Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 2, January 2003

 

 

Ronald W. Wilson

 

The Auteur of Darkness: Jacques Tourneur

 

 

Chris Fujiwara

_Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall_

Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001

ISBN 0-8018-6561-1

xii + 328 pp.

 

One of the most distinctive characteristics of Jacques Tourneur's films are the proliferation and visual style of night scenes. From such works as _The Cat People_ (1942), _I Walked With a Zombie_ (1943), to _Stars in my Crown_ (1950), and _Berlin Express_ (1948), Tourneur proved himself a master of nocturnal sequences that highlighted the atmospheric quality of his films. According to Chris Fujiwara, in his recent book _Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall_, the director 'best represents an 'expressionistic' style of lighting' through his films (10). Using a cinematic palate primarily consisting of black and white, and utilizing light sources (lamps, fireplaces, etc.) within his sets, Tourneur's expressive use of light and shadow established relationships between characters and objects. Much of Tourneur's career has been overshadowed by his relationship to producer Val Lewton, who has generally taken the credit as an auteur producer with his 'B' unit at RKO. Fujiwara has at last provided a much needed critical study of the director whose consistent atmospheric style is noticeable to those familiar with his work. One of those is fellow filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who provides a highly complimentary Foreword to the book. Scorsese notes that: 'For many directors, an atmosphere is something that is 'established', setting the stage for the action to follow. For Tourneur it *is* the movie' (xi). Fujiwara has written an auteur study of Tourneur that emphasizes the stylistic devices inherent within his films. There are two forms that auteur criticism can take: one examines the thematic motifs within a filmmaker's work, and the other examines the filmmaker as a cinematic stylist, utilizing celluloid much as a painter uses a brush. It is much to Fujiwara's credit that he elects to do the latter in regard to his subject, as it is the most consistently noticeable trait in Tourneur's films.

 

Fujiwara begins by providing an informative introduction where he outlines the basic stylistics of Tourneur's technique. This is followed by a chapter discussing the career of Maurice Tourneur, Jacques's filmmaking father. The author sees a distinct connection in film technique, especially in the creation of mood through composition. Fujiwara writes: 'An extreme attention to detail, particularly of lighting and decor, a naturalistic acting style, and a love of unusual and striking scenic effects are features that characterize the work of both men.' (18) Jacques Tourneur's career is then considered in two biographical chapters that separately cover his film career in Europe and America. Fujiwara then proceeds to examine the films themselves. It is much to the author's credit that he looks at Tourneur's apprenticeship within the studio system in Hollywood. Beginning as a second unit director at MGM in 1934, and then as a director of short subjects, Tourneur was able to develop his craft bit by bit. Fujiwara spends a considerable amount of time examining these short subjects and the stylistics of Tourneur's camera and mise-en-scene. For example, with regards to the short subject, _Romance of Radium_ (1937), Fujiwara concludes that the film,

 

'exhibits both Tourneur's themes and his visual style. The set of the Curies laboratory is a marvelous miniature world in which lamps and laboratory flasks frame compositions, the shadows of leafy branches are projected on a translucent skylight, and windows stream with rain. Even the acting in the film is memorably Tourneurean: intense yet unspectacular.' (50)

 

This apprenticeship period was extremely important in Tourneur's cinematic education and played an important part in the development of the unique film style that is regularly associated with the director. Fujiwara's auteur study does not simply rely on a handful of films that make up the Tourneur style. In contrast to many such works, Fujiwara looks closely at the entire output of the director, examining both the weak films as well as the strong ones.

 

The films Tourneur directed for Val Lewton's production unit at RKO are arguably his most famous. Fujiwara provides very intelligent and scholarly accounts of their production histories, as well as a critical interpretation of their effectiveness within Tourneur's cinematic development. With regards to _The Cat People_, for instance, the author claims that Tourneur's composition emphasizes the emotional barriers between Irena (who believes she can turn into an animal when emotionally aroused) and her husband, Oliver. Building on a subtext of 'cultural difference', the visual barriers, such as cage bars, furniture, doors, fences, 'represent the dividing line between human and animal' (74). Fujiwara also analyzes the many 'cat signs' throughout the film. Even though this film is regarded as a master text in Tourneur's filmography, he suggests that it is still underrated by many, especially in regard to its acting. But this is also a part of Tourneur's technigue -- an underplayed naturalistic acting style. This performance style is crucial to the muted tone of the films themselves which evince a natural world in order to reveal hidden secrets.

 

The films Tourneur made with Val Lewton make up a trilogy of narrative ambiguity which set them apart from the horror films at Universal studios. Carlos Clarens has stated that these films were,

 

'compact little novellas set in a recognizable modern world, where man-made monsters, vampires, and werewolves had no place. In their stead, they substituted a very real fear of the unknown, the dark, of ancient superstition, and what Moncure D. Conway called 'the reason of unreason' -- for the night creatures themselves, these films substituted our dread of them.' [1]

_I Walked With a Zombie_ (1943) and _The Leopard Man_ (1943) both prove the effectiveness of the Tourneurian vision of the poeticism of darkness through the power of suggestion. Fujiwara notes that Tourneur often cited _I Walked With a Zombie_ as his personal favourite among his films. This type of filmmaking is not entirely lost among current filmmakers, as the critical and box-office success of both _The Blair Witch Project_ and the effective ghost story _The Others_ will attest.

 

Fujiwara then examines the post-Lewton films in Tourneur's oeuvre. What proves interesting here is the evidence of style that is maintained in a variety of genres such as westerns: _Canyon Passage_ (1946), _Stars in my Crown_, _Wichita_ (1955), and _Great Day in the Morning_ (1956); swashbucklers: _The Flame and the Arrow_ (1950), _Anne of the Indies_ (1951); noir-like thrillers: _Out of the Past_ (1947), _Berlin Express_ (1948); and a return to the supernatural thriller with _Night of the Demon_ (1957), aka _Curse of the Demon_. In all of these Fujiwara traces the Tourneurian stylistics, however minimal they may be. In the case of the films the author views as less important, primarily because the auteur influence is weak, the analysis is of course brief. Nonetheless, Fujiwara includes them in his overall analysis, rather than concentrate solely on a handful of films which distil the essence of Tourneur's style. The book concludes with an examination of Tourneur's television work, which includes episodes from such series as _The Twilight Zone_, _The Walter Winchell File_, and _Bonanza_. Thus the book is quite comprehensive and thorough in its detailed analysis of Tourneur's work.

 

In conclusion, Fujiwara has provided an additional model of auteurism that joins the recent work of Tom Gunning (_The Films of Fritz Lang_), David Bellos (_Jacques Tati_), and Deborah Alpi (_Robert Siodmak_) in a revival of interest in auteur studies. This revival relies less on simply examining a core group of films that best exemplify the author's style (as well as the writer's particular interests). Instead it considers every facet of the director's work, finding clues to the development of that style. Tom Gunning, in his excellent work on Fritz Lang, discusses the 'inscribed/imprinting hand' of the author within his/her body of work:

 

'His hand beckons to us to enter his texts and find him. Since there will be no author's hand in this maze to grasp ours and show us the way, we encounter the language of the cinema itself and our own work as film viewers. The search for the author takes place in a labyrinth in which at times even the film director himself may have lost his way.' [2]

 

This language of cinema (editing, lighting, composition, sound, acting) provides a context to help understand the author through his work. Fujiwara, in his book _Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall_ has contributed a long overdue journey into the labyrinth of Tourneur's films, and has shed some invaluable light on this auteur of darkness.

 

Lawrence, Kansas, USA

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Carlos Clarens, _An Illustrated History of Horror and Science Fiction Films: The Classic Era, 1895-1967_ (New York: Da Capo Press, 1997), p. 112.

 

2. Tom Gunning, _The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity_ (London: British Film Institute, 2000), pp. 5-6.

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003

 

Ronald W. Wilson, 'The Auteur of Darkness: Jacques Tourneur', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 2, January 2003 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n2wilson>.

 

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