Wednesday 13 December 2017

Bruce Hodsdon considers Auteurs in classical Hollywood (10) - Jacques Tourneur and Gerd Oswald

The previous essays can be found if you click on the links below.

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Victor Perkins
Victor Perkins was a key critic for Movie magazine, one of the main forums for the auteur theory debates of the early to mid sixties and beyond. Although himself 'a believer', in 1990 Perkins criticised auteurism and the auteurists “for making a crucial error in their exaggerated concern with continuities and coherence across the body of a director's work.” Cahiers critics denied auteur status to certain directors seen to be stylists if their films were otherwise lacking overall coherence.  It was this absolute insistence on continuity or what Perkins called “the repetition of the “author-code traced from film to film” that he saw as distorting proper acknowledgement of other views on the creative role of the director thus overriding the achievement, in a single film, of expressive values such as “economy, eloquence, unity, subtlety, depth and vigour” that might be attached to the single work but not necessarily to a multiplicity of works attributed to the director. In other words “what a director does well is at least as important as what he does often.” Rather than just an observation that an “auteur's” work could additionally display striking continuities and coherent development it was transformed into a test of authorship.

Andrew Sarris referred to the auteur theory as 'pattern' theory. “Only after thousands of films have been evaluated will any personal pantheon,” he asserted, “have a reasonably objective validity.” Contending “that single films matter not that much,” he refers to Jean Renoir's observation “that a director spends his life on variations of the same film.” It does suggest that outside the pantheon, Sarris's 'pattern' is a measure of the degree to which two hundred or so directors outside the pantheon most often working on assignment under studio contracts, fell short of realising auteur status,  achievement in individual works notwithstanding.

Central to the studio system was the assigning of a script to a contract director, together with a studio producer to oversee the production and frequently with the lead actor(s) already cast and key technicians allocated.  This gave rise amongst some auteurist critics to the notion of the metteur-en-scène (literally 'the director' but here given added connotation) to cover the case of the director who maintained some continuity of style through a number of assignments almost always in more than one genre, but not of theme which came with each script more or less as a given. Metteurs en scene were thus seen to occupy the middle ground between auteur and superior craftsman.

Sam Rohdie defines a 'frontline' auteur in the pantheon as “someone who creates his or her own system” (a dialectic of style and subject) “rather than merely bringing an existing system into play” (with at best only minor variations in plot and characterisation) in an established genre.

Paradigm cases leading to debate on the status of a director (auteur or metteur en scene?) in the early-mid fifties at Cahiers, were at that time Vincente Minnelli and Otto Preminger to whom might be added others whom I designated as possible second and third line auteurs such as George Cukor, Mitchell Leisen, Charles Walters, Stanley Donen, Jacques Turner and arguably Gerd Oswald. The notion of the metteur-en-scène seems to have originated amongst the Cahiers critics, a notable example being Jacques Rivette's adamant rejection of Minnelli for auteur status as he was “always subordinating his talent (as a stylist) to someone else” (1). Such deployment of the notion was never seriously taken up by the Movie critics who actually implicitly rejected it by claiming that Minnelli's style was his meaning, or Andrew Sarris who, while suggesting that Minnelli believed “more in beauty than in art,” seemed to recognise his auteur credentials by placing his oeuvre along with those of 19 other directors in the “far side of paradise” category next to the pantheon. The case for Minnelli as auteur has subsequently been persuasively articulated by Thomas Elsaesser but in terms other than simple thematic coherence (See Part 9).

In any case the idea of the metteur en scène did not survive the passing of the studio system, the assignment of films by the front office to creative staff, most of whom were under medium to long term contract with their status being their only negotiable leverage. Even most 'A' list directors at some stage were obliged to take on major projects at short notice, a more commonplace occurrence with directors further down the hierarchy. Mostly 'A' directors were involved in projects from their inception so that when the system was falling apart in the late sixties and into the seventies, directors like Minnelli and Cukor tended to drift into relative inactivity and had to look outside the studios for work; Cukor directed only four films after My Fair Lady,1966-81, Minnelli two in the decade 1966-76

Jacques Tourneur: “journeyman” auteur or metteur en scène?
Jacques Tourneur
Jacques was the son of Maurice Tourneur, an emigré pioneer of pictorial invention in Hollywood silent cinema who returned to France to direct films in the thirties. Jacques acted as his assistant and directed four feature films in France before himself returning to Hollywood in 1936, directing a series of short films at MGM before moving into 'B' features on assignment. He then teamed up with innovative producer Val Lewton at RKO in 1943 to direct three classic horror films Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man, imaginatively realised on low budgets. Tourneur seemed to be speaking with the voice of a 'journeyman' when he said that in Hollywood, he “accepted systematically” scripts that were offered to him “regardless of what the scripts were about” (2) He then qualified this by saying that he saw every script as an opportunity “to see what can be done with it” in the process discovering his own sensibilities “doing the best” with what he was given, letting his “unconscious do the work.” 

Unwanted, the demon visualised in Night of the Demon
The only two films he initiated (I Walked with a Zombie and Stars in my Crown) are counted with Canyon Passage, Out of the Past and Night of the Demon as his most fully realised films. His three horror films made with Val Lewton and Night of the Demon are widely recognised as testing the conventions of the genre with “the unrevealed horror of the everyday” - he hated the expression 'horror film'; the producer insisted on visualising the Demon in post-production very much against Tourneur's wishes. He was a believer in the power of a felt but unseen force which imbues his best work.

The 'testing of his sensibilities' Tourneur carried over into other genres. In ranking, they closely follow the above five key films : Experiment Perilous, Anne of the Indies, Wichita, Great Day in the Morning and Nightfall, all seriously original in their personal approach to their respective American genres. His most personal film and widely regarded as his best, Stars in my Crown, is a moving piece of Americana on the dark side. 

At the other end of the spectrum, given his position in the industry, there were inevitably some assignments he could do little with beyond delivering efficient medium to low budget entertainments  - his first four features at MGM (1939-41), Days of Glory (44), Flame and the Arrow (50) Circle of Danger (51) - and his last five features from The Fearmakers (58) to City Under the Sea (65), his work then in steep decline, marred by lack of suitable opportunites.  

Tourneur had an outsider's analytic eye for ambiguities in the playing out of social and spiritual values which would have otherwise in all probability rested largely undisturbed between the lines in conventional scripts of widely varying quality assigned to him. He uncovered or inserted subtleties and ambiguities he found in the stories primarily through his mise en scène - a finely tuned ability to create atmosphere evident early on in the Lewton horror films, a subtly nuanced sensibility in visual style and tempo of performance (a “quietism”) carried over into other genres. He regarded the lighting of utmost importance placing priority on the establishing of natural light sources.  Tourneur did not impose himself upon the actors other than encouraging them to lower their voices giving their sentences “a less dramatic rhythm.”  As masters of low key nuanced performance, Joel McCrea and Dana Andrews were his ideal leads.

 On the face of it, with style so paramount, Tourneur might still seem to some to best fit the status of a stylist without a recurring theme – that of metteur en scène.  While a director of interest, he was not in the select band of cause célèbres taken up by the Cahiers critics in the fifties whose auteurism lacked Sarris's overall concern with constructed pattern theory.  Tourneur's work as an auteur was appreciated by a rival journal Présence du Cinéma and by pre-eminent critics  such as Jacques Lourcelles, Louis Skorecki, Bertrand Tavernier, Gérard Legrand and Jean-Claude Biette.

Frances Dee, Edith Barrett, Jeni Le Gon, I Walked with a Zombie
Of the 29 features Tourneur completed after returning to Hollywood, 12 amount to little more than the work of a competent craftsman, with a further 7, while less distinctive works, each make a significant contribution to the overall coherence of his oeuvre. It is the 10 key works listed above, beginning with I Walked with a Zombie, that are each an example of the general proposition put by Victor Perkins (see above), of a theory of authorship anchored in the prior value of individual works that “might usefully set out to explain why so many directors who have achieved  authority (through a structure of anchored moments) turn out to have done so repeatedly – and often in strikingly coherent terms.” The same down-grading of the priority of recurrence can be said to be necessary in the assessment of the authorship status of the other 30 directors, at least, in the 'second line' as I have listed in Part 9.

Gerd Oswald : auteur, metteur en scène or superior craftsman?
Gerd Oswald
Gerd Oswald, the son of successful German film director Richard Oswald emigrated to America with his father in the late thirties and directed his first and most widely praised film, A Kiss Before Dying in 1956

Oswald directed seven features in Hollywood from 1956-8, only six of which need concern us here: two low budget westerns (The Brass Legend, Fury at Showdown), a film noir (Crime of Passion) and three dramas centred on perverse psychology (A Kiss Before Dying, Valerie and Screaming Mimi). The interest in the two westerns is not primarily thematic – they follow fairly familiar B western plots – one revolving around revenge and corruption in a small town, the other a lawman's struggle to bring a bad man to justice. At the time unnoticed by the critics on the lower half of double bills, what lifts these two films out of the ordinary and invests them with special intensity, is Oswald's  commitment to his craft (and that of his cinematographers Charles van Eager and Joseph LaShelle), working on 7 and 5 day shooting schedules respectively deploying the tracking camera, depth of field, lighting and unobtrusively effective camera placement to invest the films with a special intensity. (3).

Sterling Hayden, Barbara Stanwyck, Crime of Passion
The entry for Crime of Passion in Silver and Ward's Film Noir Encyclopedia suggests that it is  representative of the  shift of noir mood from romantic fatalism and into “suburban disquietitude” which, in the early to mid-fifties, here involved a couple in attempted corruption of the promotion process leading to unpremeditated murder. Sterling Hayden is a detective in the San Francisco PD with limited prospects of promotion and Stanwyck, a formerly successful newspaper columnist who quickly becomes disillusioned with married life in suburbia. Shadowy suburban interiors at night marked a trend to non-expressionistic lower key lighting and, consistent with Oswald’s other films, a relatively spare use of reverse angle editing in favour of arranging figures in the frame. At several points the more naturalistic style is punctuated with a montage of faces with the music score subjectively expressive of Stanwyck's sense of alienation.

There is also a sense of disquietude in A Kiss Before Dying but here bathed in the bright sunlight and pastel interiors of the South West in long takes with minimal reverse angle shots in concert with the Scope screen as a young psychopath (Robert Wagner) coldly plans and commits the murder of his pregnant girlfriend (Joanne Woodward) and then continues his life of manipulation and murder as though nothing has happened. 

Anita Ekberg, Valerie
While in a western setting, Valerie has been referred to as 'a frontier Rashomon' in the confrontation with conflicting accounts of the film's opening incident off-screen involving murder and attempted murder of the family and wife (Anita Ekberg) of an army veteran (Sterling Hayden) and  ranch owner who was employed to torture prisoners during the Civil War. Again, as in the other westerns, Oswald uses relatively long takes which Sarris finds have “a fluency of camera movement (that) is controlled by sliding turns and harsh stops befitting a cinema of bitter ambiguity.” Ekberg is also a victim in Screaming Mimi, suffering a nervous breakdown after being sexually assaulted, taking a job as a stripper and ending up on the couch of a psychiatrist of dubious reputation although according to Paul Taylor in Time Out “Oswald fails to inject this provocative scenario with the same eerie imagination that fuelled A Kiss Before Dying.”

Brainwashed poster
Sarris seemed anxious to anoint Oswald as an auteur for “his success in imposing a personal style.” In 1961 in Germany Oswald directed and co-scripted an anti-Nazi drama Brainwashed/The Royal Game starring Curt Jurgens and Claire Bloom, based on a novella by Stefan Zweig, presumably as a contribution to postwar de-Nazification. In Oswald's Hollywood films Sarris finds “paranoiac overtones,” and considers that “anti-Nazi symbolism is not too hard to detect” in the six films referred to above. Other than perhaps for A Kiss before Dying which is based on an Ira Levin thriller, the evidence of Oswald's authorship, the unity of style and theme, is inconclusive when compared to Tourneur's key films. It is sufficiently thin to bring the recurrence question discussed above into play. A Kiss Before Dying, Valerie and Crime of Passion do not per se lift Oswald from metteur en scene to auteur which does not diminish, so long unnoticed, what he did achieve with skill and commitment, given such modest resources, in several of these films.

1.  Since the posting of the essay on Minnelli I have found that he is on record as saying that he nearly always had the opportunity to work with the writer “more or less from the beginning... often for five or six weeks if the script had not been completed.” He pointed out that “The Bad and the Beautiful had an entirely different connotation in the original script, which was simply about a man (the producer played by Kirk Douglas) who was more or less of a villain.”
2.  In principle if not entirely in practice – Tourneur turned down The Furies subsequently directed by Anthony Mann and The Set Up by Robert Wise.
3.  These key films are all on the dark side. Oswald also directed Paris Holiday (1958), a farcical comedy starring Bob Hope (who also produced) and Fernandel with Preston Sturges making a very brief appearance. More successful critically was another comedy, Bunny O'Hare (1971), Oswald's last film in Hollywood, with Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine. He also directed episodes of a number of TV series including Star Trek and  “a visually arresting and thematically over the top” episode of Outer Limits titled “Shape of Things Unknown.”

Note: Fury at Showdown and Crime of Passion are free to view on YouTube.

Acknowledgment to Chris Fujiwara for his comprehensively detailed auteurist study of Tourneur's cinema in Jacques Tourneur the cinema of nightfall 1998. Also recommended is a short essay on Tourneur by Barrett Hodsdon in The Elusive Auteur 2017 pp 148-151. See other sources in Part 10 .

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