Intertitle of the Week: Waxy Residue


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.


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.


9 Responses to “Intertitle of the Week: Waxy Residue”

  1. The intertitle frame that opens this post is absolutely gorgeous. If that were for sale on a t-shirt I’d seriously consider buying it. Maurice’s work of the Teens and Twenties is largely unknown to me. Not the name, just the work. A shame those Decasian creatures have had their way, let’s hope that somewhere out there in God’s Creation someone turns up with a more intact print. And speaking of Decasia, I was reading through the comments on Dave Kehr’s blog (subject: British Cinema/Noir) and noticed that at least two people made mention of Temptation Harbour, Lance Comfort’s noir of the late Forties with Robert Newton and Simone Simon. The first commenter said that it had actually been shown not too long back, but the archive copy presented was in rough shape. Which has me wondering if whether it’s salvageable, restorable. I’m just DYING to see this film, have been for a long time, ever since I first read of it. Comfort also did Daughter of Darkness around the same time as TH, I’ve seen that and was very impressed. Siobhan MacKenna plays a black widow, a man-killer who resides in a rural town, the film possesses some very moody cinematography. Noir in the way that Delmer Daves’ The Red House is noir, both take place in rural settings. MacKenna did very little screen work, spent most of her career on the stage, although she did show up in Dr. Zhivago. And if you haven’t seen Red House, it’s an absolute must, you’ll be blown away, Judith Anderson and Edward G. Robinson are great in it, and the ending is jaw-dropping, really creepy.

  2. I really liked The Red House, but the copy I have is very poor. The friends I watched it with kind of hated it…

    Comfort’s career is very up-and-down, but there’s some very good stuff. Think I may have Daughter of D. What an amazing cast in Temptation H! Simon and Newton, plus Hartnell and Dalio, Irene Handl too! No idea where to get this, but a number of Comfort films have seen the light of day recently…

  3. I’m coming in here once again to say that I’m still totally in love with this blog.

    Yep, just gushing. I guess I could add into intelligent conversation about this post but I have little to nothing to add. Limited experience and all. I guess that’s why I enjoy this so much. Shadowplay introduces me to these things and lets me understand them.


  4. I saw The Red House years ago on the now defunct Super Channel, which used to fill up time of an evening by screening public domain movies – and what movies! The Brain that Wouldn’t Die scarred me irreparably, The Crime of Doctor Crespi (Dwight Frye! Erich von Stroheim! Together at last!) and of course Delmer Daves’s hysterical monsterpiece. I hadn’t taped it so had to content myself with raving about it to mostly uninterested movie buffs. Imagine my happiness when Scorsese used a clip of it in the opening sequence of his history of American cinema. Vindicated! It was just like when I finally tracked down a copy of Johnny Cash’s ‘Chicken in Black’ – a song where JC has his brain swapped with that of a chicken. People used to disbelieve that THAT existed, too…

  5. My VHS copy of The Red House dates from 1985, put out by Good Times Home Video, New York, NY. It’s undeniably public domain. Not the best, not the worst, but I probably got it for next to nothing used (the slipcover’s pretty worn). I doubt that it’s at the top of anyone’s restoration/preservation list, but I think Robinson’s performance rates on a par with Night Has A Thousand Eyes. The incestuous undercurrent between Allene Roberts and Robinson adds to the creepiness, and Calhoun comes across as a Mitchum/Presley hybrid, at least visually. But the ending, when Edward G. sinks downward into the water, man…

  6. It’s available in a box set of Edward G Robinson movies here, along with Scarlet Street (also public domain I believe) and The Stranger. The quality is well dodgy but watchable.

  7. The problem with my disc is the sound… you can deal with bad picture, bad sound is much worse.

    If I could get a good copy maybe Fiona would give it another chance, but I’m not sure.

    APB, good to hear from you, thanks for the kind words!

    That Johnny Cash chicken song sounds like a very considerable piece of work.

  8. If you haven’t already read it, Chris Fujiwara’s Jacques Tourneur: The Cnema of Nightfall is a terrific book, and there’s a fair bit about Maurice in it, at least in the early going. It’s published by McFarland, who are about to release an affordable paperback edition of Harry Waldman’s Maurice Tourneur: The Life and Films. I haven’t read it (McFarland titles are notoriously expensive) but it might be worth a $35 investment. Fujiwara, incidentally, was a member of the excellent avant-rock group Cul de Sac, who took there name from…well, you know.

  9. The Fujiwara is indeed very good. On its recommendation I just got ahold of Tourneur’s early short Killer-Dog, which lived up to the hype. JT’s talent was clear from the off. Another short called The Romance of radium seems to anticipate the racial anxieties of I Walked With a Zombie.

    The Maurice T book sounds like a winner, however it’ll have to wait until I’m better fixed. I’m planning to get a lot more of his movies though.

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