The 100 Essential Directors Part 9

Victor Sjöström to Luchino Visconti

by PopMatters Staff

28 August 2011


Jacques Tourneur

Jacques Tourneur
(1904 - 1977)

Three Key Films: Cat People (1942), Out of the Past (1947), Night of the Demon (1957)

Underrated: The second collaboration between Tourneur and horror producer Val Lewton (following Cat People), I Walked With a Zombie (1943) is less a horror flick than a moody, supernaturally-tinged melodrama—not surprising, considering the story is loosely adapted from Jane Eyre. Tourneur’s trademark shadowy aesthetic fuels Betsy’s (Frances Dee) journey into a Voodoo underworld with an irresistible sensuality, and despite the tricky but inevitable fetishization of Caribbean culture, Zombie’s black characters are portrayed with groundbreaking depth and dignity—in particular, character actress Theresa Harris’ superior performance as the maid Alma is proof that she was one of the greatest unheralded talents of her time.

Unforgettable: A hot café in Mexico. Our protagonist is drinking away his frustration. From out of the sun appears the silhouette of a slim woman in a wide-brimmed hat, walks forward, takes a seat. Jeff Markum (Robert Mitchum), the antihero of Out of the Past, is instantly and tragically hooked, as is the audience. He, she, Tourneur, and the viewer all know this meeting will only end in violence and sorrow, but Jeff Markum and Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) eagerly collide into each other all the same, swapping a series of barbed exchanges before subtly establishing their next meeting place. This scene is film noir: the glamour of fatalism, the thrill of giving in, the irresistible allure of darkness…it’s all there in Kathie’s silhouette as she walks out of the sun and into the shadows.

A master of multiple genres and a sterling example of auteurist artistry working in tandem with the studio system, Jacques Tourneur is one of Hollywood’s great suspense masters, a craftsman of shadows fluent in the languages of horror, noir, action, and western. Born in Paris, Tourneur moved to the United States with his father (Maurice Tourneur, himself an important early film director) at the age of 10 and began working in cinema not long afterward, initially nabbing jobs as an extra or script clerk before eventually moving back to France with his father to work as an editor and assistant director. By 1934, he had returned to the States upon agreeing to a contract with MGM Studios; though he would be dropped by the company seven years later, he will also have met producer Val Lewton during this time, thus beginning the most significant creative partnership of his career.

Lewton picked up Tourneur in the early 1940s to direct several micro-budget horror features for RKO Studios—the first of which, Cat People, became an instant classic that singlehandedly saved the company from financial ruin. A surreal amalgamation of romantic melodrama, early noir, and supernatural horror, Cat People concerns the fatal exotica of Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a young woman who develops a fantastical but damning kinship with felines, eventually bodily succumbing to her panther alter ego. This hybridization of the body can is also a motif in I Walked With a Zombie, Tourneur and Lewton’s follow-up to Cat People, which grapples with spiritual possession and the intermediary spaces between life and death. I Walked with a Zombie, and later features like Night of the Demon , once again posits the body of a beautiful young woman as the vessel for exploring the occult, intangible, and deadly.

Naturally, this fascination with the lethal power of the feminine makes Tourneur ideally suited for the femmes fatales of film noir, and indeed, the greatest achievement of his career is Out of the Past, a pitch-black voyage of the damned and inarguable pinnacle of the noir genre. Emphasizing mood, characterization, and nuance over plotting and narrative trickery, Out of the Past follows former private investigator Jeff Markum (Robert Mitchum, never better) and his reluctant involvement in a final case—a particularly personal piece of unfinished business that incorporates every noir staple: a gun, a girl, an exotic location, innumerable thugs and one huge helping of doomed passion. Out of the Past has the narrative trajectory and heft of Shakespearean tragedy, but it’s how Tourneur and his performers tackle the material that makes the film so uniquely harrowing. True to his pulp roots, Tourneur disregards overt allegorical or intellectual interpretation in favor of a more emotional approach. When a gun is drawn, our stomachs clench, when the same gun is shot, we can smell the blood: everything else is merely supplementary. The result is noir at its most pure: Out of the Past is no moral inquiry, it is a howl of rage and sorrow. Lee Dallas



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