TCMFF Throwback: Norman Lloyd on Reign of Terror
August 6, 2015
Quick blog update: A piece I'm writing for an exciting project has kept me quite busy over the past several weeks, and hopefully I can share some details soon! However, the research, writing, and editing required for that article has stolen my attention the last month and a half, and as a result I've sadly neglected the work I've been doing for this site.
I hope to return in a week or two, but in the meantime, below is a mini throwback piece from Norman Lloyd's Q&A after a screening of 1949's Reign of Terror (aka The Black Book) at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival. I never published this because I meant to include an analysis of Reign of Terror, a rare period film noir set during the French Revolution that sadly isn't as well-known even to noir fans, though it certainly should be. Perhaps I'll get around to praising Anthony Mann's (usual) tense, yet steady direction; John Alton's (also usual) masterful, expressive cinematography, which makes 1790s France all the more tortuous and ominous; and everything else that makes this picture such an entertaining one, but for now, here's my recap of Lloyd's lively discussion.
There's a lot going on in the botton half of this poster.
Though I've heard Norman Lloyd speak before, you can't really pass up the chance to hear a 100 year old discuss his personal experiences during the Golden Age of Hollywood, right? Especially when said centenarian was so insanely engaging the first time around...(which, for the record, was a belated 100th birthday celebration thrown for Lloyd at the Aero Theatre in November 2014, featuring screenings of 1942's Saboteur and 1945's A Walk in the Sun).
The Film Noir Foundation's Eddie Mueller sat down with Lloyd after a screening of Reign of Terror on day 2 of TCMFF 2015. When Mueller asked how the movie came about, Lloyd delivered quite an interesting backstory, a tale which oddly involved Victor Fleming's Joan of Arc, produced the year before and starring Ingrid Bergman. That picture, which was "not very successful," as Lloyd recalled, came and went, but the sets that David O. Selznick directed to be built remained. Being an enterprising man, Selznick, along William Cameron Menzies, who was working as an art director with Selznick at the time, looked at these perfectly decent backdrops and proposed that they be used again...they just needed a story for them! "Talk about a creative project...here's all this wooden canvas lying around and someone had to accommodate it!" Lloyd exclaimed. "A set driven movie," Mueller echoed, seemingly a bit surprised at the revelation. "Very good," Lloyd dryly replied.
1948's Joan of Arc. I'm sure if you look closely you could identify some of the same sets Reign of Terror used. Very closely.
So, a basic story was worked out and writer Philip Yordan, who specialized in historical pieces, came aboard to develop the narrative to fit the sets. "If any of you have ideas about crashing motion pictures and how you do it, build a good set!" Lloyd sarcastically declared. From there, someone suggested the (gruesome) idea that they behead someone in the picture, and naturally the French Revolution setting was born.
In regards to the crew, Lloyd commended director Anthony Mann for his "brilliant" direction and the great energy he brought to the production. He also lauded frequent Mann collaborator John Alton for the beautiful shots and angles he captured that truly did the sets justice.
One of the many examples of cinematographer Alton's exquisite work on this picture, with star Robert Cummings standing closest to the top of the stairs.
Lloyd also noted that the film was made up of an "interesting" cast, and he laughed that "somehow I stumbled into it." The picture starred Robert Cummings, one of Lloyd's favorite actors and "a gentleman if there ever was one," who he had the chance to work with a few years earlier on Hitchcock's Saboteur (1942). Lloyd then circled back to the topic of the sets, which easily dominated the conversation, asserting that Selznick and Menzies' original perception was "justified" and the sets worked great with the picture. "I think the actors came off well, too," he joked.
Eddie Mueller discusses Reign of Terror with Norman Lloyd at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival. (Picture by Kim Luperi)
On a fascinating side note, Mueller pointed out that this was not the first time Lloyd worked with Mann, referencing a story Lloyd told him earlier that day: "At your urging, I shall share it," Lloyd dramatically uttered, "but I'm very embarrassed...which is just a big lie!" Suddenly the focus of the conversation traveled back in time almost a decade before Reign of Terror to a TV episode Lloyd recorded and Mann directed, based on the play The Streets of New York in 1939 (not to be confused with a movie with the same title made the same year starring Jackie Cooper).
Lloyd said that back in those early days of television a recording was made on a kinescope of each production, basically filming the episode to preserve it. Well, apparently a five minute clip from The Streets of New York exists as the oldest surviving record of television! The archives of the Museum of TV and Radio (now known as the Paley Center) in New York house the piece, and Lloyd quipped: "They made the big mistake of doing an archive of a TV show." He went on to humorously declare the surviving excerpt as the worst piece of acting we would ever see - if we had the chance to: "It's so bad that it could be good!" he proclaimed, always embodying the role of a performer. "Some of the actors in it managed to recover," he joked, including Jennifer Jones, who appeared under her birth name Phyllis Isley. "I look at it with wonder...but when you are that bad, you are great!"
I'm not sure Lloyd could ever be that bad, but if he indeed was, I'd probably agree with his statement. Of the few movies I've watched him in, he's always delivered wonderful performances. And those he's presented in person are pretty spectacular too.