"Jacques Tourneur, Fearmaker" runs from December 14 – January 3, 2019 at New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center.
A man twists and contorts himself to fire his tommy gun from the front seat of a prop plane, strafing an escaping yacht in Jacques Tourneur’s Nick Carter, Master Detective (1939). The action scenes of the first (of only two) of MGM’s detective programmers starring Walter Pidgeon as a blasé, blowhard private dick go a long way to set thrilling standards of danger and energy in a prescient pre-war mystery of aviation espionage and sabotage. The opening scene in the desert of a foiled aircraft hijacking is already that Christopher Nolan-style of concept, grandeur and stark visuals, but the boat-gunning climax, created through great, swooning back projection and Carter’s nearly absurd violent technique (he unknowingly and uncaringly almost blasts his love interest, kidnapped on the yacht), lends great character to an otherwise unpromising crime series.
A gang leader huddled among anonymous criminals on a prison boat as “the Rock,” Alcatraz Island, looms closer and closer in the windows behind them. This moment will directly contradict the title of Jacques Tourneur's They All Come Out (1939), a swift, short and moralist bank robber picture swaddled between bookends proselytizing the recuperative powers of the American federal prison system. Maybe for young vagabond turned getaway driver Joe (Tom Neal, looking every bit like Kurt Russell), but not for gang leader Reno (a suavely cynical Bernard Nedell). Tourneur's camera movements often have an uncanny, lyrical quality removed from the normal passage of time, and the movement of the boat towards Reno's forever-fate is a brief but foreboding journey to what can only be called hell. Later and behind bars, guns are heard. "An escape attempt?" Reno asks hopefully. "No," another of the doomed answers, "target practice."
A bandit encampment in Jacques Tourneur’s The Flame and the Arrow (1950). In a mostly undistinctive Robin Hood riff (with a grinning, joyfully opportunistically gymnastic Burt Lancaster as a 12th century Lombardi Robin), the forest outlaws hide in the studio-bound crumbled ruins of a Roman temple “of heathen gods,” as one puts it. At night framed by golden lanterns—this being a Warners’ Technicolor production—this false marble hideout is festooned in that eerie and tremulous isolated vulnerability that is one of the director's signatures. This mise en scène becomes even more subtle and powerful when the strange post-war context of the story reveals itself most fully: the nearby town suffering reprisals by the order of a “Hessen” foreign ruler who is trying to eliminate local Lombardi partisans. This is a camp of resistance.
“Like anything you will ever tell me,” dreamily says a Soviet dancer-turned-partisan (Tamara Toumanova) to her lover and commander Vladmir (Gregory Peck in his first role), “it’s learned by heart.” Days of Glory (1944), a highly evocative masterpiece from Jacques Tourneur conjured in that brief moment during World War 2 when Hollywood was asked to make movies in support of our Soviet allies, with disjunctive, lyrical surrealness casts this dancer among the hardened Russian soldiers isolated in a crumbling, underground redoubt behind enemy lines. She comes from a world of art unknown to these fighters, “a strange world: a world of music and poetry and dancing,” says one of the guerrillas, calling her “a person of light and such life.” When she falls for Vladimir and murmurs this glowing aside, she confirms her existence as an ethereal spirit descended to earth (under the earth, even) and in love with a mortal. This love bolsters the two in a sublime, otherworldly ecstasy, yet somehow dooms both to war's onslaught.
“Nick.” When a stranger tells another about a third stranger by constantly referred to him only by his given name, he’s bound to be trouble. In Jacques Tourneur’s Gothic mystery Experiment Perilous (1944), a man on a night train is woken by a frightened, ill and perhaps mad woman who keeps talking about her brother in New York, all of his importance and troubles. His name is Nick—she won't have you forget it—and the way this name dominates the story she tells, and therefore her life, presages the introduction of a real sociopath. He is played by the Austro-Hungarian actor Paul Lukas, whose purring accent often times connotes a warm, embracing humaneness, as in Tourneur's 1948 Berlin Express, where he is an advocate for post-war decency and cooperation. But here it has the erudition and obscure origins of something corrupting and malignant. Nick will prove to be trouble.
Night shadows in Jacques Tourneur’s Way of a Gaucho (1952). One of the great aesthetic pleasures of the Technicolor era of Hollywood is the deep-set blacks of shadows and night time—if the filmmakers and cinematographers prefer this dedication to ensconced darkness. For my money, directors Henry King and Tourneur are the two who best bring out these qualities, and Gaucho, which originated as a picture for King, is full of tenebrous evenings that pulsate with eroticism, melancholy and loneliness. An Argentine western breathtakingly shot on location, it is one of Tourneur’s sublime masterpieces. Its stained glass cinematography, calibrated to the mild grassy yellows of the Pampas, makes the night suffuse with otherworldly silhouettes befitting the gaucho's austere choices of lawless freedom, civilization’s confinement and love’s dance between the two.
Cowboys run wild in Wichita, Kansas. Jacques Tourneur's CinemaScope western from 1955 named after the Kansas town is an unusually sober, clean-lined film for this director who most-excels at pervasive, intangible ambiance. Yet this one scene, of cowboys finally arriving in the boom town—advertised by "anything goes in Wichita" and "wine, women, Wichita"—after too long on the trail has a spectral terror in crucial contradistinction to the uncompromising order proposed and later enforced by Joel McCrea’s Wyatt Earp. We are warned again and again of the plainsmen's imminent violent reverie, and after a ribald but conventional day, the night turns chaotic and nearly abstract: a fusillade of random gunfight, bullets and gun reports piercing the night. It is a darkness that Earp hates, yet is inexorably drawn to in order to transform it and conform it to his rational order.
The misaligned love stories of Jacques Tourneur's Great Day in the Morning (1956). An unexpected theme of many of the films in the retrospective of this great director from Hollywood’s studio era is an unusual sensitively to serious but problematic relationships between men and women, complicated by the introduction of new characters to a pre-existing world. Case in point is this unusually fully-formed Civil War-era western, where an unpleasant affair between saloon magnate and false U.S. patriot Raymond Burr and his lover and business partner Ruth Roman, and a slow burn courtship between lush good girl Virginia Mayo and Union officer Alex Nicol are all mixed up by the introduction of hero Robert Stack, playing a gunslinging Georgia boy interested only in money, not politics. He falls for Mayo but takes up with Roman, who kicks out Burr and goes gaga for Stack; meanwhile, Mayo can't sort out her feelings—meaning, she wants Stack, but hates to admit it—and the Union officer fatefully nurses a grudge. All of these players—even the cartoonish Burr as the elephant-themed "Jumbo"—are given solemn respect and moral nuance by Tourneur, and detailed, fully lived embodiment by the actors. In films like Great Day or even Tourneur’s most famous movie, 1943’s inexhaustible Cat People, this earnest attention to the movements back and forth between couples, the flux of desires when confronted with a person’s actions or reasons for their actions, is as crucial and riveting to the drama as the genre plots—horror, thriller, law and order, et cetera—that seem the films’ surface propulsion.
The camera’s brief tracking movements in Jacques Tourneur's Appointment in Honduras (1953). This filmmaker is not a formalist like some of his more acclaimed contemporaries like John Ford, Otto Preminger, or Hitchcock, whose overt and idiosyncratic use of the camera makes far more obvious each director’s perspective on their stories. But that doesn't mean Tourneur didn't have formal flourishes, and none are so lyrically charged as the subtle and surprising times in his films when there’s a cut and suddenly the camera is floating—just for a moment—across the set, or softly, suddenly towards or away from a person. When Antonioni moves his camera it is an event; for Tourneur, it is an enigmatic brush stroke. He takes this painting to its furthest extreme in this Central American adventure film in which a taciturn and unforgiving Glenn Ford whisks a group of Guatemalan escaped convicts and a posh married couple off their boat journey and plunges them into the jungle. Through a mix of studio-bound fake foliage and outdoor shooting, Tourneur creates a never-ending environment of wilderness and ambient danger. The story grows to resemble not a plot, but a forceful and senseless progression onward through undifferentiated jungle. The camera’s movements join and accentuate this strange existential compulsion, as Glenn Ford’s reasons for the risky journey are stated yet cryptic: the track of the camera suggests the un-pierceable mystery of nature and the push and pull desires to flee from the mystery or go forever deeper.
The unexpected film from a director you know and love. As an American who knows and loves the old studio era of my country's cinema, a retrospective devoted to the subtle poet of Hollywood’s 1940s and 50s, Jacques Tourneur, has been a tremendous pleasure, but hardly a surprise. Except, that is, for the film Easy Living. Neither a horror film nor noir, thriller nor western, this 1949 drama fits into no obvious category, but it most certainly is, as French critic Pierre Rissient pointed out in an introduction at the film's 2017 screening at the Locarno Festival, the moment when the director, who has struggled for over a decade to secure decent budgets and make proper A-films, was no longer working to impress people, but rather was easily breathing cinema. This film is sublime and effortless, a drama of friendships, marriage, and professional pressure set in the world of American football and starring Victor Mature as a star quarterback who has just learned he has a weak heart. With genre trappings stripped away, we see Tourneur perhaps at his most pure: the drama of personal doubt and the wax and wane of assurance of who one is and what one does as he or she goes through this world. We get a terrific portrait of a marriage—Mature and Lisabeth Scott, who plays an ambitious but talentless interior decorator—by turns ecstatic and troubled, a moving appearance by a cynical, sensitive Lucille Ball, who holds a flame for Mature, and a series of other relationships, in work, love and friendship, that layer Mature’s dilemma with great depth and nuance, and absolutely zero pretension or forcefulness. Easy Living is the epitome of this director’s profound ambiance of melancholia, but like another unrecognized Tourneur masterpiece, the beautiful, sweet-natured piece of Americana Stars in My Crown (1950), the humming poetry of the sorrow that lies at the frame’s edge, one that will exceed the story we’re watching, is distinctly counter-balanced here with an effusion of warmth and compassion.