Despite a title that suggests a bad sex farce, The Black Book is a very dark adventure story set in the Reign of Terror (its alternate title). Taking place almost entirely at night and thick with the shadowed conventions and violent action of film noir, it revolves around Maximilien Robespierre’s attempts to become dictator of France. The unlikely combination of noir and historical recreation never really catches fire, but it produces some spectacular sparks along the way.
Robert Cummings stars as Charles d’Aubigny, a minor French aristocrat commissioned by the exiled Marquis de Lafayette to impersonate a revolutionary butcher in order to ingratiate himself with Robespierre (Richard Basehart). The latter tasks d’Aubigny with recovering a “black book” that has gone missing. It apparently contains damaging information about members of the National Assembly that Robespierre keeps on hand for blackmail. Most of the rest of the film consists of d’Aubigny deceiving or eluding the revolutionaries, while reigniting an affair with Madelon (Arlene Dahl), a beauty working with the largely inept “good guys.”
Despite such nonsense as turning the notoriously corrupt Barras (Richard Hart) into a stalwart patriot, the script has just enough historical efficacy to provide several vivid villains. Chief among them are the oily, duplicitous chief of police, Fouché (Arnold Moss), a quick-witted Saint-Just (Jess Barker) and especially Basehart’s merciless Robespierre. He has only a few scenes, but all he has to do is enter a room to cast a polar chill. All contribute to a story with more motion than sense, in which the book’s significance gets buried under the tumult and resolution feels deliberately delayed to keep the action going. There is a lengthy sequence in a farmhouse near the end, for example, that feels tacked on and way too long.
Nonetheless, director Anthony Mann keeps the disjointed action moving amidst strikingly beautiful black-and-white camerawork. He and his technicians take ample advantage of the story’s lumpy development to saturate the images and action with gratuitous, but gritty detail. Robespierre’s secret headquarters, for example, are at the back of a boulangerie so that villains can gorge on baguettes as they torture their victims. Or, when d’Aubigny visits a café in an early sequence, the film dawdles as atmosphere clings to the story like the smoke in the air.
The Big Moment occurs when the National Assembly turns on Robespierre, not in revulsion at his excesses but because many of its members are implicated in the “black book.” Unfortunately, while reducing radical political action to personal malfeasance is believable, it is not very satisfying. Of course, The Black Book is not meant as a serious historical drama so much as a densely detailed adventure romance. Yet when the rich environment leads to such a tawdry resolution, you cannot help asking “Is this it?” The disappointment is perversely to the film’s credit, for its best moments suggest it could be much more than it is.