In the grand scheme of father and son/daughter directors, Jacques Tourneur is the one clear case of offspring surpassing his parent. It may not have seemed so at the time, since father Maurice Tourneur had been in charge of big movies like The Last of the Mohicans (1920), while Jacques was "merely" the director of "B" horrors like Cat People (1942). But now it's fairly obvious that Jacques was much more than his "B" movie budgets. Of the major second-stringers, he was the only one who never seemed to be scrounging, digging to discover art within trash. Rather, he elevated his films to some kind of new level of ethereal, mysterious, shadowy beauty.

One of his many hard-to-find movies, Nightfall (1957), gets a released on DVD this week as part of Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics II. It has a particularly wretched little plot, from a David Goodis story: Aldo Ray stars as a commercial artist who is waiting for spring so that he can go back up into the mountains and retrieve a lost satchel full of money. He meets a girl (Anne Bancroft) and tells her his whole story in flashback. Unfortunately, the two thugs (Brian Keith and Rudy Bond) who stole the money and murdered Ray's pal are also looking for it. There's a lot of waiting in this movie, and some not-particularly smart moves, but Tourneur makes it live and breathe with his unique, sinister use of outdoor locations, notably an oilfield, a fashion show, and the snowy campsite that was the scene of the crime.
Tourneur, 1904-1977, was born in Paris and came to America as a boy with his father. He began working odd jobs, like office boy and script clerk, before moving up to editor for his father and then directing some short films in France. It took some time for him to gain work as a director in the U.S., but his break came while working on a big-budget David O. Selznick production of A Tale of Two Cities (1935). Both he and a fellow named Val Lewton found themselves toiling together in some small capacity -- without credit -- on the big film, and they struck up a friendship. (Nowadays, nobody even mentions the A Tale of Two Cities movie except to bring up the origin of the Lewton-Tourneur team.)

Years later, Lewton went to work for RKO, producing a series of low-budget horror pictures, and Lewton hired Tourneur to direct. Lewton was a literary guy and wasn't particularly interested in the monster movies Universal had been making, so he and Tourneur cooked up a new kind of lyrical horror, based on suggestion and sound. The results were -- if I may say so -- among the most remarkable American films ever made: Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and The Leopard Man (1943).

So many great scenes leap to mind: the indoor swimming pool at night, the sudden appearance of the bus, the midnight walk through the marshes, the tense walk home from the store in the dark, and the blood under the door. I also think of Tom Conway's lines from I Walked with a Zombie: "Everything seems beautiful because you don't understand. Those flying fish, they're not leaping for joy, they're jumping in terror. Bigger fish want to eat them. That luminous water, it takes its gleam from millions of tiny dead bodies. The glitter of putrescence. There is no beauty here, only death and decay." These seem to sum up Tourneur quite well.

Tourneur's films for Lewton were huge hits. Lewton went on to make more great films at RKO, but this column is called "Directors We Love" (not producers). And so we follow Tourneur as his skills became required elsewhere. In the next few years, he worked on war films, Westerns and films noir, and his next notable film was one of the latter: Out of the Past (1947). It was another case of Tourneur taking perhaps the most cohesive or coherent of plots and making something sturdy and vivid out of it. Robert Mitchum stars as a man trying to go straight when his past life catches up with him. It's one of the most primal of films noir, since it doesn't have anything to do with a lesson learned or a happy ending. It's perpetually doomed.

The director continued with more genre films, including a swashbuckler, The Flame and the Arrow (1950) -- with Burt Lancaster -- and the superb, widescreen Western Wichita (1955), about the early days of Wyatt Earp (Joel McCrea). In that film, Tourneur used the frame and the open spaces to deliberately skew and blur all concepts of good and evil; when Earp tries to outlaw all guns, the negative effects can be felt as well as its positive effects. But Tourneur reached a crossroads with Stars in My Crown (1950), about a preacher in a Southern town in the 19th century. The film remains very difficult to see (I have not seen it), and Jonathan Rosenbaum insists that it's one of the great American masterpieces. Apparently Tourneur waived his usual fee to direct it, working for scale, and subsequently sabotaged his own career. After that, he could not be taken seriously and wound up working mainly in "B" movies and television.

Some of these later efforts were fairly pathetic in origin, and not even Tourneur's personality and style could save them. I recently attended an ultra-rare screening of The Fearmakers (1958), and I was astonished to see a rather ham-fisted message movie (though the message -- about skewing public opinion to fit a company or a politician's desired results -- is still relevant). Toward the end, Tourneur actually worked for Roger Corman and made one of those monster movies that Lewton had frowned upon so many years earlier: The Comedy of Terrors (1963), starring Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and Peter Lorre.

Happily, one more picture from this period has become yet another classic, Night of the Demon (1957). In the United States it was cut by 13 minutes and re-titled "Curse of the Demon," but the full-length version is readily available today. It was another horror film, and though Tourneur fought against the use of a giant creature in the climactic scenes, it's still a masterpiece of mood. It and about four other movies provide the basis for Tourneur's entire reputation and cult audience, as most of the others are hard to see. (Some are available on old VHS tapes or as bootlegs.) Perhaps because of his budgetary constraints, or perhaps because of the unavailability of his output, he's still not as highly regarded as some of his contemporaries (John Ford, or Alfred Hitchcock, for example), but he deserves more consideration.

There's an even stranger aspect to Tourneur's work, and his biographer Chris Fujiwara tried to explain it: his films have a dreamlike effect. It's not that they look or feel like dreams, but they tend to dissipate like dreams. They're elastic, and our memories of them tend to change from viewing to viewing. You can revisit a particular Tourneur film each year, and even though it may be "just" a "B" movie or a horror movie, it will reveal new things each time. I have enjoyed this effect firsthand many times. If that's not a sign of a great director, then I don't know what is.
categories Cinematical