Reign of Terror (1949)

This exciting and very interesting period drama makes very good use of its setting in the French Revolution, blending history and fiction together in a believable fashion. The atmosphere is particularly effective, with the dark photography and claustrophobic settings helping to establish the rampant fear, uncertainty, and paranoia that characterized the era.

At one time, the French Revolution (and the subsequent Napoleonic era) captivated numerous novelists and film-makers alike, and they could comfortably assume that their readers and audiences were familiar with historical figures like Robespierre, Danton, Barras, and the others of the period. In more recent decades, all this seems to have been replaced in the public’s imagination by Hitler, the Nazis, and the other figures and events of the Second World War, but in many respects the history of France in the late 18th century and early 19th century is even more fascinating and compelling. And beyond a doubt, its impact still affects the world.

The scenario here has Robert Cummings impersonating a notorious public prosecutor, in order to get close to the bloodthirsty Robespierre, as part of an underground’s desperate plans to replace Robespierre’s tyranny with the more moderate influence of Barras and his party. The story is well-written, combining action, intrigue, and some Hitchcock-like touches with Robespierre’s “Black Book”, on which the fate of so many lives depends. Only the lack of a first-rate cast keeps it from being one of the best movies of its time and genre.

The best performances come from Arnold Moss, who is excellent as the slippery, conscience- free Fouché, and Arlene Dahl, who is appealing as the ex-lover of Cummings’s character, with whom he has to work closely. The rest of the performances are all at least solid, but often miss the extra depth that could have raised the movie another notch.

Nevertheless, it all works quite well, and it’s well worth seeing for its story, atmosphere, and for the intriguing period setting. It represents fine craftsmanship from director Anthony Mann and his cast and crew.