Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Jacques Tourneur

"I never saw her in the daytime. We seemed to live by night. What was left of the day went away like a pack of cigarettes you smoked. I didn't know where she lived. I never followed her. All I ever had to go on was a place and time to see her again. I don't know what we were waiting for. Maybe we thought the world would end." 
That is how Jeff Bailey (played by Robert Mitchum) describes his relationship with Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) in Out of the Past (1947), and it is also a description for any number of films by Jacques Tourneur, the master of shadows and possibly the most graceful image maker there ever was.

Another quote that is very revealing, almost as if Tourneur is analysing the themes of his own films, is this from The Curse of the Demon (1957), spoken by a sinister professor:
But where does imagination end and reality begin? What is this twilight, this half world of the mind that you profess to know so much about? How can we differentiate between the powers of darkness and the powers of the mind?
That twilight might have been what Paul Willemen was referring to when he wrote in 1975 that "although the films dramatise the conflict between terms A/B, it is the '/' which constitutes the enigmatic pivot upon which Tourneur's films turns." And this is another line from The Curse of the Demon, spoken by the main character played (very well) by Dana Andrews: "Nobody's free from fear. I have an imagination like anyone else. It's easy to see a demon in every dark corner." Tourneur himself once said that "The real horror is to show that we all live unconsciously in fear."

With these quotes most of Tourneur are more or less summed up, fear, darkness, fleeting moments and ambiguity. But it is not so much these motifs as the style in which he made them come alive that matters. There are few who has such a refined, elegant, sombre style of filmmaking, where things stay calm and controlled. It is as if the terror he unleashes is contained by the precision and beauty of each shot. The acting style in his films is subdued, sometimes almost sleepy. When directing his most common suggestion was for the actors to hold back, to quiet down. He wanted them to "lower their voice, eliminate inflections, and give the sentences a different, less dramatic rhythm." as he explained it in an interview in 1971.

Of course, he did not only do horror and thrillers, he also did westerns and adventure, and even a few comedies (much to his surprise), but they were also done in the same style, and with the same evident grace and elegance. There is a case to be made for his first film in colour, Canyon Passage (1946), as being the most beautifully shot film in the whole of film history. It is a kind of western but the term does not in the least explain the power and allure of that film, which is filled with life, characters and stories, all interacting, and where the focus lies on the community rather than the individual, even though it has a central character, Logan Stuart , played by Dana Andrews. Stars in my Crown (1950) is another magnificent film about community, and also about race, racism and the Ku Klux Klan, with a great performance by Juano Hernandez, as well as Joel McCrea as the kind preacher who is the central figure in the community and the film. It shares with the best of Tourneur the same grace and beauty, this strange quality of the images which is distinctly his.

During the 1940s he hardly ever faltered, with his three supernatural films Cat People (1942), I Walked With a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943) and the thriller Berlin Express (1948) being the high points together with Canyon Passage and Out of the Past. The 50s are more uneven, but with at least two sublime films, i.e. Stars of My Crown and The Curse of the Demon. After that things got difficult for him, and he mainly worked in TV, and I have seen very little of that. I want to see everything though, because Tourneur has such immense powers that even if he only manages to get one shot right in an entire film, it will still be worth it.

Here is a clip from The Way of a Gaucho (1952), an uneven film perhaps, but still good and filled with unforgettable compositions and movements:

There are two things here, first the beauty of the colours and the shadows and second the ambiguity. Did she see a man, or did she just imagine him? It is exactly this that is at the heart of Tourneur's art, shadows and ambiguity, the zone between the real and the unreal, the art of the uncanny.


  1. My experience with Tourneur is limited to Night of the Demon, but your text certainly makes me hungry for more.

    And while I can recognise the subtilities you write about in that particular film, what about the atrocious demon? Was that some sort of demand from the movie company?

  2. You're right about that. Tourneur didn't want it, he wanted it to be unclear (obviously) whether there actually was a demon.

    For those who haven't seen the film, the demon appears twice, the first time in the very beginning of the film. That occasion is fine (because you don't see the whole demon, only parts of it), but at the second appearance you see the whole thing, and it looks awkward.