As noted on Tuesday, the Cinémathèque suisse in Lausanne is presenting a Jacques Tourneur retrospective through September 24. The Cinémathèque française in Paris rolls out another from August 30 through October 8, and of course, the big one was staged earlier this month in Locarno. As Justine Smith notes in Little White Lies, this program “will be traveling across Europe and North America in the coming year. Best known for his work with Val Lewton and his steamy film noirs, Tourneur’s cinema is deeply rooted in anxiety. . . . As most of his most noteworthy output comes out of World War Two and the aftermath of the Red Scare, the anxiety he depicts is centered on the exchange of power and the changing landscape of America and beyond.”
While he was in Locarno, Notebook editor Daniel Kasman wrote about a film by Tourneur nearly every day:
- Nick Carter, Master Detective (1939) is “a prescient pre-war mystery of aviation espionage and sabotage,” while in They All Come Out (1939), “Tourneur’s camera movements often have an uncanny, lyrical quality removed from the normal passage of time.”
- The Flame and the Arrow (1950) is “a mostly undistinctive Robin Hood riff.”
- But Days of Glory (1944) is “a highly evocative masterpiece . . . conjured in that brief moment during World War 2 when Hollywood was asked to make movies in support of our Soviet allies.” And in Experiment Perilous (1944), Paul Lukas’s “purring accent often times connotes a warm, embracing humaneness, as in Tourneur’s 1948 Berlin Express.”
- On Circle of Danger (1951): “This post-war mystery oscillates between romance scenes in confined interiors and a tour of the United Kingdom—London, Wales, Scotland—but the finale shocks in its sudden shift in visual style.”
- And Wichita: “Tourneur's CinemaScope western from 1955 is an unusually sober, clean-lined film for this director who most-excels at pervasive, intangible ambiance.”
- In Appointment in Honduras (1953), “Tourneur creates a never-ending environment of wilderness and ambient danger.” And then there’s Easy Living (1949), “sublime and effortless, a drama of friendships, marriage, and professional pressure . . . With genre trappings stripped away, we see Tourneur perhaps at his most pure.”
Patrick Holzapfel was all over the retrospective, too, and writes at Jugend ohne Film that “there was something that struck me in almost all the films and which shed a new light, or maybe a shadow on all of his films: The mode of resignation. [Chris] Fujiwara mentions resignation in his book [Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall]. He writes:
For Tourneur, resignation isn’t a moral ideal in itself but comes as the inevitable result of the displacement of the hero in history (the prolonged aporia of Way of a Gaucho) or as a convulsion or exhaustion, like the confessions of characters in I Walked with a Zombie,The Leopard Man, and Great Day in the Morning and like the surrender of Vanning in front of the church in Nightfall. Tourneur’s sense of passivity and inevitability colors even his most straightforward and positive protagonist, Wyatt Earp in Wichita, who has to be goaded into action by events and who apologizes to his enemy in advance for the bullet with which he kills the latter in a duel.
“It is an observation I find to be very true,” adds Holzapfel. “Tourneur constructs his strategies of resignation concisely. Often, establishing shots are a drama of their own.”
“Who else but Tourneur could tell a story entirely in shadows?” asked Ed Gonzalez at Slant in 2002. “The director’s fascination with conditions of visibility makes his cinema every bit as unique as Argento’s yet the very suggestibility of his freakshows have forever rendered him an elusive figure in the annals of film history. Fujiwara says it best: ‘Unlike the classic auteur who imposes his vision on his film, Tourneur effaces his vision, not by the absence of style but by a style that emphasizes absence.’”
Ronald W. Wilson reviewed Fujiwara’s book for Film-Philosophy in 2003 and, at La Furia Umana, you’ll find a conversation between Fujiwara and Pedro Costa about Tourneur that took place in 2010. For more on Tourneur, see his page at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?
Image above: Cat People (1942).
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