Thursday, July 17, 2014

Hi-def restoration: Hollywood tackles the French Revolution in Anthony Mann's THE BLACK BOOK

I was but eight years old when I got my first taste of and lesson in The French Revolution -- via Hollywood, of course -- from a dizzy little ditty called Reign of Terror, which has since been re-titled, somewhere along the way, THE BLACK BOOK, a moniker it seems to have retained, for better or worse. I remember liking this film a lot as an elementary school kid. Watching it again, some 65 years later, elementary school (at best early junior high) seems about the right age for full appreciation. This is the kind of move in which, at the start, most of the characters are placed front and center with a description that lets you know right off the bat if they're good guys or bad guys.

As directed by Anthony Mann, left, who has a goodly number of important films to his credit, this one aims to give us that famous revolution as a kind of film noir/boys adventure, with a little guillotine and torture tossed in the keep the kids from getting bored. As the leading good guy, we have Robert Cummings in his stalwart mode pitted against Richard Basehart as Robespierre, the Joe Stalin of a century or so earlier. The movie begins with the execu-tion of Danton, some speechifying and further exposition. Finally we get to the heart of the matter: that little black book of the title, into which Robespierre has listed all of the people he plans to place under the guillotine's blade.

Assassination, betrayal, identity theft (the old-fashioned kind), lost love (that would be Arlene Dahl, above, right, with Mr. Cummings) hairbreadth escapes, and more, this 90-minute movie boasts all of those and more, as it moves fast and covers a lot of territory. As is often the case, the bad guys get the juiciest performances, with Mr. Basehart a preening and awfully "gay" Robespierre (Hollywood loved to makes villains of us, back in the day), and a fine character actor named Arnold Moss, below, right, playing the master conniver Fouché.

The dialog (the screenplay's by Philip Yordan) is bearable, and the Mann's pacing fleet, so the 90 minutes pass quickly enough. And it is fun to see how old Hollywood handled blood and guts (there are none). You can just imagine what a remake of this one might look like today -- awash in the red stuff, beheadings right and left!

Now, about this new High Definition restoration promised by the distribu-tor, Film Chest: I am no expert on restorations, but it appears that the restorers either had damn little to work with, or didn't do much with what they had. This is one of the weakest of all the supposed restorations I've yet seen. I can barely imagine what low-definition might look like.

But if you haven't seen this one in decades, or want to see it for the first time, this version is probably the best shot you've currently got. Made in 1949, with an aspect ratio of 4x3 and featuring the original sound, The Black Book is available now for purchase and maybe rental.

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