Archive for Jacques Tourneur

The Sunday Intertitle: The face in the ceiling

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on July 31, 2022 by dcairns

During their little tryst, John Ridd and Lorna Doone make an arrangement — she can signal to him from a nearby promontory (pictured) and he’ll come running to the rescue. This proves to be a shrewd idea.

Amazing how quickly their relationship has blossomed: one meeting as kids and another ten years later and they’re sweethearts. This causes John to neglect the girl who fancies him back home, but I don’t imagine she’s going to be TOO important to the plot. But she must have some reason for being there.

Two particularly lovely frames result from this, one of which showcases Tourneur’s lifelong love of shadows and silhouettes, a tendency famously inherited by son Jacques.

Anyhow, the signal idea proves useful almost immediately. Sir Ensor is dying, and this causes the wilder young Doone men to run amuck. Lorna’s nasty suitor, Carver son of Counsellor, resumes his wooing, if you can call it that. Cousellor and Carver are both played by actors named McDonald, but whether they’re actually father and son, the IMDb does not say.

Sir E. is played by Frank Keenan, of whom the IMDb remarks, “Frank was considered a “furniture actor” on stage. While on stage he was so often drunk that he had to lean on or hold onto furniture to keep from falling down.” He’s well cast here, since Sir E. spends most of the time dying, either sedentary or propped against the wall.

Fortunately, Lorna has shown kindness to one of the Doone wives, “courted by violence” and is able to send her to signal John from the rocky outcrop. Some random male chum is sent to London with proof of her inheritance.

Carver gets the best line so far, as he plans a swift and nonconsensual wedding:

John to the rescue! And a pretty good rescue it is. Flinging himself off a waterfall in best Tarzan manner, he briskly arrives at the Doone stockade, bone dry (all that running). He tries bending the bars on her window, and is making fine progress when she’s removed from her cell. So then he rips his way through the thatched ceiling of the big house and snatches her bodily from the armed mob, laying a few men out with musket or fists.

Sir Ensor, who had seemed dead, then appears in the doorway, paralysing the Doones by sheer force of personality, enabling our young lovers to escape. E remains standing there for some time after he has actually died, a rigid sentinel — the most effective performance by a dead man until EL CID (or WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S).

All really exciting stuff. John Bowers, walloping his supporting cast, has to pull his punches a bit, since the use of camera angles to “sell” a fake punch had not been invented yet — I’ve heard, incredible as it seems, that it was John Wayne who adapted over-the-shoulder framing to the uses of action cinema, exploiting the camera’s inability to judge distance (it has only one eye, unless the movie is 3D). Actually, faked punches like this even work with human observers, of the two-eyed kind. The only reason they weren’t developed and exploited onstage is that the theatre audience is too spread out for the illusion to work consistently. You need a single viewpoint. Plus, of course, Duke Wayne never trod the boards.

But allowing for that, the fight is gripping, and the implausible victory is sold as convincing enough for dramatic purposes. A happy ending would seem to have been accomplished — but the film is only half over. What next?


The Halloween Intertitle: Wax Eloquent

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on October 31, 2021 by dcairns

I last visited Maurice Tourneur’s FIGURES DE CIRE — WAX FIGURES — ten years ago. It’s a 1914 spooky short with missing footage and film decay which only make it creepier.

One of the earliest MT films, it’s made with considerable panache, and both Tourneur and his cast seem to know how to do this horror movie genre that hasn’t been invented yet. NOSFERATU, for instance, is still eight years in the future. Maybe the fact that one of the leads is an import from the Grand Guignol theatre is a help here?

Sidenote: while Maurice Tourneur was making films for German company Continental Films during WWII, and his son Jacques was in Hollywood making spooky thrillers, the actors of the Grand Guignol were still hard at work providing gross-out thrills and chills to Parisian theatregoers, who now numbered among them large numbers of uniformed German visitors. The SS, surprisingly, really enjoyed shows of sadistic violence. But behind the scenes, a number of the actors were in the Resistance, working to defeat their audience. I’ve always felt that scenario — the fake horror on stage and the real stuff sitting out front — would make a much better movie than Truffaut’s LE DERNIER METRO.

My latest viewing left me with a fresh respect for the stagecraft of Tourneur and leading man Henri Roussel. As director and star explore the midnight waxworks display with a slow creep leftwards, Roussel is always ONE EXHIBIT BEHIND: the camera reveals the next sinister tableau while Roussel is still peering at the last one — we get to anticipate his reaction — and anticipate, and anticipate. Finally he’ll turn, and give a little jolt of surprise at the next scene of infamy.

As the film reaches its climax, so does the nitrate decomposition, blinking in as sepia thunderflashes or flickering at the edge of frame like a devouring fire. The process of decay seems to be working in close collaboration with the filmmaker. Nothing is ruined, everything is enhanced.

And then, the classic Tourneur trope (pere et fils): THE MOVING SHADOW.

I feel the urge to delve deeper into M. Tourneur. I’ve seen lots, but there are lots more.

Needs music. I used the 5th movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, and found it synched beautifully, gesture by gesture.

The Fearful Vampire Hunters

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, Mythology, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2021 by dcairns

I’ve been writing limericks for the run-up to Halloween — you can read them here.

Despite, or maybe in part because of, the outrageous lifts from PSYCHO, part two of Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot TV adaptation satisfied and startled. Fiona screamed several times. It’s fashionable to disparage jump scares, and with the modern soundtrack’s capacity they might seem too easy, somehow, but I think they still have a place in the horror film. I can respect a movie that’s too clever and disquieting to need them, for sure, but for the kind of thing SL is, they absolutely belong.

Stephen King has said that horror comes in three basic shapes — (1) is the subtlest and noblest, the suspense/dread kind, (2) is shock, the jump-scare or startle effect introduced by Tourneur (usually associated with dread and suspense but he liked to mix things up) and (3) is the gross-out. King states that he aims for (1) for preference, but resorts to (2) when necessary, and then to (3) when he has to. The trouble always seemed to me that (2) and (3) can push out (1). But I note that Hitchcock pushed graphic violence in PSYCHO and it HELPED with the dread and suspense, and that the Lewton-Tourneur school purveyed not only subtle psychological tension, but shocks AND had more blood than other ’40s horrors.

The acting in Salem’s Lot helps hugely. Reggie Nalder, as noted by David Ehrenstein, is a formidable living special effect who didn’t even need all the makeup he’s given to be alarming. When you’ve hired Reggie, youdon’t have to paint him blue. As Simon Kane notes, they’ve taken away all his dialogue and that makes him scarier, less human. James Mason’s Mr. Straker is basically playing Renfield, but a Renfield hugely empowered and elevated, suave and cunning and not loony at all, whereas Nalder’s Mr. Barlow is a Dracula degenerated, pure animal will, a semi-sentient walking plague.

Small-parts supporting vampires add to the general mood of abjection: Mason’s real-life wife, Clarissa Kaye-Mason (whom he met while casting for a Miranda to his Prospero in Michael Powell’s never-made THE TEMPEST) gets probably her best onscreen moment; Geoffrey Lewis is fantastically creepy, the screen’s best blue-collar neck-biter; the two kids, Ronnie Scribner and his recruit, Brad Savage are legit terrifying.

Credit also to David Soul, who plays a hero who can actually be terrified. The way you or I would be. I don’t know why this obvious bit of realism isn’t used more often in horror films, other than that you need good actors and you need to spend time showing their reactions. Leading man vanity may also be a factor. But David Soul, rarely discussed as an acting talent, wets himself with real conviction.

Who keeps a drawer full of rats and eyeballs?

The show is peppered with instances where Hooper clearly just didn’t have time for a second take or reshoot, but it succeeds where it counts. It’s impressive that he was able to make the haunted house a memorable, beautifully-designed set that lives up to the two-hour build-up: production designer Mort Rabinowitz does a grand job. The place seems alive with mould. And Barlow’s lair is, magnificently, reached by descending an absent staircase and passing through a tiny, scary door. These bits of architectural surrealism enhance the terror in hard-to-analyse ways. They do make us feel like we’re leaving the domain of the human.

Fiona was much taken with the way Barlow’s recruits are just lying around in the dirt around his coffin. Only he gets a box. Stephen King probably deserves some credit for the way the film makes vampirism seem really grubby and nasty and degraded, a new development in the genre. True, both the Murnau and Herzog NOSFERATUs (from which Nalder’s makeup is derived) associate their head vamp with vermin, and he doesn’t look as sexy as Chris Lee. But at least he has a nice coat. Barlow’s black robe makes him a shapeless mass with a little blue head and hands grafted on, a shred of midnight torn loose and apt to pop into frame from odd angles, and he’s maybe the first screen vampire you gotta assume must smell really bad.