September 2, 2014

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Jeff Markham knew Kathie would not arrive, but he sat there and drank anyway. He was resigned to his premonitions, seemingly able to tell the future but powerless to stop it. “I think I’m in a frame…I don’t know. All I can see is the frame. I’m going in there now to look at the picture.” The picture remains obscure to Jeff throughout Out of the Past, though the film image itself is luminous in the new Blu-ray from the Warner Archive. Jeff, played by Robert Mitchum as a slow-motion somnambulist, can see the outline of his fate, but not the details. Director Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca previously collaborated on Cat People, and continue their use of low-key lighting to produce dream-like suggestions of violence. All of the deaths in Out of the Past are hidden off-screen, the specifics elided. They simply accrue in the fog of Jeff’s rueful investigation, a case that turns into a series of delaying tactics to stay alive. But he can only pause to smoke so many times before the darkness finally deigns to meet him.


Out of the Past was based on a crime novel by Daniel Mainwaring (under the pseudonym Geoffrey Homes) entitled Build My Gallows High. In 1945 RKO outbid Warner Bros. for the rights to the then unpublished book for a reported $20,000. A George Gallup poll revealed the American public’s distaste for the fatalistic title Build My Gallows High, so it was changed to Out of the Past during the pre-production. The novel was Mainwaring’s last – he had already transitioned to the higher pay of motion picture writing. So he was tasked with writing a first draft of the script – which later went through the hands of crime novelist James M. Cain (Double Indemnity)and Frank Fenton, an old RKO hand who had recently worked on the George Raft noir Nocturne, as well as multiple entries in the “Falcon” mystery series. “Homes” received sole credit upon the film’s release, though in his Film Comment article “The Past Rewritten”, Jeff Schwager read through all of the script variations and credits most of the film’s famously allusive dialogue to Fenton. Tourneur undoubtedly took a pass at it himself. As quoted in Chris Fujiwara’s The Cinema of Nightfall, interviewer Jean-Claude Biette claimed that Tourneur had “refused several times to shoot this crime film, whose script he didn’t like, until all the changes he wanted had been accepted.”

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The story circles around private detective Jeff Markham (Mitchum), who is hired by gang boss Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) to track down the dame who shot him and made off with forty grand. He finds the culprit Kathie (Jane Greer), falls in love with her, and the couple drops out of sight. Their relationship disintegrates from a life on the lam, they split, and Markham goes straight, rebranding himself “Jeff Bailey” and opening a gas station. As the title indicates, Bailey is soon haunted by “Markham”, and pulled back into the poisonous web of Whit and Kathie.

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The shape of the project kept shifting. RKO attempted to convince Warners to loan out Bogart, but they claimed he was booked for the next year. Then the director-actor team of Edward Dmytryk and Dick Powell was announced, as they had collaborated on Murder, My Sweet (1944) a few years before. They ultimately settled on their young leading man Robert Mitchum, whose last starring part for RKO was West of the Pecos (1945), and the reliable Tourneur, whom RKO had worked profitably with on the Val Lewton-produced horror movies like Cat People. Each casting decision would change the texture and tenor of the film. As artists both Tourneur and Mitchum were crepuscular creatures, attracted to the dreaming hours (though there are key sun-drenched sequences in Out of the Past). Mitchum, with his hooded eyes and one-beat-too-late delivery, gave off an air of laziness, though he was remarkably present as an actor. Tourneur valued this, saying that Mitchum (and Dana Andrews) “knows how to listen in a scene. There are a large number of players who don’t know how to listen. Mitchum can be silent and listen to a five minute speech. You’ll never lose sight of him and you’ll understand that he takes in what is said to him, even if he doesn’t do anything. That’s how one judges good actors.”

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Watching Out of the Past for the first time in years, I started to focus on entrances and exits, and the transitional way Tourneur and Musuruca light them. The most famous example is when Kathie is first introduced, walking into a Mexican cantina. There is a blazing white light outside the door, rendering her almost invisible. Her white dress and sun hat blend into this brightness, so when she walks into the shade of the alcove her silhouette seems to emerge out of nothingness. She is a phantom, or a figment of Jeff’s heat-addled mind. She is a transformative figure throughout the film, given more shadings of character than the usual Madonna-Whore of film noir. She is as secretive and withholding as Jeff, but both find an excuse to playact a love affair in Acapulco. Once back in the states, they can no longer hide their true natures. Kathie has a finely tuned survival instinct that trumps any of her repressed emotions. While Jeff’s seemingly embraces his own doom. Right after he says “I’m in a frame”, he walks right into the setup, hoping to outsmart the trap. But a man with a set of survival skills like Kathie’s would leave the scene, and change into yet another name. Jeff almost seems to savor his entrapment, or has long since been resigned to it. Mitchum responds to each revelation with equanimity, as if he expected it for years. Bodies drop all around him and he is left unperturbed. He is waiting for his own, and he will embrace it when the opportunity arises, fulfilling his anti-hero’s journey.


December 10, 2013


Staring disconsolately at a blank wall as the Buffalo Bills are eliminated from playoff contention is one of my longest held traditions. It’s been fourteen years since that benighted franchise has played in the second season, and any damp flickerings of hope this go ’round were quashed after consecutive demolitions by league doormats (Falcons and Buccaneers). To avoid reflecting on these latest humiliations, I escape into pigskin fantasies of the silver screen. Luckily, TCM is airing a whole day of football flicks tomorrow, from 6:45 AM to 8PM. For heartsick fans of other downtrodden teams, may I suggest William Wellman’s College Coach (1933) and Jacques Tourneur’s Easy Living (1949)? The first is a speedy campus comedy with Pat O’Neil in short pants and a crooning Dick Powell, while the latter is a downbeat relationship drama with declining QB Victor Mature and his glory-hogging wife Lizbeth Scott. Neither will rescue your franchise from irrelevance, but they will pass the time until the indignities of next football Sunday.


College Coach was the sixth and final movie that William Wellman directed in 1933, right after his Great Depression youth-in-revolt classic Wild Boys of the Road . College Coach looks like a slice of reassuring Americana in comparison, but his portrait of an opportunistic college football coach makes corruption look as American as apple pie. Pat O’Brien plays Coach Gore, a fast talking operator who wins at all costs (and it often costs him a pretty penny). He stacks his rosters through bribes that would make the 1990s University of Miami blush. The money-starved Calvert College is seeking ways to boost revenue after investing heavily in their chemistry department, so they lure Gore away to lead their moribund team. Swiftly importing a trio of jacked up goons to add to their one bonafide star (Dick Powell), Calvert suddenly has a powerhouse franchise, a marketable gimmick, “The Four Aces”, and bursting box office coffers (also keep an eye out for cameos by Ward Bond and John Wayne).

Pat O’Neil has a ball as the con-man coach, massaging his players past academic requirements and ordering game-time hits on the competition’s star player. Reminiscent of Gregg Williams’ bounty scandal when with the New Orleans Saints (players would win prizes for knocking out opponents), in College Coach such an order leads to a player’s death. When confronted, Gore icily responds, “40-50 die every year…that’s football.”  Perfectly encapsulating the attitude that led to concussion research getting swept under the table, as detailed in the Frontline documentary “League of Denial”, Gore sees football as a warzone in which the ends justify the means. What’s remarkable is that Gore somehow remains the hero of the tale, his illegal activities the actions of an engaging roue rather than a hardened criminal. Like so much of Warner Brothers’ pre-code output, criminality is no sin when the whole economic system had collapsed. It was simply common sense.


Made for a reported $245,000, Wellman gooses things along with some snappy montage. Gore’s hiring at the start of the football season is heralded with close-ups from students to janitors that exclaim, “They hired Gore!”. It’s like he had just watched Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932) and wanted to experiment with musical dialogue of his own. His other visual flourish is to express characters’ state of mind through the feet . Gore’s much ignored wife (played with verve by Ann Dvorak) is introduced from the shins down, cutting holes in the rug with her nervous walking. Later, Wellman will stage a fight between Powell and a loud-mouthed Lyle Talbot and focus entirely on the ground, their dancing feet telling the tale of the bout. Talbot is keen on wooing Dvorak, so this bit of visual rhyming displays that they might have a future.


As Marlene Dietrich said of Orson Welles in Touch of Evil, Victor Mature’s future is all used up in Easy Living (1949), Jacques Tourneur’s melancholy football melodrama. Mature plays the star QB of the New York Chiefs, Pete Wilson, whose image adorns the banner outside the stadium (although he still takes the subway to work). Nicknamed “King Football”, he may have to hang up his spikes after being diagnosed with a serious heart condition. Having bankrolled his wife’s interior decorating company, and aware of her eagerness to climb the social ladder, Wilson is reluctant to give up the mantle of fame. The story is very punishing towards female ambition, and includes a tacked on ending of casual misogyny. For Tourneur it was a job he was not enthusiastic to take. He had just completed Berlin Express for RKO, and turned down the opportunity to make A Woman’s Secret, which would end up as the second film by Nicholas Ray. Not wanting to push the limits of his power, he accepted the next script offered to him, which was originally titled Inteference. He accepted what would become Easy Living even though he had never seen a football game before. As he is quoted in Chris Fujiwara’s The Cinema of Nigthfall, Tourneur admitted, “I’m not interested in any sports.” This is evident in Mature’s awkward throwing motion in practice, a short arm heave with no follow-through (although Philip Rivers has made a similar motion work in the pros).

With little interest in the game on the field, Tourneur focuses on the business of the game, as outlined in Charles Schnee’s script. Early on a long-time Chiefs player is cut loose, with no pension or health care to see him through the rest of his days. The team secretary, played with world-weary resignation by Lucille Ball, says the ex-player only has himself to blame. Ball is spectacular in one of her final pre-I Love Lucy roles. Having once been an RKO contract lead player, she was now relegated to supporting status. She could probably relate to the also-ran status of her character, she is widowed by by a deadbeat and now carries an unrequited torch for Wilson. Ball displays her whip-smart timing in acid exchanges with Wilson, as she nurses his hangovers and hurt feelings. She is a mitigating force against the screenplay’s sexism, which focuses its ire on Wilson’s wife Liza (Lizbeth Scott). She is the gold-digging harpy of misogynist fantasy, holding back her husband’s masculine birthright to be the sole breadwinner. Scott does what she can in a thankless role, but it is Ball who walks away with the picture.


Tourneur creates a cramped atmosphere in the locker room, pushing his camera into packed frames of jock straps and high socks. In the city scenes he positions his actors in positions of non-communication, backs turned and looking at cross-purposes. Some of the compositions look like they’re straight out of Antonioni, including one striking image of a magnate’s mistress sitting disconsolately in the foreground, separated from her lover by Liza’s figure in the middle. Later Victor Mature will be separated from Lucille Ball in a similar fashion, this time by an analog boxing arcade game. As hackneyed as the script can get, these are striking images of alienation, and Mature gives a withdrawn, grieving performance as Wilson, as if death would be a release. The egregious Hollywood ending prevents such a peek into the void, but it’s something that Tourneur leads us there. He said of Easy Living that, “This is a very bad film for a reason that I must keep secret.” I would say it is these unspoken secrets that make it worth watching.


July 9, 2013


Richard Matheson was already an established writer in 1959, the year he started contributing to The Twilight Zone. But it took him a while. Over the course of the 1950s he rose from pitching sci-fi magazines on his off hours as a mailman, to adapting his own material to screens large and small. He  sold his first story, “Born of Man and Woman”, to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1950. After a couple of suspense novels fizzled, he garnered notice with his post-apocalyptic survival staple, I Am Legend (1954). It was his follow-up, The Shrinking Man (1956), that cemented his place in popular consciousness. He ingeniously sold himself as screenwriter as part of the film rights deal to Universal, and he would be a prolific writer for film and TV for decades to come (alongside his novels and short stories). As part of our week-long tribute to Matheson, following his death last month at the age of 87, I’ll be looking at the Twilight Zone episodes he declared to be his favorite, Steel and Night Call, both from Season 5. They present fantastical premises with procedural detail, as he also did with I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man, bringing the spectacular down to earth.

After the success of The Shrinking Man and its movie adaptation (which added Incredible to the title), Matheson moved to television writing, often with collaborator with Charles Beaumont. They were close friends, part of a circle of fantasy writers that included Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison. Matheson recalled that, “When we joined this agency [Adams, Jay and Rosenberg] it was such a strange new world out there that we decided to work together.” Beaumont and Matheson worked on cop shows and Westerns like Bourbon Street Beat and Have Gun — Will Travel.

Their most long-lasting contribution was to The Twilight Zone, which they both began contributing to, separately, in ’59. Rod Serling was a fellow traveler in the speculative arts, and provided an invaluable platform for the kind of material they wanted to write, even with showbiz compromises. Their material, as Matheson notes, “never made any social commentary”. They were detail men, interested in fleshing out their imagined worlds rather than allegorizing the existing one.

In Twilight And Other Zones: The Dark Worlds of Richard Matheson, the writer declares that “Steel” is his favorite episode of the ones he wrote. He adapted the teleplay from his own short story, of a “sports item, circa 1976″, in which boxing was outlawed and replaced by bouts between lifelike robots. Lee Marvin plays the “Steel” of the title, a former pug turned down-at-heel manager, too poor to upgrade his rickety “Battling Maxo” bot, which mechanic Pole (Joe Mantell) keeps running through some spit and a prayer. Maxo is so old even his parts are outdated, and is only booked when a newer model is destroyed in a car accident. Steel needs Maxo to put up a fight so he can pocket the take and make some upgrades. Matheson’s small-scale story was later inflated into the 2011 blockbuster Real Steel.


Directed by auteur-fave Don Weis (I Love Melvin), this TV assignment replaces Weis’ usual ebullient charm for sweaty close-ups and grimy hallways, a portrait of broken American dreams as tactile as 70s fight films like Fat City. Lee Marvin shows he can ease up his ramrod military posture and ease into a slouching ignominy. A fast talking salesman like Peter Falk in Marbles, his pitches have lost their sheen, routines without conviction. Only when faced with annihilation does Steel show some backbone, replacing Maxo in the bout when the android pops some essential springs. Facing certain defeat, and possible death, Steel takes his shots and his money, ready to fight another day.

As in I Am Legend and The Shrinking ManSteel is concerned about the grungy details of these everyday futures, whether it is how to scrounge for food, evade a giant spider or make a low-tech living in a high-tech future. Night Call (Season 5, episode 139, 1964), is another of these daily grinds, which Matheson adapted from his short story “Long Distance Call.” Old spinster Elva Keene (Gladys Cooper) is living out her days in an empty home, her only company a harried maid. But every evening she receives cryptic phone calls from a moaning loner, which she first assumes to be a prank, but soon realizes is something far more disturbing.


Matheson claims he “talked them into hiring [Jacques] Tourneur” to direct the episode, despite the producers’ concern that a movie director would take forever to shoot an episode. Matheson recalls that Tourneur, “shot the shortest Twilight Zone schedule that anyone has ever done. It was like twenty-eight hours or something.” He was a fan of Tourneur’s work with Val Lewton (The Leopard Man, I Walked With a Zombie), and was thrilled to have him direct one of his scripts. It turned out to be one of the last projects Tourneur would work on.

It takes place almost entirely in two rooms of Elva’s house, her living room and bedroom. In frequent medium shots, Tourneur establishes her as the queen of an emptied out domain. It was the third of Cooper’s appearances on The telephone1964bTwilight Zone, and this after 60+ years of performing, having made her stage debut in 1905 in the musical Bluebell in Fairyland. She plays Elva as a shut-in battle-ax, jittery at any intrusions in her protective shell. The calls make her imperious exterior crumble, and you can see the regrets of the past rush through her softened features.

Richard Matheson wrote 14 teleplays for The Twilight Zone, and had two of his short stories adapted by others. Compromised as they are by commercial forces (“Steel” was the first episode sponsored by Proctor & Gamble), they offer variations on Matheson’s theme of process, how characters rationally deal with the unreality that is thrust upon them. Some trundle onward with brittle hope like Steel, or crumble in regret like Elva, but what Matheson is most interested in is the jagged path that leads there.


March 29, 2011

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In the third and final short film in Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Vanquished (I Vinti, 1953), a youthful British strangler walks out of a double bill at The Saffron theater. The headliner is the Esther Williams musical comedy Skirts Ahoy (1952), with Jacques Tourneur’s Stars in My Crown (1950) as the “B” picture. Aubrey (played by Peter Reynolds), is the fame-seeking young poet exiting the cinema, ready to commit his so-called perfect crime. But did perky Esther Williams or the avuncular Joel McCrea make him do it? I encourage one and all to stage your own version of this twofer and see if any homicidal rage bubbles up. Please report in the comments. But alas, Antonioni doesn’t answer this pressing question in The Vanquished itself. What is undeniably true is that both The Vanquished and Stars in my Crown both received recent DVD releases, from RaroVideo and the Warner Archive, respectively. It’s a dreamlike bit of capitalist coincidence, and one of those secret joys of cinephilic pursuits.

RaroVideo is a cult Italian DVD label that initiated a North American wing earlier this month, starting out with Fellini’s I Clownsthe Fernando Di Leo Collection and the pretty 1974 horror film The Perfume of the Lady in Black. Today they drop The Vanquished. In the ever-shrinking DVD market, they are an idiosyncratic godsend, plucking high- and low-brow gems from Italian film libraries.

The Vanquished is an omnibus film, containing three short films of teenage rebellion and murder in three different cities: France, Italy and England. Released the same year, 1953, as Marlon Brando’s leather-clad rebellion in The Wild One,  it was partaking of the worldwide paranoia regarding juvenile delinquency that would peak with Rebel Without a Cause two years later. Adapting three real-life crimes, the production was hit with official protests, and severe changes were made to the script before production. It was Antonioni’s second feature, following 1950′s Chronicle of a Love Affair, and without any leverage he had to bow to their demands. Because of imposed re-shoots and other post-production difficulties, The Vanquished was released into theaters months after The Lady Without Camelias, which is often credited as his second film as a director, although it was the third he shot.

The French section was modeled after the “Affaire J3″, in which a young man, Alain Guyader, was killed by his schoolmates during a picnic in the woods near Paris. Google Books has made available an article on the murder in LIFE magazine from June 4th, 1951. Through the years of rationing during and following WWII, “J3″ was the government’s code for cardholders from the ages of 15 to 18. The anonymous writer notes that now, “the term has become the symbol for a tragic story of adolescent intrigue, confusion and murder”, opining on the “fearsome look the trial provided into the curious dream world in which these adolescents lived and played at adult affairs.” That is, they acted like they were in a movie, this time a WWII French Resistance film.

The scandal of it all was that these children were from solidly bourgeois families, so the usual bromides about violence originating in poverty couldn’t be trotted out. This was something new, and newly ascribed to this generation being raised during a world war, inured to bloodshed. They are what the film’s tacked-on introduction describes as the “burnt-out generation”. This group of teens played at being black marketeers and revolutionaries: “When studies seemed unexciting, they created their own excitement, hatching plans to organize a great new Maquis [a rural guerilla bands in the Resistance]  if the Russians would come. They would make a fortune in the black market…and would run arms to the Middle East.” This adolescent cell grew tired of Guyader’s boasts, including his declarations that he was “a man of his times” as well as made up love affairs with other members of the group. Setting up a mock trail, the Maquis declared “he was too vain and would have to die.” They scripted their own drama.

This episode in The Vanquished was the subject of a “defamatory press campaign” and protested by the family members of the “J3″ teens. The French Ministry of Commerce refused to grant an export visa, blocking the transportation of the negative to Italy. Although it eventually got through, France still banned the film until 1963. Antonioni’s handling of the material is anything but exploitative – opting for a talky naturalism, with long-take group shots of the kids joining and breaking-up in endless waves. It skimps on the details of the murder in favor of a disconcerting reverie. The group has already decided to kill, so they spend their time gallivanting through the verdant woods, talking of their lame parents and fickle crushes. It is indebted to neorealism, with its use of real locations and unaffected performance,  but Antonioni’s penchant for intensely psychologized spaces and architecture crops up in the final scene. The murder takes place in the ruins of a castle, reflecting the fractured fairy tales cycling through these embryonic Red Brigadeers’ heads.

The Italian episode was hacked to pieces. The original scenario, as described by Stefania Parigi, was to follow a “hotheaded fascist who sets up his own suicide in such a way that the blame seems to lie with the Communists.” This was based on the story of Achille Billi, a young fascist who was murdered and dumped into the Tiber River. The April 25th, 1949 issue of Life magazine has a photo of the funeral, captioned FASCISM REVIVES. The photo shows an overflowing crowd (credited as over 5,000) giving his coffin the Fascist salute. The producers gutted the scenario, first changing the main character to a violent leftist who bombs an arms depot (this version is presented as an extra on the disc), and then removing politics entirely, requiring re-shoots to change him into a small-time smuggler. The result is a rather ridiculous, neutered scenario – a high schooler ends up  bossing around a grizzled bunch of black marketeers. But it certainly looks stunning, filmed mostly at night in low-light chiaroscuro by Enzo Serafin.

The final section, with our beloved Aubrey, was based on the crime committed by 19 year old Herbert Mills, who strangled an older prostitute in the suburbs of London, “for no apparent reason” (Parigi, liner notes). This section seems to have been left untouched, and in an Antonioni anomaly, is a rather straightforward Hitchcockian mystery. Reminiscent of Robert Walker’s epicene character in Strangers on a Train, Aubrey is after the perverse pleasure of getting away with murder, a decadent Raskolnikov. It becomes clear early on that he is guilty, the question becomes how he did it, and whether he’ll get away with it. Peter Reynolds, playing Aubrey, is a self-deluding delight as the muckracking murderer, who smirks his way to the newspaper as he trumps up publicity for the crime he just “witnessed.” Maybe Aubrey saw Strangers on a bill right before Stars in My Crown, and wanted his own slice of notorious fame and fortune (Antonioni might have had this short in mind during Blowup, with its concluding shot of a tennis match).  J. Hoberman, in his Cold War histories,  would say they were just participating in the violent dream life of nations.

In Stars in My Crown, the dream is of an idealized past. The whole film is a flashback reminiscence of John Kenyon (Dean Stockwell), whose voice-over forthrightly idealizes the small Southern town of Walesburg that he grew up in. Jacques Tourneur famously took a pay cut to direct this modest triumph, and it was the favorite of his films. What is immediately striking is the unreliability of the narration – which is focalized solely through Kenyon’s perspective. In his opening voice-over, he states, “According to the words of the song we are promised a city of gold in the hereafter. I used to think that was a long time to have to wait. But I know now that there is a city of gold right here on Earth for every one of us. The city of our youth.” We can return to our memories of childhood to construct our vision of heaven. The story to follow will be an act of Kenyon’s imagination, his personal Utopia.

Joel McCrea is the Pastor who raises Kenyon, a folksy preacher who can joke and fish as well as read the gospel. He is a man of the world as well as a man of God, and his wife Harriet (Ellen Drew) is equally wise, beautiful in body and soul. McCrea is a jovial oak, laying down roots with every stride of his giant frame, bringing the community around him in the tight medium-shots that Tourneur frames the majority of the film inside. These frames are egalitarian spaces in which any member of the town can take center stage, from the half-wit Chloroform (Arthur Hunnicut) to Uncle Famous (Juano Hernandez), the African-American livestock farmer who has acted as the entire town’s generous godfather.

The relationship between the Pastor and Harriet is one of the most genuinely loving depictions of marriage ever put on film. One scene, and a few gestures, stand out. Kenyon contracts Typhoid, and the adoptive mother and father take turns watching over him. Pastor tells Harriet to take a rest. She goes to her bed, and fights back a sob, wondering aloud if the boy understands how she loves him like her own. McCrea, standing above her, silently lets her work through her emotions. Then, he notices her taking out two hairpins, to get ready for bed, as she continues her monologue. Without a word he takes over this ritual, silently plucking out the remaining pins, and then straightening her hair as it tumbles down. The Pastor’s gestures allow Harriet to allow her entire body to grieve – he has seamlessly taken over the practical rituals of her evening in order to let this take place. It is both comfort and freedom, and an indication of the complex density of their bond.

Antonioni and Tourneur present nightmares and dreams of youth in this impromptu double bill. If you’re feeling frisky, you can also add Tourneur’s Days of Glory (1944), just released by the Warner Archive. Released in the short window of Hollywood pro-Soviet propaganda towards the end of WWII, it presents a bustling anti-Nazi resistance cell in Russia, led by Gregory Peck in his first starring role. Saddled by a ponderous script and the Manichean dictates of the propaganda machine, it’s a minor, frustrating work, but Tourneur still manages some striking scenes of communal living. Managing deep focus in this makeshift hovel, he establishes multiple planes of action as the group oils their guns, boils their soup, and plots for Soviet victory. It’s a canned, albeit elegant, dream of romantic revolutionaries, the flip side of the canned nihilistic violence in THE VANQUISHED. STARS IN MY CROWN is the only fantasy here that is worth believing in.


October 26, 2010

night of the demon

“I detest the expression ‘horror film.’ I make films on the supernatural and I make them because I believe it.”  – Jacques Tourneur, Positif

The lead character in Tourneur’s Night of the Demon, psychiatrist Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews), declares that he is “not a superstitious sucker.” He is a sardonic skeptic of mystical powers and things that go bump in the night. Unfortunately for him, Tourneur is a master of visualizing dread, at uncanny images that disturb the orderly corridors of consciousness. So Night of the Demon, my selection for this week of supernatural selections at Movie Morlocks (it airs on TCM on October 29th at 6PM), finds Holden’s self-righteousness crumble in the face of Tourneur’s terrifying control of the medium. As Raymond Bellour wrote, Holden’s “problem is trying not to believe in the devil, while ours is trying to accept belief in the cinema.”

All inquiries into Tourneur run through Chris Fujiwara’s critical study, The Cinema of Nightfall, and the following is deeply indebted to his essay on the film. If you have the time, ditch this essay and read the book.

Holden flies to London to study the activities of a Satanic cult led by the urbane Julian Karswell (a coldly charismatic Nigel MacGinnis). He was to join Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham) in the venture, but the latter died under mysterious circumstances, torn apart as if by wild animals. Soon Karswell is warning Holden against investigating any further, and predicts his death in three days’ time. Beginning to suffer from auditory and visual hallucinations, Holden accepts the help of Harrington’s niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins), and attempts to uncover the truth behind Karswell’s morbid declaration (the ending was strikingly re-purposed in Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell).

The film was based on the short story “Casting the Runes”, by M.R. James (available to read here). Charles Bennett, the scriptwriter on many of Hitchcock’s British films (Blackmail, The 39 Steps) bought the rights and worked with executive producer Hal E. Chester to bring it to the screen.  Chester was reputed to have re-written parts of Bennett’s script, and cut around 13 minutes out of the 95 minute British feature for the American release, re-titled Curse of the Demon (both versions are available now on DVD). Chester also had producer Frank Bevis re-shoot scenes to feature the title monster more prominently, alienating Bennett and Tourneur in the process. Tourneur:

The scenes in which you really see the demon were shot without me. The audience should never have been completely certain of having seen the demon.

He went on to tell Joel E. Siegel that he only wanted “four frames” of the monster to be shown in the film, during the ending on the train tracks. “People would have to sit through it a second time to be sure of what they saw.” Tourneur wanted very fleeting glimpses of the monster, to let the horrors unfold off-screen, in the viewer’s mind, as in his superb work with producer Val Lewton (Cat People, The Leopard Man). This strategy would also keep doubt alive about the ultimate reality of the creature. For while Tourneur believed in the supernatural, he wanted his viewers to come to their own conclusions.

The monster, modeled on demonology books from “3,400-year-old prints copied exactly”, was created by art director Ken Adam. Adam: “I designed the monster, but under protest. I agreed completely with Tourneur.” (from Christopher Frayling’s Ken Adam and the Art of Production Design). The demon looks grotesque enough in stills, but its immobility on film gives it the unfortunate rubber-suited ridiculousness of a Godzilla knock-off. It does not tonally fit into Tourneur’s elegant frames.

From Harrington’s first appearance it’s clear the characters in the film will be at the mercy of their environment, and that the world is disturbingly outside of their control. His car appears as a halo of light in between a thatch of dark forest, he mops his nervous brow in a medium-shot profile, and then a cut to a POV shot looking up, as branches emerge into his headlights and descend back into blackness (Bellour compares this opening flicker effect to film running through a projector). Once he arrives at the Karswell’s, to tell him he’s giving up the investigation, fearful for his life, Tourneur cuts to an extreme high angle, with Harrington dwarfed by a gaudy chandelier in the foreground. He is already swallowed up by the world, the darkness ready to take him next. After he leaves the demon makes its first, and very controversial, appearance.

It is from this sequence that Fujiwara, contra Tourneur,  makes an intriguing case for the demon’s presence, that it “fits into the film’s structural play with ambiguity of point of view.” That is, Harrington first spies the creature in a POV shot, but then there is a cut to a long shot, with Harrington in the frame watching the monster. The latter backs away from subjective identification with Harrington, taking an exterior perspective, and, “his [Harrington’s] presence in the frame splits the viewer’s gaze into two – one that identifies with Harrington’s look and one that frames Harrington himself and the image constructed by this other gaze.” Fujiwara notes a similar play with POV in the rest of the feature, including Holden’s optically wavering hallucinations, and the uncanny appearance of an aging hand that is seen by no-one in the film’s universe. The viewer is constantly weighing the verity of each shot, as well as the idea that it might be impossible to determine the difference between what the characters see or imagine.

Holden ends as dazed and confused as the viewer, no longer safe in his assumptions about a rational world, or in man’s ability to discover absolute truths. His last line is, “it’s better not to know”, and then he disappears behind a passing train.


September 29, 2009

experiment perilous

The Warner Archive is murdering my bank account. The latest culprits are Jacques Tourneur’s Experiment Perilous (1944) and Anthony Mann’s The Tall Target (1951). After my first purchase, documented here, I’ve tried to stay away from the service, what with its un-restored prints and overpriced DVDs ($20 is a lot for a burned disc), but they are pumping out an endless array of rare goodies that would tempt even the cheapest cinephile. I couldn’t stay away for long.

I was drawn to Experiment Perilous because of the praise of Chris Fujiwara, who in his definitive study of the director, The Cinema of Nightfall, described it as “one of Tourneur’s most personal and beautiful films.” It’s also one of his most unknown, at least from my perspective, having not heard of it until it popped up on WB’s release schedule. It’s most famous, perhaps, for containing a mesmerizing performance from Hedy Lamarr, her own favorite, as she relays in her decadently titled autobiography, Ecstasy and Me.The print used on the DVD contains adequate sharpness, but has suffered a decent amount of wear and tear over the years. There is a consistent amount of scratches and dust marks, but nothing terribly distracting. It’s watchable, if nowhere near pristine.

In 1944, Tourneur was coming off the lower budgeted success of his Val Lewton horror films, having churned out the remarkable duo I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man the year before. Handed an A-picture budget from RKO, he delivered Experiment Perilous, a Victorian age psychological thriller often compared to Gaslight, which was released the same year. It’s an adaptation of the novel by Margaret Carpenter, which screenwriter Warren Duff altered by moving the setting from the present day to the turn of the century. It was rumored that Hedy Lamarr’s request to wear period costumes necessitated the change, but Fujiwara reports that it was more of  narrative decision:

Executive producer Robert Fellows offered a more reasonable explanation: ‘It was felt that the slightly archaic quality of the heroine, who appears in the book as a cloistered and frustrated orchid, would lend itself to a clearer expression on the screen if presented against a less realistic background.’

Hedy Lamarr’s Allida is not just a “cloistered and frustrated orchid”, but is quite possibly mad. Or at least her older husband Nick Bedereaux (Paul Lukas) seems to think so. He employs Doctor Bailey (George Brent) to look into her curious peccadilloes, which include sending herself daisies and then denying doing so, and hallucinating that she is being followed.

Tourneur opens the film with a train ride, in which Bailey is introduced to Nick’s bird-like spinster sister Cissie. In a voice-over, he opines that Cissie herself might be insane, as she clucks at him about her home and family like he was an old friend. Tourneur frames him against a mud-spattered window, and then captures their mottled shadows on his suit jacket (see right). This minor contact with the Bedereaux family has soiled him, and this mark dooms him to further entanglement in their sordid story.

Once home, he joins a fashionable dinner party, admiring a snake-haired female statue his pal Clagg unveiled. Tourneur emphasizes Bailey’s connection to this image of the Medusa, joining him first in medium-shot, then pushing into a close-up. Clagg’s attempt to demonize womanhood through his art speaks to Nick’s impotent attempt to harness Allida’s sexuality, and Bailey’s low-key Perseus is here to slay that demonization.


Tourneur lavishes most of his attention on the Bedereaux home, in the stunning set design of Albert S. D’Agostino and Jack Okey. This vision is of an accumulation of knickknacks and rooms within rooms, a gilded prison to keep Allida busy and away from the prying eyes and more virile bodies of possible pursuers. Fujiwara notes:

The incredible profusion of bric-a-brac in the Bedereaux house not only makes us aware that Allida is merely another piece – albeit the centerpiece – in Nick’s collection but also creates a stifling atmosphere that correlates with Allida’s panic.

Just inspect the image I started the piece with. Allida is in the right foreground, arguing with Alec, a young poet-admirer, who stands askance at the fireplace. Nick is reflected in the far left-hand side of the mirror, blurred and indistinct. Alec, paired with Nick by the mirror, is simply another man trying to impose his vision of Allida onto her. Alec’s vision is romantic, but it is still controlling and allows Allida no voice of her own. Shunted off into the far corner of the frame, Allida is alone and increasingly fragile, the painting in the background a subtle rhyme to the mens’ artistic, almost directorial designs on her.

It’s a densely visual film – any frame I grabbed would be rich with symbolic significance. Tourneur’s narrative strategies are as oblique as his images are direct, as he obscures motivations and elides major events (the two murders which drive the plot are never shown), repressing them into Hedy Lamarr’s dewy-eyed stare and Paul Lukas’ skittish motormouth. It all adds up to a dreamlike reverie on sexual obsession and death, richly upholstered.


The Tall Target will always have a special place in my memory as the first (and so far only) film I saw at the Cinematheque Francaise. There was an Anthony Mann series running during my (only) trip to Paris, and viewing this historical noir in a the finely appointed theater (not the same place as the New Wavers sat, but the recent Frank Gehry-designed space) was a damn near transcendent experience. The inky blacks of Paul C. Vogel’s Alton-esque cinematography seemed to melt out of the frame (the Warner Archive disc captures these deep blacks remarkably well.

This counterfactual bit of history has Inspector John Kennedy (Dick Powell) attempting to thwart an assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln before his inauguration, on a train ride from Springfield, Illinois to Washington, D.C. The pacing is unnaturally taut, the performances, from Adolphe Menjou’s sickly sweet Colonel to Ruby Dee’s resolute slave, are stellar across the board, and Mann wrings incredible tension out of a scenario we already know the conclusion to (spoiler: Lincoln doesn’t get assassinated). Utilizing low-angles to convey a sense of cramped intimacy, he often frames the figures against the ceiling of the train.

This strategy leads to an astonishingly subtle tracking shot that turns Powell from predator to prey in the brief flash of his pupils. Entering a train car, Powell is in search of a gun, as he’d already been targeted by a Confederate goon. In a long shot, he waltzes in, keeping his eye on the pockets of the passengers. He espies a revolver in the pocket of a passed out schlub, and he casually sits down on the adjacent armrest. Mann cuts in to a medium shot of Powell, and then a close-up of the gun. The man rolls over onto it, making it impossible for Powell to grab it.  He winces, stands up, and continues on his way.

Mann then pushes in to an extreme low angle close-up, framing Powell’s head tightly against the lamps above his head. It is a smoothly disorienting shot, eliminating the passengers and focusing on Powell’s increasingly strained and wrinkled forehead. Then, in a flicker of his eye to the left of the screen, almost indecipherable upon first viewing, Powell registers fear. The camera arcs around him to the left, settling onto a close-up of a gun pushing into his back, ending the sequence on a note of symmetrically grim irony. It’s a 1 minute sequence of incredible grace and narrative economy, introducing Kennedy’s ruthlessness and the motif of exchanging guns, which leads to perilous consequences later on. This minor Mann would be a major work for any other artist.