The Black Book (1949) Blu-ray Review


Hitler by way of the French Revolution

“We’re trying to build a better world. We’re never going back,” says Madelon (Arlene Dahl) regarding France’s then recent history. The Black Book (aka, The Reign of Terror) dropped into theaters in 1949, just a few years removed from World War II, taking audiences back to the French Revolution, circa 1794.

The storyline resonates. There’s a self-admitted dictator rising to power. His charisma leads people to follow, promising a national France “for the people.” Dialog references true patriots and isolationism, the calling card for Hitler who reached into the bowels of the working class to find his supporters.

Black Book is based on true events. Maximilian Robespierre was a critical figure of France’s Revolution, although this isn’t a nuanced adaptation. Historically, Robespierre is a divisive leader; Black Book makes him a conniving political genius, ruling by way of a guillotine. He’s a Hitler figment.

In some ways, Black Book is a celebratory feature. Tense, dramatic, and leering regarding dictatorships, but ultimately a historical tale of how these false leaders meet their demise. Good people win, in this case Charles D’Aubigny (Robert Cummings), a square-jawed, handsome rebel infiltrating Robespierre’s regime on the hunt for an enemy’s list.

It’s pure noir, obsessed with gorgeous shadows, tight close-ups, and scenes of driving tension

By way of plotting, this is no different than a litany of other film noir entries. The spies, the villain, the MacGuffin, the characters with uncertain allegiances, and a sharp romance. It’s timing that makes Black Book interesting, retelling a period of history through the eyes of recent history. Certainly, Black Book avoids subtly. Heroes and villains stand out as they are, leaving middle characters to dabble in mixed centrism. Those drive the thrills between a series of excitable chase and fight scenes, enough to distract from the familiarity.

Madelon’s words above stand out, representing a relief this history cannot repeat and won’t – those lessons were learned, from Robespierre as much as Hitler. Righteous people will find a way to conquer evil, ending on metaphorical fireworks, rising rebellion, and a country truly given to the people, not a self-anointed dictator. Inspiring to a population in 1949, still recovering from war, and Black Book does it all with style. It’s pure noir, obsessed with gorgeous shadows, tight close-ups, and scenes of driving tension. Black Book makes full use of its title object during a scene involving an elderly grandmother, three kids, and the dictator close to reclaiming his vital notes.

Black Book isn’t hiding its victor, even for those who know the real events. That’s not the point though. It’s a film designed to warn, inspire, and prevent recurrence.

Video

For years one of those that slipped through the copyright system and into public domain, Mill Creek picks this one up for inclusion in their Noir Archive collection. Black Book looks infinitely better than those battered and nearly ruined public domain ventures. Certainly, contrast adds immense value to this presentation. Black Book’s shadows need dominance. That tone pours from this disc. Marvelous depth and dimension make up for some issues elsewhere.

Notably, those issues primarily concern a small amount of digital sharpening. Halos give the film a digital, edgy look. That leads to elevated grain levels too, also coarse and lacking the nuance needed to look convincingly film-like. With two other films on the same disc, that’s asking for compression problems. Black Book receives as expected.

Behind the rigidness is a pleasingly high resolution scan. Detail releases facial detail from years of captivity on previous discs. Costume texture stands out too. This all happens behind a print showing moderate damage. Scratches fill the frame, and a touch of gate weave is noted on occasion. Still, this is evidence of significantly more care than anyone gave Black Book previously.

Audio

Clean drums maintain their organic quality in this DTS-HD mix. The lack of distortion is impressive. Highs likewise keep purity, and jump forward without hiss, popping, or skipping.

All dialog keeps itself free of loss. Aged, but on par with even some of the best vintage cinema.

Extras

None of the Noir Archive films contain extras.

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

The Black Book
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Extras

Movie

Treating the French Revolution as a reference period for (then) recent World War II, The Black Book tells an inspiring story for survivors.

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