Guess what? Power corrupts: Anthony Mann’s Reign of Terror (1949)

On the recommendation of the Czar or Noir, Eddie Muller, I watched Anthony Mann’s Reign of Terror (a.k.a. The Black Book, Eagle-Lion, 1949), with Robert Cummings, Richard Basehart and Arlene Dahl.

Don’t be misled by the plot description: it was noir to the max! And I’d definitely recommend it to any aficionado of film noir.

It’s set in France in 1793, the year of the Terror, but this is no prissy costume drama. In fact, in some ways the historical setting frees up the filmmakers to show a level of corruption and depravity in the highest positions of political power that they wouldn’t have been able to get away with if they had set the story in the U.S. in 1949.

Plus it’s got style out the wazoo. Outrageous camera angles, dark shadows and distorted close-ups, all in glorious black and white. It’s a bit dated, of course, especially the characterization of the femme fatale, but it is definitely still relevant as hell in terms of the seductive and destructive nature of absolute political power. And boy, is the ending cynical.

The version I watched is from VCI Entertainment, who have done a decent job of restoring the film, but there are still several short gaps and glitches, and maybe someday someone will fully restore it. But take my word, it’s worth checking out in any form. And thanks for the recommendation, Eddie.

Vive la France! Vive le film noir! (though not necessarily in that order….)

Big Budget Cop-Outs (or, Too Big to Fail?)

Let’s face it: You get marginalized in this culture if you’re a novelist who’s too open about your left wing politics. Of course, if you’re willing to suppress all (or most) of your social commentary, the rewards are there.

Two authors whose work I respect and admire recently published novels that were huge disappointments to me precisely because of the workings of the marketplace (and the pressures of the book-a-year cycle): the bigger you get, it seems, the less you want to risk alienating a chunk of your audience by expressing genuine outrage at the various white collar crimes and other offenses (e.g., war crimes) that permeate and corrupt the ideals of our society.

One of these novels took place at a major metropolitan newspaper that was in the middle of downsizing–a terrific set-up for an examination of the collapse of journalistic standards that has helped usher in the toxic political discourse and socio-economic morass we now find ourselves in–written by a one-time industry insider who was perfectly placed to take on this huge (and hugely important) subject, only to turn into a standard serial killer scenario that the author in question has already done twice before, and better.

The other novel took place in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina–written by a richly evocative writer who knows this terrain as well as anybody alive. But again, I was disappointed to see it degenerate into a standard there’s-a-psycho-after-my-daughter plot that abandoned virtually any attempt to explore (much less condemn) the nearly incomprehensible crime of the U.S. government allowing a major American city to drown.

There’s a consensus in the world of film noir studies that the low-budget B movies may have been a bit shabbier than their rich “A” movie cousins, but the lower budgets allowed the B pictures more freedom to explore the dark side of American society in a way that was not acceptable for A pictures.

Something like that seems to be happening with our literary culture as well. So, if you want social realism, read a crime novel–preferably one by an author who is not a New York Times bestseller.

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