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Director Spotlight: Jacques Tourneur

When I think, read, write, talk, or even complain about movies, I can feel myself being constantly circled by a pair of interlocking presences: Val Lewton, the great producer, and Jacques Tourneur, the favorite of all the directors Lewton worked with in his tragically short career. My commensalistic relationship with Lewton is a simple one; the body of work is small and relatively coherent, there’s ample scholarship on the man’s life and work, and the vast majority of his movies are confined to a single genre (horror).

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

His face is on my bookshelf, his name is on my Twitter account. Simple as. I would say Tourneur is another can of worms, but it’s more concise to describe a can that claims to contain worms and weighs as though it were full of them, but, when opened, turns out to have been empty all along. His films were too slight for the A’s and too artsy for the B’s. He’s confusing, elusive, and paradoxical. Shit, for all the years I’ve spent thinking about him, those are just about all the adjectives I can conjure up. Trying to find the words for Tourneur has stumped better writers than myself and I can’t blame them for coming up short, he’s a tough nut to crack. However, because I love his films so deeply, I’m going to do my best to crack Tourneur’s proverbial nut open just a little, in hopes that it inspires at least one person to give him a go.

It is fair to claim that Jacques was exposed to the filmmaking process from the day he was born. The son of French director Maurice Tourneur, Jacques spent much of his youth moving back and forth across the Atlantic, from France to Hollywood, subjected constantly to the bizarre stresses of his father’s unorthodox career. Working in both France and America, Jacques settled in Hollywood in 1934 after a brief run of French language features. On contract for MGM, he made a number of short films, worked as second unit for various A pictures, and made small features, like the Nick Carter movies and Doctors Don’t Tell. It was on one of these jobs that he first met Val Lewton.

Doctors Don't Tell (1941)

The duo had been tasked with staging revolution sequences for David O. Selznick’s production of A Tale of Two Cities and, so impressed as he was by their work, Selznick gave them both a special credit during the opening titles. The working relationship they developed continued when Lewton was hired to run RKO’s failing horror division and immediately signed Tourneur to direct his first three films there. The first of these was the legendary box office smash, Cat People. This is the moment where the confusion usually sets in. It's impossible to credit all the revolutionary elements of Cat People to any one of its contributors. In fact, all of its observable “style” would go on to define the filmographies of Lewton, Tourneur, and its cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca. This dynamic has led critics to claim for years that, without Lewton, Tourneur could hardly be called a worthy filmmaker. Personally, I think this is bullshit or we wouldn’t be here.

The hack accusations are not without their grounds. Tourneur himself proudly claimed that he never turned down a script and that he never compromised, a statement that would turn any old-school auteurist’s brain to goo. Questions like, “How could his films have a personal authorial style with so little regard for his material?” betray a profound lack of awareness of what a director’s job actually entails, aside from the obvious pretentious shortsightedness.

Cat People (1942)

Then, it’s also worth noting that what we know about Tourneur’s on-set behavior hardly implied incredibly formal control. He was drunk. Constantly. Yet, his workflow remained unchanged and distinct. The overarching Tourneur style arises not out of a calculated desire to set himself apart from his contemporaries but an astounding clarity of vision, a deft hand whose reflexes had been honed from the time he was a child. It was Tourneur’s lifetime experience and near instinctual knowledge of the filmmaking process that let him imprint his name on his work, even with such a laissez-faire attitude.

Chris Fujiwara, perhaps Tourneur’s greatest defender and the author of Cinema of Nightfall (which I highly recommend), makes the argument that it is this astounding familiarity with all modes that has allowed his work to slip by so many viewers undetected for so long. He never seems unsuited to the task at hand and he never attempts to make a film anything it’s not. So far-reaching is this ability, Fujiwara claims, that Tourneur had the ability to make genre films in genres that don’t exist, citing Easy Living and Way of a Gaucho.

Way of a Gaucho (1952)

The chameleonic quality owes to the peculiar characteristics of his style, so broad as to make them applicable to any kind of movie. The Tourneur toolbox is centered around three techniques: extensive use of wides and mediums, muted acting, and expressionist lighting. The combined effect is to keep the viewer from identifying directly with any of the characters’ points of view (via the former two) and, in an almost contradictory move, create a distinct aura of unreality (the latter). In this way, almost any screenplay of sufficient quality can be given a sudden and extreme depth. Moral clarity and material identification are eschewed and the viewer is suddenly forced to discover what is often spelled out in big, bold font.

Tourneur took great care when rehearsing with his actors, often having them repeat their lines hundreds of times until all flare or intonation was gone. All deliveries should be unaffected; the speaker’s true feelings are undefined. It is this ambiguity that creates a new layer of text underneath just about any screenplay that came Tourneur’s way. Suddenly, intentions became distorted, pasts became mysterious, and anything at all became a lie. The driver of the story was no longer a character’s motivations, but unseen forces at work, pushing and pulling helpless people into intrigue, adventure, and danger. Even identity was obfuscated; sexuality and gender are repeatedly probed and blurred throughout Tourneur’s filmography. The name of the game, then, is ambiguity.=

Anne of the Indies (1951)

Taking out the real engines, Tourneur is free to rebuild the focus of a story however he sees fit. Zeroing in on his favorite subjects (characters who exist on the margins of society and self-knowledge, objects whose importance remains always unclear, conspiratorial forces that lurk in the shadows, etc.), Tourneur creates films that beg to be thought about. The unanswered questions in a Tourneur film almost always remain unanswered. This obsession with deception extends to his images, which are frequently full of deep, black shadows or purposefully avoid showing the source of a sound; a sense of mystery pervades.

The elusive tendencies of Tourneur’s mise en scene play on the viewer’s awareness of what’s in and out of frame and their trust in the filmmaker’s intentionality. Hearing a noise with no clear source begs the viewer to wonder what could be making it and why the filmmaker is drawing their attention to such a sound in the first place. The same is true for shadows. Why would you be shown darkness if there was nothing hidden in it? The viewer’s imagination, then, creates a scenario far more intimate or terrifying than anything that could possibly be shown on screen. The film takes root in its audience and grows in whatever way they let it.

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

This semi-abstract, participatory nature is the bridge beyond the nominal genre confines applied to him (not that there’s anything wrong with being confined to genre). One of Tourneur’s most celebrated and my absolute favorite, I Walked With A Zombie is cited by the notoriously obtuse Apichatpong Weersethakul as one of his most influential filmgoing experiences. He even claims that he intends to remake it. A titan of participatory cinema, Weersethakul’s comments alone should be enough to make clear how worthy of attention Tourneur’s work is, but jumping in can be rough and you could pretty easily crack your skull on a rock (don’t be fooled, the man made some stinkers).

So, for the one or two readers whose curiosity I’ve sparked, where to begin with Jacques Tourneur? My first exposure was his Mitchum-led noir, Out of the Past. Certainly hard to go wrong with it, it’s got a hard-earned and well-deserved reputation as a classic of the genre, but it does set up something of an expectation for Tourneur to be something he’s not. For one, Mitchum’s got too much unrestrainable charisma and star power to resemble a typical Tourneur lead. No, I’d suggest something a little more in line with his normal output. For the horror junkies, the aforementioned I Walked With A Zombie is the platonic ideal of Tourneur’s formal techniques and the thematic obfuscation at work is the most exciting and baffling he ever managed.

Out of the Past (1947)

If you’re looking for an adventure, Anne of the Indies is certainly his best, but Way of a Gaucho is the most Tourneurian of them, even if it isn’t available in anything better than 480p (I’d be willing to do some awful things for a proper restoration, so if you’ve got the resources and need some dirty work done, hit me up). Some have called it Western, but I would hardly say that applies. It’s an epic like none other, and it’s all tied up in a clean 91 minutes. Proper western-wise, some would say Stars in My Crown, but I think Canyon Passage is not only better but more demonstrative of Tourneur’s strength. Its massive cast of characters lets Tourneur have them be consumed by their physical environments and social roles in the best tradition of Westerns, but to unorthodox ends. In fact, I’d call it the best adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream ever put to the screen. Make of that what you will.

And if you’re a fellow traveler and degenerate and you like trash, you also have options! For a genuinely good movie with a goofy monster puppet, check out Night of the Demon. The titular demon will make you laugh and Niall MacGinnis in clown makeup will make you quiver in fear. Timbuktu is like a bozo version of Nicholas Ray’s Bitter Victory. War Gods of the Deep has Vincent Price (as an immortal god-king of an underwater city) shouting about chicken. Take your pick.

War Gods of the Deep (1965)

While the variety is part of the fun, I would say that no matter which of his films you watch (with a few notable exceptions), the aura of mystery and impenetrability remains. Even the worst of them have a lingering power, having been inflected with a tone of detachment that makes even the most trite and jingoistic of plots appear to have their tongues invisibly planted in their cheeks. To return to that strange can of non-existent worms, there is a degree to which disappointment fails to matter. Even if you are disappointed that the worms you were looking for aren’t there, you are left in a state of curiosity. You picked up the can, felt them wriggling inside, and assumed, judging by the weight, that it couldn’t be empty. When it is, you are forced to wonder, “Where did the weight come from?” This is the experience of watching a Jacques Tourneur film; days later, you find yourself coming back to it, turning it over in your head, trying to reconstruct it and always finding that some piece is missing.



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