Jacques Tourneur was an enigmatic and elusive figure in the Hollywood of the 40s and 50s. Although he was best known for his supernatural thrillers (which were marketed as “Horror” films, a term he hated), he also worked in a wide range of genres - Westerns, a pirate film, a medieval adventure, and film noirs.
All of his best films were impeccably made, always elegant and engaging, but their real quality only starts to emerge when one sees several of his films, and one starts to understand the consistency of his style and his content, beyond the conventions of any genre.
Characteristics in Tourneur’s narrative style are easy enough to identify: he likes to film at night or in the dark with minimal lighting, and he tends to secure performances from his actors that are subdued, calm and conversational, rather than demonstrative, melodramatic or pitched to the back of the gallery. These stylistic traits transform some of his genre pieces into extraordinary works. His first Western, for example, CANYON PASSAGE (1946), feels more “adult” than any other Western I can think of, long before “adult Westerns” became a sub-genre of their own: in this film, his characters speak to each other quietly, unstressed, as fellow human beings with shared experiences. And of course, a lot of CANYON PASSAGE takes place at night.
Tellingly, Tourneur once said: “When I rehearse a scene, … to put the actors and the technicians in the mood, I tell everybody to sit down. We turn out the lights and turn on just a gas lamp. … The actors perform better when they are lit by a real gas lamp, in the dark. When it’s all done, I say to the cameraman, “That’s what I want for lighting, figure out how to get it.’” (from Chris Fujiwara’s book, Jacques Tourneur: the Cinema of Nightfall).
But there is much more involved than low light and subdued performances, remarkable enough as these elements are in the Hollywood studio system. Progressively, as one watches Tourneur’s films, themes and preoccupations gradually emerge.
The first of these is internal: time and time again, Tourneur brings his attention to bear on the psychological state of the characters, their unexpressed existential anguish, their dreams and nightmares, and their fears. The role of the subconscious and the unexpressed can be integral to the plot, as in CAT PEOPLE (1942), or they can become apparent when Tourneur pauses in the narrative to draw these elements out from his characters, as he does remarkably in the final third of ANNE OF THE INDIES (1951). These elements seem all the more intense when played in the dark or semi-dark; daylight seems to dissipate them.
It’s consistent with this interest in the subconscious and in existential crises that Tourneur is often drawn to projects involving psychologists and psychiatrists – again CAT PEOPLE and NIGHT OF THE DEMON (1957) are prime examples – so that questions of the mind can be addressed openly in the body of the narrative.
But there is another layer that is much more elusive but intriguingly evident the more one watches his work. This is a sense of “otherworldliness”, of forces beyond our understanding – forces that may make their presence felt through nature (dark forests, trees, and especially variations in the wind). Tourneur spoke in interviews about his “belief” in the “supernatural” without being very specific, but a presence is not hard to detect. In NIGHT OF THE DEMON and in STARS IN MY CROWN (1950) the presence of the supernatural forms an essential part of the narrative: both films are structured around the opposition of science on one hand and faith on the other. In NIGHT OF THE DEMON we have a fierce conflict between a psychologist and a satanist, while in STARS IN MY CROWN a central concern of the narrative is the friendly rivalry between a small town’s medical doctor and the community’s “preacher”. But more often, the otherworldliness is not fore-grounded, but is detectable through nuance: in the expressiveness of the images and in the deep experiences of the characters. It is no wonder that Tourneur went on to direct for the TWILIGHT ZONE series on television.
Chris Fujiwara’s book brings these ideas to the foreground very skilfully, identifying these recurring elements in many of Tourneur’s films. The documentary on Tourneur that we are showing in CIFF also emphasises the metaphysical inclinations of his work. The famous line by Paul Eluard – “There is a parallel existence, and it is in this one” – is quoted in the documentary, and it seems apt in considering Tourneur. Combined with the humble, low-key, unheroic performances, and the power of the dark, we have a remarkably consistent body of work that transcends the expectations of each genre in which he worked. It’s as though the characters in a genre piece are being observed from outside. The forces of nature, of the supernatural, are not always malignant (as they are in NIGHT OF THE DEMON) but can also be benign (as in STARS IN MY CROWN), but they are there. If you are in any doubt, watch the extraordinary opening shot in STARS IN MY CROWN and try to explain it in any other way. It’s as though that single shot is Tourneur’s declaration of the meta-narrative that concerns him.
(Editor's Note: The above essay is the second by Festival Director Andrew Pike about the CIFF 2017 program. You can find the first if you click here For more on Jacques Tourneur see earlier entries posted on this blog: Noel Bjorndahl's personal history Barrie Pattison's personal memoir. Click to get the stories.)