Who says this blog is afraid to answer the tough questions, to boldly tackle the really burning issues of the day?
To wit: Given that VCI Entertainment issued a not-all-that bad DVD version of Anthony Mann's delightful French Revolution pop-noir 1948 Reign of Terror AKA The Black Book, is the new version of the Mann film recently released by the burn-on-demand Sony subsidiary Columbia Classics worth a look, let alone an investment of 20 bucks or thereabouts?
Well, we've delved into the question and the answer is, HELL YEAH.
The relative enthusiasm with which the VCI release was met with beck in 2008 was of course relative to the fact that prior video iterations of the film looked like sock puppet theater, on account of their being quasi-bootlegs of the title which had fallen into the slough of despond known as public domain. The VCI version was made from undeniably soft materials, but transferred with care. If the magnificent chiaroscuros concocted by Mann and his most crucial collaborator, cinematographer John Alton, were clearly not all that they could be, well, they were enough to extrapolate from. Given the state of affairs concerning the film's provenance and such, DVD Beaver reviewers Gregory Meshman and Gary W. Tooze said of the release, "This may be as good as it gets."
This was of course before the burn-on-demand DVD marketing scheme got going. My suspicion is that some cinephile at Sony knew that the studio had some very superior materials in the vault, and that the only way to get them released would be through just such a corporate sidebar as was pioneered by the Warner Archive. Alas, Jeanine Basinger's otherwise quite thorough Mann biography doesn't go into how Reign of Terror got its name changed to The Black Book, but I suspect it was retitled after the independent low-budget production was picked up for distribution by Columbia.
In any event, the difference between the VCI Reign and the Columbia Classics Book is stark from the very opening montage, including this introductory shot of Richard Basehart's "Don't call me Max" Robespierre. The VCI version is the first, the Sony the second.
The extent to which the materials used for the VCI edition are washed out is extremely evident in the flames, and behind the flames. The level of relative detail is plainly discernable in details such as Basehart's teeth.
As for the light and shadow—and most importantly, darkness, Alton's stock-in-trade and likely a great influence on the future work of Gordon Willis—well, see these screen caps from a slightly later scene showing the first secret meeting between the characters played by Robert Cummings and Arlene Dahl:
"The movie represents a total triumph of form over content—or, perhaps, form over lack of content," Basinger notes. It's impossible, really, to fully appreciate the form unless it's presented faithfully, or well, or whatever your preferred term. Though the Columbia Classics disc is a DVR, it's made from a mighty fine master. I can just imagine what kind of a Blu-ray the materials might yield, and I bet I'm GONNA have to imagine that for the forseeable future. Am I gonna toss my VCI disc? No, because it also contains a good version of ANOTHER Alton-shot (albeit not Mann-directed) genre picture, The Amazing Mr. X, starring Turhan Bey, WTFIU, and because the Reign presentation also has a good and informative audio commentary by Alan Rode, who's joined by Arlene Dahl. (Hmm. I forget whether that commentary goes into the specifics of the name switch, but never mind.) But when I just want to watch Mann's film—and I'll probably want to at least every other Bastille Day or so—the Columbia Classics one, which you can indeed buy through the Warner Archive or through ClassicFlix and no doubt other outlets, is the one I'll pop into the player.