Jacques Tourneur, son of the great silent pictorialist Maurice Tourneur, spent some of his career in France, but most of it on Hollywood B-films. He’s most famous for directing Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie for producer Val Lewton, and also the noir film Out of the Past. I think his greatest achievement is possibly Stars in My Crown, a foreigner’s point of view on sentimental Americana, and to my knowledge the only American film between The Birth of a Nation and Storm Warning to feature the Ku Klux Klan; the underseen Way of a Gaucho also demands attention. With the help of an excellent, sensitive, well-researched appreciation, Chris Fujiwara’s Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, I’m better able to “see” this director’s work, including two RKO productions now available on demand from Warner Archives: Experiment Perilous and Berlin Express.
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Jane (Nancy Coleman) is a beautiful spy for the British war effort. In New York, she’s kidnapped by German agents and lands in the hospital after a car accident gives her temporary amnesia—or does it? Her doctor, Michael Lewis (John Garfield), alternates patronising her and hitting on her when she tries to explain the situation, but soon they’re both prisoners in a mansion with a man (Moroni Olsen) who claims to be her father. Running the scheme is the distinguished psychiatrist Dr. Ingersoll (Raymond Massey), proving Hollywood’s then-popular thesis that you can’t trust head doctors.
One doesn’t watch a movie by Alain Robbe-Grillet to follow a story, but to follow a false story. Cobbled from various impulses and ideas, they form pseudo-narratives that either encourage or defy viewers to make sense of their patterns.
In the interview included as a bonus to his 1968 feature The Man Who Lies, Robbe-Grillet explains that he was invited to make a film in Slovakia with lots of resources, that he wanted to create a showcase for actor Jean-Louis Trintignant (presumably for his means his physicality, his capacity for mercurial shifts, his gift for enigma), that a nearby castle (which they could use) had a woman waiting for her brother who disappeared in the World War II Resistance, and that Communist monuments to dead heroes were fabricated to include all kinds of villains as well. From these ideas, and from his fondness for Franz Kafka’s The Castle and Alexander Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, Robbe-Grillet constructed the web of references that form this movie.
Andre De Toth’s Ramrod is a classic film licensed by Olive Films from Paramount, although this indie production was distributed by United Artists and this print for some reason opens with the MGM lion. What matters is that it’s here now, in a print a bit dusty but easily watchable. It stars De Toth’s then-wife Veronica Lake, reunited with the same Joel McCrea who supposedly never wanted to work with her again after Sullivan’s Travels.
From the beginning, it quietly shows off nice lengthy shots (from cinematographer Russell Harlan) that glide sideways for complexly staged actions, usually left to right. This gives an aesthetic unity to a first reel whose script is a confusing snarl of relations and implications based on a story by Luke Short. It’s a complicated, seething, noir-ish western in which everyone deceives everyone else about something or other, and indeed deception is sometimes necessary for survival. Shot in Utah, the story takes place in a part of the country where everybody lives in picturesque canyons that dwarf them; at the risk of making too much of it, the climax finds McCrea’s hero “reborn” from a womblike cave.
Struggling evening-jacketed songwriter Terry (Robert Taylor) moons around Miami because he’s fallen in love at a distance with chic gossamer-caped Consuelo (Norma Shearer). When he loses $3,500 to her at chemin-de-fer, she hires him to run interference against unfaithful cad Tony (George Sanders), with whom she’s hopelessly in love. Terry will pretend to be Consuelo’s lover, and he’s to ignore all Consuelo’s later orders to the contrary.
// Notes from the Road
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