Reign of Terror (1949)

Reign of Terror (1949)

“No one goes to bed in Paris — it isn’t safe to go to bed!”

A French patriot (Robert Cummings) kills and impersonates a notorious prosecutor (Charles Gordon) summoned by bloodthirsty Maximilian Robespierre (Richard Basehart), who informs Cummings that his “black book” of traitors-to-be-executed has been lost. With the help of his former lover (Arlene Dahl), Cummings attempts to locate the vitally important book — but will his true identity be revealed?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Anthony Mann Films
  • Beulah Bondi Films
  • French Revolution
  • Historical Drama
  • Mistaken or Hidden Identities
  • Richard Basehart Films
  • Robert Cummings Films

Anthony Mann and DP John Alton collaborated on three low-budget films — T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), and this title — before Mann embarked on the bigger-budget films he’s best known for, including Peary-listed titles such as Winchester ’73 (1950), The Tall Target (1951), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Glenn Miller Story (1954), The Man From Laramie (1955), The Far Country (1954), The Tin Star (1957), El Cid (1961), and more. This “cloak and dagger” historical adventure — taking place during France’s post-revolutionary Reign of Terror — is a highly atmospheric affair, with every frame and set maximized to craft a claustrophobic sense of perpetual danger and betrayal.

Unfortunately, the screenplay (co-written by Philip Yordan) is mostly uninspired, with plenty of lines such as the following: “It’s either Madelon or the book — you can’t have both!” However, the details of the fast-moving script don’t matter as much as the excitement generated, and it’s easy enough to follow who the ultimate “bad guy” and “good guy” are. With that said, Reign of Terror is only must-see for fans of this type of flick, and/or Mann completists.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Highly atmospheric cinematography (by John Alton)

  • Fine period sets and art design

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly worth a one-time look for its visuals alone. Available as a public domain title on


One thought on “Reign of Terror (1949)

  1. A once-must, for its place in cinema history – and as a fine collaboration between director Mann and DP Alton.

    I’d seen this once before, years ago, and was pleased to see how well it holds up. The TCM site reminds us that it’s “loosely based” on the historical facts (which, of course, is usually the case) and, though many of the characters were real people, the character played by Cummings (for example) was invented.

    Still…the film mainly reads as plausible. I partially agree re: the statement about the screenplay. However, it’s not that it contains lines that are “uninspired” – what it contains are some pieces of dialogue which come off like typical Hollywood talk instead of what would be more authentic. Those passages are noticeable, and are unfortunate, but I think they amount to a small percentage of the script (luckily). The story’s overall structure is solid and one can easily overlook the occasional awkward remark here and there.

    Mann and Alton give us ‘the historical epic as noir’ and it works rather well as such. The look and feel of the film are effective enough that it doesn’t really matter that the actors’ performances are more in service to the overall scheme.

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