching the room and throws his lit torch into the room. But he sees wine come pouring under the bookshelves where the torch landed. He goes back and gets his torch. He opens the outer door. The guard prepares to stab Charles when he gets into the room. Charles fights the guard and win when he gets the torch up against the guard's face.
Robespierre is executed by way of the guillotine.
Fouché talks about the future of France with a man who says he is merely a soldier, not a politician. He asks for the man's name: Napoleon Bonaparte. Fouché leaves.
Charles and Madelon attend the celebration of the execution of Robespierre.
This is a fictional story told against the backdrop of the Reign of Terror in France following the revolution. The story itself is a good action flick with plenty of close calls for the heroes. It keeps one's interest. The movie doesn't deal with any details of the revolution and the Reign of Terror. It just presents a broad outline with historical characters such as Robespierre and Danton. So I would suggest picking an historical film more closely tied to French history.
Both Robert Cummings and Arlene Dahl did a good job of playing the hero and heroine, respectively. I have seen Arlene Dahl's face many times in pictures, but this is the first movie I've watched with her in it, so that was a special treat for me. She has a gorgeous face.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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