Black Book, The (aka Reign of Terror) (1949): Anthony Mann’s Historical Drama starring Robert Cummings, Richard Basehart, Arlene Dahl

Anthony Mann  directed Reign of Terror (aka The Black Book), an historical drama set during the French Revolution, starring Robert Cummings, Richard Basehart and Arlene Dahl.

The film was co-produced by Robert Cummings’ company, United Californian.

The powerful Maximilien Robespierre (Richard Basehart), aiming to become the nation’s dictator, summons François Barras (Richard Hart), the only man who can nominate him before the National Convention. Barras refuses to do so and goes into hiding.

Meanwhile, patriot Charles D’Aubigny (Robert Cummings) secretly kills and impersonates Duval (Charles Gordon), the prosecutor of Strasbourg, who had been summoned to Paris by Robespierre for unknown purpose.

Neither Robespierre nor Fouché (Arnold Moss), the chief of secret police, have met Duval before, so the substitution goes undetected. Robespierre informs D’Aubigny that his black book, a list of names of those he intends to execute, has been stolen.

Robespierre’s foes are nervous–uncertain whether their names are on the list.  He gives D’Aubigny authority over everyone, save himself, and 24 hours to retrieve the book.

D’Aubigny meets Barras (Richard Hart) through his contact, Madelon (Arlene Dahl), whom D’Aubigny had once loved. However, Barras is arrested by the police, led by Saint-Just. D’Aubigny manages to allay the suspicions of both sides that he has betrayed them.

He visits Barras in prison, informing him that three of his best men have been murdered. Strangely, their rooms had not been ransacked to search for the book, leading D’Aubigny to surmise that it was never stolen in the first place, and that Robespierre is using the alleged theft to distract his foes. Saint-Just, still suspicious, sends for Duval’s wife to identify her husband. Through quick thinking, Madelon pretends to be Madame Duval and extricates her former lover just before the real Madame Duval arrives.

D’Aubigny returns to Robespierre’s private office to look for the book, where he encounters the opportunistic Fouché, seemingly willing to sell out his master. When D’Aubigny finds the book, however, Fouché tries to stab him. D’Aubigny strangles him into unconsciousness and escapes.

He and Madelon hide out at the farmhouse of a conspirator, but their location is extracted through torture. A nighttime chase ensues, D’Aubigny gets away, but Madelon is caught, taken back to Paris, and tortured.

As the Convention is about to meet, Fouche offers to trade Madelon for the book, but D’Aubigny turns him down. The book is passed from hand to hand among the delegates. When Robespierre arrives to denounce Barras, the crowd turns on him instead. Fouché then has his henchman shoot Robespierre, and he is taken to Madame Guillotine.

D’Aubigny searches Robespierre’s office, and rescues Madelon. The crowd celebrates the death of Robespierre. Fouché, about to take leave, asks his name, and the man replies, “Bonaparte. Napoleon Bonaparte.”

Fouché, unimpressed, still promises to remember the name.



Running time: 89 Minutes

Release date: October 15, 1949


Robert Cummings as Charles D’Aubigny
Richard Basehart as Maximilien Robespierre
Richard Hart as François Barras
Arlene Dahl as Madelon
Arnold Moss as Fouché
Norman Lloyd as Tallien
Charles McGraw as Sergeant
Beulah Bondi as Grandma Blanchard
Jess Barker as Saint-Just
Wade Crosby as Danton

Producer Wanger, director Mann, cinematographer John Alton and production designer William Cameron Menzies, made a low budget “epic” using Broadway stars.  But despite the modest budget, the film was a commercial failure.