[17 July 2014]
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.
Experiment Perilous falls into a lineage of movies with “Gaslight” plots, where a husband tries to convince his wife she’s going mad; the Ingrid Bergman Gaslight had come out the same year. Producer-writer Warren Duff adapted Margaret Carpenter’s novel in daring ways (changing the contemporary setting to 1903 New York, for example) that partly account for Tourneur’s film being the most sensible and credible example of this type of plot. Fujiwara suggests that we understand the genre contours so well that Tourneur and Duff (who was also 2nd unit director) feel free to leave mechanical questions unanswered in order to concentrate on the “Jules Verne” mise-èn-scene of the mansion and other visual extravagance. We must not only praise the set design and photography, but Vernon L. Walker’s effects work, which includes the convincing and foreboding model-train effects, a “reflection” scene, and the later pyrotechnics.
This film is not only highly visual, but also highly intelligent and sensitive to its characters. That includes our uncannily beautiful yet sympathetic cypher of a heroine (Hedy Lamarr, whose vehicle this is); her oppressive yet subtle husband (Paul Lukas), who manipulates her life as if she’s an actress or piece of expensive bric-a-brac; the nominally bland hero and rescuer (George Brent), given to many thoughtfully disturbed expressions, and first falling in love with the heroine’s portrait as in Laura ; the sweet old lady on a train (Olive Blakeney) whose suspicions and diaries frame this elaborately structured plot; and even minor roles like the Pullman porters. Hollywood films of the era accurately reflect the porters as the first all-Negro union, but they usually play in an emphatic, distractingly comic or submissive manner. Tourneur has them act and speak in a normal manner that becomes (ironically) almost shockingly noticeable precisely by not calling attention to itself.
Four years later, Tourneur directed Hollywood’s first film shot on location in bombed-out Germany, Berlin Express, just before Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair. It’s set in the ruins of Frankfurt, with some scenes in Paris that feature an interesting prologue about shooting the dove of peace. Much also takes place on trains, like the beginning of Experiment Perilous, but even more complicated. As a French damsel in distress, Merle Oberon was forced upon producer Bert Granet by RKO, but as part of the deal they also got her husband, the excellent cinematographer Lucien Ballard. They’ve also got Paul Lukas again, who played the baddie in Experiment Perilous.
Harold Medford’s story is as straightforward and unconvincing as can be: a pacifist German bigwig is to deliver some information on the possible unification of Germany. You’d think this would be troubling to the Russians occupying half the country, but the main villains are a shadowy group of “patriots” (characterized only as “the enemy”) that we must surmise are Nazi remnants. They don’t want him to succeed, for reasons that leave it unclear what his position on this unification could possibly be, especially for a man continually wringing his hands in the desire that everyone should get along. Strangely, that suits this film’s dominant tone of uncertainty and strain. One of the film’s early tricks is to fool us about a character’s identity in a manner reminiscent of The Narrow Margin (1952), a later RKO train suspenser.
While the plot mechanics drive the thing forward (with a pervasive stentorian narrator trying to flatten everything into submission), Tourneur feels less concerned with these McGuffins of kidnap and mission than in the shadowy realities of characters living in a “liminal” state, a world of eternal transition frozen between borders: East and West, past and future, hate and love, war and peace, even borders and borderlessness. The movie asks whether or not borders must exist—it doesn’t want them to—but the world in between feels like limbo, a place of lawless refuge, of furtive meetings, of conspiracies and transgressions. All this sad confusion seems symbolized by the final image: a one-legged man hobbling on crutches across the screen.
Why do people live in this uncertain state? Tourneur is interested in desires and ideals, the optimistic as well as the dark, all of which drive people and places to adopt false fronts and create a false world already in ashes. Tourner’s worlds feel fragile, already doomed or in the past, even when modestly hopeful. This takes precedence over personal, more standard Hollywood motives—i.e. romance between the leads, which is thankfully downplayed. He lavishes attention on setpieces, like the underground cabaret with its Fritz Langian clowns, its Von Sternbergian tatter, its play of glances and close-up clues in a dense drama of mixed signs.
Oh Jacques, you have so much to show us; and, more importantly, the things you show have real emotional meaning, all the stronger for their sense of restraint and hesitation, for their lovely fragility.