Reign of Terror and The Yankee Clipper – DVDs for the week

Reign of Terror (aka The Black Book)

Reign of Terror - finally in a decent DVD edition
Reign of Terror – finally in a decent DVD edition

Anthony Mann’s Reign of Terror (1949) has my vote for the most unique film noir ever made. All the hallmarks of great film noir – scheming and backstabbing characters, hard-boiled dialogue, narrow urban streets and dark alleys wet with rain and crowded with disreputable figures, and of course the shadowy visuals and extreme camera angles of an unpredictable world – are dropped into the chaos and cruelty of the French Revolution, here run by the most ruthless gang of criminals ever seen. Richard Basehart’s Maximilian Robespierre (“Don’t call me Max!”) is the icy criminal mastermind and Robert Cummings puts on his best sneering tough-guy act as an undercover agent who is sent by Marat to infiltrate the Committee of Public Safety and break Robespierre’s death grip on the revolution. Wouldn’t you know that Cummings’ Paris contact is former lover Arlene Dahl? Their reunion is a shock of recognition quickly turned into jaded indifference, wounded hearts playing at calloused detachment while trading hard-boiled expressions of lingering betrayal. Of course, passion still simmers under those cool poses of apathy. Arnold Moss is Robespierre’s mercenary henchman Fouché, an oily, enterprising operative whose allegiance is only to himself, and Charles McGraw has a small role as one of Robespierre’s more vicious thugs.

The plot turns on the scramble for Robespierre’s “black book,” where he’s listed the names of enemies and victims soon to be condemned and sent to the guillotine, and the subsequent gang war free-for-all as everyone looks to grab power by grabbing this tome is a perfectly appropriate metaphor for the chaos and cutthroat power struggle of the real life reign of terror.

The original release
The original release, which curiously underplays the historical setting

Produced by Eagle-Lion Films, it’s the strangest of genre mixes, a costume crime thriller with a continental setting and an American pulp sensibility. The hard-bitten dialogue is all urban street patter and gangster speak and the tough love romantic banter borders on camp (I like to see it as genre conventions pushed to florid extremes). The exteriors may be cobblestone streets filled with racing carriages and 18th century Parisian peasants, but John Alton’s stark, shadowy lighting streaks across the wets stones like a New York City street at night and casts hard, inky shadows for the characters to duck into like thugs running from the cops. The extreme angles and looming foreground objects do a great job of hiding the limitations of the décor while creating an unstable world and suggesting the horrors and the crowds just outside the frame. Director Anthony Mann, always one to punctuate his volatile dramas with grotesque blasts of sadistic violence, caps this with one of his most memorable parting shots. That it is historically accurate only makes it more delicious.

Reign of Terror has been one of the hardest cult noirs to see. I managed to hit a couple of screenings in various films series over the past 25 years but otherwise made do with a poor quality videotape from a late-night cable showing I made a couple of decades ago. More recently, I picked up a wretched DVD from PD outfit Alpha Video, which was hardly better video quality than my VHS copy and managed to misframe the film so badly that a significant portion of the image was offscreen. Now VCI has come to the rescue with Classic Film Noir Vol. 3, a disc that, while hardly stellar, is a vast improvement over the Alpha Video edition. There is some minor damage to the print and the image is soft compared to the noir classics released by Warner and Fox, but it is perfectly watchable with good contrasts and clean soundtrack. And it’s a double feature with another poverty  row noir shot by the great John Alton: The Amazing Mr. X (1948), directed by Bernard Vorhaus and starring Turhan Bey, Cathy O’Donnell and Richard Carlson. This minor cult item is more curiosity than classic but features marvelously moody photography. This print is a bit softer than Reign of Terror but still perfectly acceptable.  Each film also features commentary: Historian Alan Rode and actress Arlene Dahl on Reign of Terror and Jay Fenton on The Amazing Mr. X.

The Yankee Clipper

"Under Full Sail" featuring "The Yankee Clipper"
“Under Full Sail” featuring “The Yankee Clipper”

“England, long supreme upon the seas, was seizing the trade that should have been ours.” So proclaims the introduction to in the 1927 feature The Yankee Clipper, a high seas adventure set in the 1850s, as the Americans challenged British sea dominance with the new square-rigged Yankee Schooner sailing ships. William Boyd, the man who would be Hopalong Cassidy, plays the fresh-faced all-American schooner captain Hal Winslow who puts American ingenuity and gumption against British experience and arrogance in a race from China to Boston. At stake is the contracts to ship tea to America. As a side bet, the captains put up their own ships, like street racers putting up pink slips, but its really national pride at stake. Produced by Cecil B. DeMille and directed by Rupert Julian, the handsome production offers some fine sailing footage and entertaining miniatures in the typhoon scene but the thin story is equal parts Victorian chivalry, manifest destiny and nationalist machismo, less swashbuckler than melodrama with plenty of romantic complications. Our buoyant, wholesome hero falls for Lady Jocelyn (Elinor Fair), the daughter of his British rival, and essentially kidnaps her for the three month duration of the race. It’s for her own good, you see, because she’s engaged to a corrupt dandy and a cowardly rake (John Miljan, anticipating the tarnished elegance of John Carradine in Stagecoach, but without any of his redeeming values), and thus we forgive the arrogance of the American adventurer. Eighty years later. the American character hasn’t really changed all that much.

The Yankee Clipper has been assembled from numerous sources, at least one of them beset by serious celluloid damage that has warped the image and buckled the print. Thanks to the state of the art of digital restoration, even the most damaged sequences have been stabilized enough to see the center of the image and follow the film. That’s only limited to a couple of scenes, however, and the rest of the film looks quite good. Dennis James accompanies the film with a compilation score from library music of the era, played on the restored Wurlitzer Organ at the Paramount Theater in Seattle, my hometown silent movie palace. James is an old hand at this and his jaunty, rousing score is a good fit with the film. The film anchors Under Full Sail: Silent Cinema On The High Seas, Flicker Alley’s single-disc anthology of maritime adventure films from the silent era. Disc is filled out with the documentary shorts Ship Ahoy (1928), The Square Rigger (1932) and Around the Horn in a Square Rigger(1933) and a 10-minute sequence from the 1922 whaling classic Down to the Sea in Ships (which documents an authentic whale hunt filmed on the high seas in dangerous conditions). Also features an audio interview with Frank “Junior” Coghlan (who plays the young comic relief in The Yankee Clipper) and a booklet with program notes by historian John E. Stone and organist Dennis James.

Other notable DVD releases this week:

“Goodness, Jane Austen would be very surprised to find she had written that!” Austen-philia meets the conventions of the time travel comedy in the British mini-series Lost in Austen, about a 21st century girl, Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper), who swaps places with Pride and Prejudice heroine Elizabeth Bennett (Gemma Arterton) through a secret passage that bridges time, space and reality between the Bennett family attic and the tiny bathroom in Price’s London flat. She brings a modern sense and sensibility to 18th century British society and makes a cock-up of her matchmaking until she throws caution to the wind and takes on society on its own terms with the help of the surprisingly sensitive Mr. Wickham. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, ask an Austen fan to explain the irony. It’s more clever than smart, but it’s awfully clever at that and should tickle any Austen diehard who appreciates a little whimsy and fantasy. An American big-screen remake is in the works.

And what timing for the DVD: the 1995 Pride And Prejudice mini-series, considered by Jane Austen fans to the be the definitive adaptation of Austen’s most famous novel and her work in general, debuts on Blu-ray this week. Jennifer Ehle is the smart and sensible and thoroughly independent heroine Elizabeth Bennet and Colin Firth’s brittle performance as the brooding, class-conscious Mr. D’Arcy has become the defining screen incarnation (even Lost in Austen references him). It was one of the first TV miniseries to be shot for the widescreen TV format and this new high-definition edition (freshly remastered from the original Super-16mm negative) looks terrific on Blu-ray: crisp, vivid and richly detailed.

Kate Winslet finally won her Oscar and her performance in The Reader is the best thing about the film.  Read my full review for Parallax View here.

Frank Miller’s big screen incarnation of Will Eisner’s landmark comic superhero series The Spirit was not a hit in theaters and it isn’t any better on DVD,  but the extras are terrific. You can find my review of the film for Parallax View here.

For more DVD releases, see my picks for the week at my blog and my DVD column at MSN.