The year is 1794 and the French Revolution is holding France in the grip of terror, with the statesman Maximilian Robespierre (Richard Basehart) at the head of the situation. Today he is forcing his erstwhile ally Danton to stand trial, if you can call it a trial for the only reason for it is to condemn the man to death for rebelling against Robespierre and so it is that he is soon led to the guillotine and executed. With the leader of the Revolution now planning to make himself dictator, can anyone stand up to him? There may be hope in the person of nobleman Charles D'Aubigny (Robert Cummings), if he can infiltrate the ranks of those who have siezed power...
John Alton was one of Hollywood's greatest cinematographers, and with his unerring eye for a memorable shot he should have enjoyed work on higher budgeted films than he ended up on, but he had the reputation of being temperamental which often meant that B movies were where he made his living. One such was Reign of Terror, where he worked with cult director Anthony Mann whose own reputation rests on some truly excellent westerns of the fifties, but here was a historical adventure that showed he was putting in notable work before that decade too.
Actually, I'm not sure how accurate historically it was, and perhaps it was best not to approach its story at face value, but as a swiftly-paced thriller in period dress, then it was carried off with some skill. In fact, with Alton's photography what this film resembled was a film noir set in Revolutionary France, all brooding shadows and striking camera set-ups, with many a moody closeup on a cast member's features. If the story does not grip you, and screenwriters Philip Yordan and Aenaes Mackenzie could be accused of allowing scenes to verge on the contrived, then you can admire the handsome appearance.
Our dashing hero, Charles, goes undercover as Duval, the Butcher of Strasbourg, who is one of Robespierre's lackeys. His mission? To track down Robespierre's black book, which does not as you may think contain the telephone numbers of his lady friends but the names of and charges that can be brought against his enemies. With everyone thinking Charles is Duval, they bring him into their confidence, though the threat of being found out is what provides a measure of the tension. He also meets up with someone who knows him, Madelon (Arlene Dahl), a past lover who rejected him, presumably included because someone felt the film needed a love interest.
Not that Madelon doesn't have anything to do, but by the end it's apparent that she was mainly present to be saved in the final reel - which makes Charles look better, if nothing else. Some have made comparisons between Reign of Terror's plot and the Communist witch hunts that were in full swing by the time this was being produced, but it could just as easily be seen as an allegory of the recent conflict in Europe, with Revolutionary France standing on for France under the Nazis, or even Germany during those dark years. But the film could just as easily be regarded on the level of derring do, and Mann does the most with some very decent scenes of excitement and suspense. Here is proof that low budget Hollywood could be as satisfying as the prestige productions in the right hands. Music by Sol Kaplan.