The Cinema of Nightfall: Jacques Tourneur
A common reaction to almost any film directed by Jacques Tourneur is a strange combination of fascination, apprehension, and the sense of being on the verge of falling asleep. Even in canonized classics such as 1942's Cat People, the brilliant 1947 noir Out of the Past, and 1957's Night of the Demon Tourneur displays an emotionally detached, painterly approach. Despite self-effacing remarks from the director himself--"I always did what they [the studio] wanted. I never turned down a script."--and the fact that Tourneur toiled in such low-esteem genres as swashbucklers, B-westerns, and horror, biographer Chris Fujiwara succeeds in arguing that Tourneur was an auteur of note, not a sometimes-lucky journeyman technician.
Fujiwara organizes his brisk, elegant book into a short biography of Tourneur's father, Maurice (a pioneering early-20th-century French filmmaker), two mini-bios of Jacques (nicely mirroring the director's splintered approach to characterization), and an analysis of everything Tourneur ever set to celluloid. In the book's early pages, Maurice comes off as a self-obsessed and neglectful father, and Fujiwara, while noting the possible effects of this abuse, doesn't present it as a general theory for explaining the disjointed relationships featured in the younger Tourneur's films.
The biographer serves up his subject as a study in ambivalence. Born in Paris in 1904, Tourneur became culturally disjointed (a recurring theme in his films) after a dual-continent education. Always obsessed with movies, he fumbled around the U.S. and European film worlds until MGM hired him to shoot shorts in the '30s. Finally, RKO's Val Lewton signed him to direct Cat People, but this success was decidedly Janus-faced.
Lewton was a celebrated producer with a serious vision himself. And so the hypnotic weirdness of Tourneur's films directed under Lewton's aegis--Cat People, 1943's I Walked With a Zombie and The Leopard Man--are to this day credited by fans and academics alike as Lewton creations. Fujiwara dismantles this view brick by brick, proving that even a low-budget oater like 1946's Canyon Passage bears the eerie Tourneur touch.
Whatever the genre, Tourneur was obsessed with human frailty in the face of fate and isolation. Fujiwara only suggests why the director doted on such dark topics--creative fallout from his troubled childhood, aesthetic inclination, a sense of cultural displacement resulting from being both French and American. But he also holds his theories against the known figure of his subject, an even-tempered fellow with a fairly uneventful (by Hollywood standards) life. Which, of course, just adds to the mystery permeating the man's legend.
All these concerns are addressed in the most famous scene in Cat People with a stunning mastery of compositional grace utterly lacking in the paralytic product of most current cinema. In this tale of a repressed "foreigner" named Irena (Simone Simone) who fears she is the lone remnant of a race of killer felines, the terror highlight comes when Irena's co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph) takes a walk through Central Park. In dead silence, she walks through frame-bisecting shadows in a chiaroscuro adagio of mounting paranoia. Nothing happens, and it drives the viewer mad with suspense. Finally there's an earsplitting hiss, and we jump--but it's just a bus' air brakes. Few filmmakers have achieved more with less. Like the Cat People themselves, Tourneur, who died in 1977 at the age of 73, has spent too long on the verge of an undeserved obscurity, thankfully negated by this scholarly, impeccably researched reappraisal.