For a better experience on MUBI, update your browser.

The Forgotten: Shake Hands with the Devil

mt

I'm always fascinated by the closing shot of Jacques Tourneur's Berlin Express, a mostly indifferent post-war thriller climaxing in the ruins of the German capital (and featuring the monumental and sinister IG-Farben administration building, by now an American base of operations). Amid the desolate, bombed-out streets, an old man with one leg hobbles by. He's presumably a veteran of the first Great War, a reminder of the eternal recurrence of war, but he's also a shadow from the future: Tourneur's father, the once-renowned filmmaker Maurice Tourneur with whom he had apprenticed, would lose a leg in a car accident the following year.

(There are, incidentally, a plethora of one-eyed or eye-patched directors, including Tex Avery, John Ford, Raoul Walsh, Andre De Toth, Fritz Lang and Nicholas Ray, but there's been a definite shortage of peg-legs. Mitchell Leisen and Maurice Tourneur both ended their lives a limb short, but they never actually directed while sans jambe.)

jt

I'm not sure when Maurice Tourneur fell into obscurity. He was at one point among the most highly-rated filmmakers in the world, achieving success with his French productions between 1912 and 1914, before moving to America's centre of film-making, Fort Lee, New Jersey, and thence to the newly-emergent Hollywood. His American productions are noted for their atmospheric lighting and sometimes eerie sensitivity, qualities that would also be noted in the work of Tourneur fils.

A few of Tourneur's films in the later 1920s suffered from studio interference or misfortune: Mary Pickford and her screenwriter Frances Marion ran rings around him on Amarilly of Clothesline Alley, he was injured shooting Last of the Mohicans and handed over to Clarence Brown, giving that estimable talent his start, and Mysterious Island emerged as a downright weird part-talkie, credited to producer Lucien Hubbard but largely directed by the mind-boggling combination of Tourneur and Benjamin Christensen.

Then follows perhaps the most neglected section of the man's neglected career. Returning to France as sound was introduced, Tourneur made a number of fine films, continuing to work there after the German occupation began. While Henri-Georges Clouzot's work for the Germans at Continental Films sparked a lively controversy that has arguably helped keep the director's name alive, Maurice Tourneur is perhaps harder for political detractors to hate and so the response has been to simply stop talking about him. Bertrand Tavernier's fascinating 2002 film Laissez Passer casts actor Philippe Morier-Genoud as Tourneur during this period and is one of the few artistic or critical responses to Tourneur's later activities.

And so to our film...

lmdd

La main du diable (1943) was made in the midst of World War II, under an occupying power, but shuns all political commentary. This was pretty much essential if a filmmaker wanted to stay alive -- when Marcel Carné realized that audiences were reading an anti-Vichy subtext into his contemporaneous fantasy Les visiteurs du soir, he became understandably anxious. The Carné film benefits from its unintended resonance, and Marcel L'Herbier's Une nuit fantastique gets an added kick from the fact that its star, Fernand Gravey, was fighting for the resistance when he wasn't making a charming romantic fable for Goebbels, but Tourneur's film can only be enjoyed as what it is, a fantasy.

Although -- there's something tempting about the Faustian pact at the film's heart. French filmmakers who tried to keep their national industry alive during the occupation were well-intentioned but treading on very thin ice. Where does simply doing your job shade into collaboration?

Pierre Fresnay (Le corbeau) plays Roland, a struggling artist who achieves brilliant success after accepting a severed hand with demonic powers, a magical relic passed down through the generations by a variety of damned souls, trading earthly success for eternal damnation, a progression illustrated in the stunning shadow-show depicted in my illustrations here. The amputated limb theme adds another sinister resonance to Tourneur's life. The movie funnels the doomed romanticism of the poetic realist school into an expressionistic, shadowy supernatural yarn, equal to any Hollywood equivalent, and spiced with very Gallic irony. It's enough to foster a strong suspicion that until Tourneur's work can be made available in something approximating or at least hinting at its entirety, a major talent will lie buried in pieces.

lmdd

***

The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

Thanks for this, David. I’m very fond of both Last of the Mohicans and Mysterious Island but haven’t known where to start with the post-USA movies.
They’re hard to find with any decent translation. The short OBSESSION / L’HOMME MYSTERIEUX is absolutely marvelous though. If you speak French, this one is excellent, and the connections with Tourneur the younger’s supernatural yarns are obvious.
Oh, and SHIP OF LOST MEN, by all means!
A beautiful selection of images.
Inspired and inspiring post. Sometimes I wish that I was you, David.
Well thanks! But I’m not sure I’d recommend being me. Not without serious provisos.

Please to add a new comment.

Previous Features