Elusive Yet Tangible

He cultivated the most fleeting and elusive aspects of experience, things that other filmmakers would never bother with but that, for Tourneur, were the essence of the movies.

– Martin Scorsese, in the foreword to Chris Fujiwara’s book “Jacques Tourneur. The Cinema of nightfall.”

Tourneur sounds immensely interesting:

The son of legendary Silent film director Maurice Tourneur, Jacques was born in Paris in 1876 but raised in the United States. After failing to make much impact as an actor in Hollywood in the 1920s he left America to work with his father who was shooting a film in Berlin. Jacques subsequently directed four films in France between 1930 to 1934 and then returned to Hollywood where he worked at MGM as a second-unit director on features and as a director of numerous short films. In 1939 Louis B. Mayer decided that one of Tourneur’s two-reel films, They all come out, in MGM’s Crime does not pay series, should be expanded with extra footage and it was released as a seven reel feature film. Tourneur followed with two more films for MGM in their short-lived detective series based on the adventures of Nick Carter (Nick Carter, Master detective, 1939 and the superior Phantom raiders, 1940), starring Walter Pidgeon.

After a poor medical film released from Republic, Doctors don’t tell (1941), Tourneur was invited to join producer Val Lewton at RKO. Lewton had been lured away from David O. Selznick to head a new unit formed at RKO for low budget horror films. He proved to be the perfect producer for Tourneur and their first two films, Cat people and I walked with a zombie, were not only commercially successful, despite limited publicity, small budgets, recycled sets and little known actors, but also, aesthetically, two of the finest films produced in Hollywood in the 1940s. Cat people, with a budget of $134,000, grossed an estimated $2 million and was held over at the Hawaii Theater on Hollywood Boulevard for a record 13 weeks. Tourneur and Lewton were never to achieve such box office success again. Promoted to A films at RKO, beginning with Days of glory (1944), Tourneur worked at RKO for the rest of the decade (except for Canyon passage). In 1947 he directed a key film noir, Out of the past, which extended many of the motifs found in John Huston’s The Maltese falcon (1941). Whilst the reputation of Out of the past grew steadily over the years, it was only a moderate box-office success at the time of its release and did not generate great enthusiasm from the critics in the late 1940s.

Same goes for the book. Here’s Geoff Mayer’s review over at Screening the Past:

The strength of Fujiwara’s study, other than his comprehensive analysis of each feature film, resides in an ability to reveal consistent stylistic and thematic patterns from seemingly discrete scenes in different genres. Occasionally, the linkages are banal – such as like “Jeff Markham in Out of the past, Martín [in Way of a gaucho] assumes a new name; but unlike Jeff, he does so not to conceal himself but to wage war against the social order’ (206). Mostly, however, his analysis exposes the complexity and intelligence of the films. For example, he establishes the significance of the mediating function of Hi Linnet (Hoagy Carmichael) in Canyon passage, especially the bravura night sequence at the bank when the audience learns that George Camrose (Brian Donlevy) is stealing money from the miner’s deposits to feed his gambling addiction (130-132). Or, the crucial moment in Anne of the Indies when pirate Anne Providence (Jean Peters) briefly discards her “masculine” veneer.


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