Archive for January 18, 2009

Intertitle of the Week: Waxy Residue

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on January 18, 2009 by dcairns

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From Maurice Tourneur’s FIGURES DE CIRE (WAX FIGURES), in which a posh gent foolishly accepts a bet to spend the night in the scariest place on earth —  a wax museum — and loses his marbles in the process. Pierre de Lionne plays the leading role in his best strolling tragedian manner: he’s a devotee of the steps-back-in-amazement school of theatrical melodrama. Never knowingly underplayed. Despite his excess of enthusiasm, the film is pretty intelligent and imaginative.

Tourneur was at one point rated as one of the four or five best directors in the world — since that heyday his star has been eclipsed by that of his son, but a productive study might be made of the two Tourneurs, who have plenty in common. Maurice started in France, moved to Hollywood and then returned to the continent — to Continental Films, in fact, where he found himself making films for a German company during WWII while son Jacques, on the other side of the Atlantic had moved from assisting his dad, through second unit work, to directing brilliant B-thrillers like I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and on to propaganda war movies like the pro-Soviet DAYS OF GLORY. So father and son were apparently on opposite sides — but Tourneur Snr was no fascist, and doubtless saw his work at Continental as providing work for actors and technicians and keeping the french film industry alive. In Bertrand Tavernier’s movie LAISSEZ-PASSER (cruelly underrated in the UK), Philippe Morier-Genoud plays Tourneur, urging his cinematographer to give him plenty of shadows. It’s a simple but reasonable way of emphasising the bond between father and son, both of whom loved their shadowplay. The plot of WAX FIGURES actually hinges on a silhouette — when the protag spots a menacing shadow, insane with fear, he stabs at it with his knife, inadvertently slaying his friend whom he made the bet with. The public and the authorities find him, hopelessly deranged, in the morning.

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There’s a moral here somewhere.

I’ve been fascinated by the ending of Jacques Tourneur’s BERLIN EXPRESS ever since I saw it. A longshot of a bombed-out Berlin street, the heroes walking off away from camera — and a gratuitous one-legged man hobbles by on crutches. Maurice Tourneur had to have a leg amputated towards the end of his life — apparently in 1949, one year AFTER Jacques made this film. Which is just weird.

Tourneur père’s ALIAS JIMMY VALENTINE is extremely suave and sophisticated, as are many of his films from the 19teens, or so I’m led to believe. There’s certainly some nice stuff in FIGURES DE CIRE, including a slow tilt down, casually revealing a waxen effigy in a glass coffin just outside of a frame we’ve been comfortably observing for a minute or so — quite unsettling! Alas, the film suffers from the fact that it’s being invaded by abstract beings from planet Decasia —

The alien blotches seem to have made off with whole sections of footage, while obscuring others with their frantically gyrating amoebic forms. They are Time’s revenge upon the mortality-defying medium of cinema.

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