Friday, April 27, 2012

Tonight's Movie: Reign of Terror (1949) at the Noir City Film Festival

It was time to return to the Noir City Film Festival again tonight to celebrate the career of actor Norman Lloyd.

The night led off with SCENE OF THE CRIME (1949), a very good MGM police procedural I first reviewed three years ago. Hopefully it will be released before too long by the Warner Archive.

SCENE OF THE CRIME has an excellent cast including Van Johnson, Arlene Dahl, Tom Drake, Gloria DeHaven, John McIntire, and Leon Ames. Norman Lloyd plays "Sleeper," a police informant fond of giggling "Yuck, yuck!"

Mr. Lloyd was present to watch the film, which he hadn't seen since the time it came out, and then was interviewed by the Film Noir Foundation's Alan Rode. He said that while he sometimes looks back at his performances and isn't happy with them, he really liked his performance in SCENE OF THE CRIME. He was also impressed by the quality of the acting ensemble. He shared an anecdote that producer Dore Schary had tried to give him some line readings, but though he loved Schary and played tennis with him, he ignored Schary's acting tips and stuck to his own interpretation.

Lloyd's career began a remarkable 80 years ago; he's now 97. He continues to have a rich theatrical voice and presence, regaling the audience at the Egyptian with tales of Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. Lloyd played the poet in Welles' renowned production of JULIUS CAESAR (he was played by Leo Bill in ME AND ORSON WELLES); he famously fell off the Statue of Liberty in Hitckcock's SABOTEUR (1942) and also appeared in SPELLBOUND (1945). A multitalented actor-producer-director, Lloyd served as a producer and occasional director on Hitchcock's TV series.

Lloyd described Welles as an amazing genius who also had a self-destructive streak, not finishing projects or lacking the discipline to remain on a budget; Lloyd said the mere fact he had worked with Welles prevented him from getting a producing job at RKO because Welles was "too rich for our blood" and they obviously feared Lloyd would imitate his famous colleague in that regard. Lloyd also defended Robert Wise's work completing THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942).

Lloyd had the greatest regard and fondness for Hitchcock, whom he said knew more about art direction than any of the famous art directors who worked on his films, and he spoke of both Alma Hitchcock and longtime Hitchcock associate Joan Harrison with the very highest praise. He said Harrison taught him everything he ever knew about producing, and said that Alma was the one person who noticed Janet Leigh swallowed as she lay on the shower floor in PSYCHO, necessitating the removal of a frame of film before it could be shipped.

He said that REIGN OF TERROR was a way to reuse sets originally built for the unsuccessful JOAN OF ARC (1948); since the sets were still standing, a story was then found in order to get additional mileage from them.

REIGN OF TERROR is perhaps equally well known by its alternate title, THE BLACK BOOK; indeed, the print shown tonight was titled THE BLACK BOOK, with the end card reading "The End of the Reign of Terror."

REIGN OF TERROR is often, and very aptly, described as a "French Revolution noir." It was directed by Anthony Mann, photographed by John Alton, and produced by famed set designer and art director William Cameron Menzies (GONE WITH THE WIND).

I thoroughly enjoyed REIGN OF TERROR, which was visually stunning. At times the images made me think of paintings, they were so evocative and beautifully composed. It might seem a bit odd to lead off comments about how a film looked, but while the story was well acted and quite engrossing, it's the black and white pictures which linger in the mind. There's a dazzling array of shadows, low ceilings, startling close-ups, ominous clouds, long shots featuring a silhouetted rider on horseback -- one could almost watch this film with the sound off and just enjoy looking at it.

A couple aspects of REIGN OF TERROR'S visual look seemed as though they could have inspired later films. The stunning long shots of a farmhouse and rider on horseback instantly made me think of the design and Stanley Cortez's cinematography of THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955). The creepy crowds which seemed to be back-projected in the council scenes called to mind the projected faces of the elders voting guilty early in SUPERMAN (1978).

The story concerns Charles D'Aubigny (Robert Cummings), who -- with the blessing of Lafayette (Wilton Graff) -- joins a small band resisting the attempt of the ruthless Robespierre (Richard Basehart) to become dictator of France. D'Aubigny infiltrates Robespierre's circle, and Robespierre charges him with the task of locating a stolen "black book." The book lists Robespierre's targets for execution, and if the names become public, his dreams of ruling France will come to an end.

This film reunited Cummings and Lloyd, who played adversaries in SABOTEUR but are wary co-conspirators this time around. Also in the cast was one of Lloyd's costars from SCENE OF THE CRIME, Arlene Dahl, who is extremely effective as Cummings' one-time love and fellow spy. Dahl is, of course, a beauty, but she also has great screen presence in this film.

Arnold Moss is quite memorable as the wryly humorous Chief of Police, a villain the audience is always glad to see appear on the screen. The excellent cast also includes Charles McGraw, Richard Hart, and Beulah Bondi.

Russ Tamblyn has one of his first film roles playing Bondi's oldest grandchild. The following year he had a significant part in GUN CRAZY, which I saw just a couple of weeks ago at the TCM Classic Film Festival.

REIGN OF TERROR runs a very well-paced 89 minutes. It's surprisingly violent for its era, what with torture and the guillotine being major plot points, yet at the same time the filmmakers manage to avoid directly showing much of the gore. It's a great example of less being more; the imagination is quite sufficient to fill in the blanks. The violence is offset by the film's dark sense of humor, eliciting chuckles when the viewer least expects it.

REIGN OF TERROR has been in the public domain and had multiple DVD releases. The best edition to buy is probably VCI's Forgotten Noir Volume 3 set, which also includes THE AMAZING MR. X (1948). REIGN OF TERROR features a commentary by Alan Rode, the host of tonight's screening. I haven't heard the commentary yet myself, but my father felt it was one of the best commentary track's he's heard.

The film was also recently released on DVD-R in the Columbia Classics/Sony Choice line.

REIGN OF TERROR is highly recommended.

April 2015 Update: I had another great opportunity to see this film in 35mm at the TCM Classic Film Festival.

May 2019 Update: This film is now available on Blu-ray in the Noir Archive 9-Film Collection.


Blogger Caftan Woman said...

I've never seen a decent print of "The Black Book" and your description makes me ache to finally see the film as it should be seen.

"Scene of the Crime" is a dandy! I just love a good John McIntire movie.

Thanks for sharing an evening with Norman Lloyd. The next best thing to being there.

4:14 PM  
Blogger Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

Laura, did you ever happen to read The Day I Became An Autodidact by Kendall Hailey? It's about her experience with self-education, but there's a lot of anecdotes about classic movie people, since she was a film fan and her writer parents knew a lot of people in Hollywood. She got to meet Dorothy McGuire and Teresa Wright, and there's one part where her family had dinner with Norman Lloyd and his wife, who shared some anecdotes about working with Hitchcock. I think you'd probably like it!

5:02 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Caftan Woman, I so wish you had the opportunity to see a film like this on a big screen. I neglected to mention in my post that the prints of both SCENE OF THE CRIME and REIGN OF TERROR were outstanding.

Your comment on John McIntire made me smile. After the film I was trying to describe to my son what a chameleon McIntire was. Within a year after appearing as the aging detective in SCENE OF THE CRIME, he played a vigorous, grizzled mountain man in AMBUSH. Talk about roles which were polar opposites! I was paying particular attention to him on this viewing, watching him gestures and facial expressions -- it's like an acting class. The energy McIntire brings to a part made me think of another favorite, Lloyd Nolan, and how he lit up a movie like SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT every time he came onscreen.

Elisabeth, I've heard of that book but never read it -- it sounds like something I need to read! The author met some of my favorites. :)

Best wishes,

11:47 PM  
Blogger DKoren said...

I've always wanted to see Reign of Terror because of Richard Basehart (he's my mom's favorite actor), but have not yet had a chance to do so. Back from my business trip now and am loving catching up on the Noir City Film Festival reviews you're posting!

9:30 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Welcome back, Deb! So glad you're enjoying my reports from the festival. :)

I'll be there next Saturday night (May 5th) and all the next Sunday afternoon and evening if any of the titles appeal to you and you'd like to join me!

Best wishes,

12:20 PM  

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