"We're living in a perpetual state of violence. The people have become a bloodthirsty mob that thrives on human lives. Each day this monster must reach its quota. There is only one man who can control this beast and that man must be dictator Robespierre!" The man speaking is, of course, Maximilien Robespierre (Richard Basehart).
It's Paris, 1794, and for all practical purposes Robespierre rules France. He not only has sent his enemies to the guillotine, he keeps finding new enemies. He has a black book in which he lists his friends and his enemies and what they have done. He has marked those who will kiss the blade, and among them are many who think they are his friends. Then the book goes missing just 24 hours before he expects to be acclaimed dictator of France. He is determined to find the book.
But there are a few brave freedom-fighters struggling to bring Robespierre down. Among them are Charles D'Aubigny (Robert Cummings) and Madelon (Arlene Dahl), a woman who had cast Charles aside but who now must work with him. D'Aubigny takes on the role of Georges Duval, the butcher...the prosecutor...of Strasbourg who Robespierre has named to find the black book within 24 hours. There are many twists and turns before the truth comes out, before Charles and Madelon learn to trust each other again, and before France is saved...well, before France is saved for Napoleon.
Although the DVD picture and audio are in bad shape, even for a movie in the public domain, the film has a lot of visual style. Paris with its cobblestone by-ways, crowded hovels and turnip-strewn streets never looked more picturesque. Director Anthony Mann keeps things moving with a noir approach that features high angle shots, low angle shots, off-kilter close-ups and lots of mysterious shadows. There are plenty of howling mobs and unshaven soldiers.
Robert Cummings and Arlene Dahl make conventional leads. Cummings has little gravitas and Dahl, while gorgeous, was no actress. They are redeemed, however, by three first-rate heavies. Robespierre is a psychopathic, unsmiling politician in a powdered wig. He has no sense of humor. Robespierre's henchman, Louis de Saint-Just played by Jess Barker, is a vicious man who takes delight in the pain of those he dislikes, and he seems to dislike everyone. Best of all is Joseph Fouche, the head of the secret police, a wily, amoral pragmatist with a sly sense of humor. He's played by Arnold Moss, a thin actor with a wonderful voice, baggy eyes and a proud nose. When we last see Fouche he is making the acquaintance of a young soldier from Corsica.
The movie seems to have been released in the U.S. as "Reign of Terror" but took on the name "The Black Book" for its U.K. release. This Alpha Video apparently was made from a U.K. print. As mentioned, the DVD is barely watchable. Still, it's all there is. If the price is right and you enjoy historical adventures with some first-rate villains, why not try it? There are no extras.