Thursday, October 7, 2010
‘One reason why Jacques Tourneur remains a major but neglected Hollywood filmmaker is that elusiveness is at the core of his art. A director of disquiet, absence, and unsettling nocturnal atmospheres whose characters tend to be mysteries to themselves as well as to us, he dwells in uncertainties and ambiguities even when he appears to be studiously following genre conventions. In other words, his brilliance isn’t often apparent because he tends to stay in the shadows.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, ‘Art of Darkness: Wichita’
There's something exhausted, and helpless, and fragile, and old… They have a strange quality of-- I don't know where it comes from; I'm trying to think of some other films of filmmakers who walk that same land, films that seem to generate their own, some kind of oblivion inside of them.
Pedro Costa in conversation with Chris Fujiwara on Tourneur
With all due respect to those who are currently immersed in the movie-event-of-the- moment (Read: Venice, TIFF, NYFF, etc.), to my mind the most exciting thing around is the series of Jacques Tourneur films playing every Saturday and Sunday morning at the Music Box. It’s a healthy sampling of his entire career (although by no means an exhaustive retrospective), encompassing arguably his best Lewton film, a great western, a late-period horror classic, a post-War espionage thriller, and an odd ball entry that we’ll consider here: a Rebecca-esque gothic melodrama called (rather misleadingly) Experiment Perilous. It’s never been available on home video until very recently (courtesy of Warner’s burn on demand Archive service), so the prospect of discovering it on the big screen is doubly enticing.
Costa’s notion of ‘oblivion’ is instructive here, as on paper, Experiment Perilous strikes one as another post Rebecca woman in peril/old dark house exercise. But Tourneur infuses the proceedings with an atmosphere of dread that threatens to engulf everyone, even the picture itself, at any moment. After a chance encounter on a train, Dr. Bailey (George Brent) becomes entangled with a beautiful, possibly insane woman, her potentially murderous husband, and a damaged, emotionally fragile child. Echoes of ‘Gaslight’ (released the same year) abound, as well as ‘Laura’ and ‘Vertigo’: Bailey falls in love with a portrait of Allida Bederaux (Hedy Lamarr); when they finally meet, she is wearing the same dress and poised in the same position; Lewis’ ‘My Name Is Julia Ross’: an insane patriarch struggles to drive his faux-wife insane as she professes her sanity to no avail, and Lewis’ ‘So Dark The Nigh’t: in each film one of the main characters willfully and symbolically eradicates a part of themselves by destroying their own reflection (in a pool of water and a window pane, respectively); as well as Tourneur’s own ‘Cat People’: a beautiful woman becomes a symbolic repository of male angst and phallic anxiety.
The important thing here isn’t how the film does or doesn’t mirror its contemporaries, but how Tourneur conjures a distinct sense of what Rosenbaum describes as ‘disquiet(ing) absence’. Tourneur’s camera creeps around the Bederaux mansion like an uninvited guest, tracking along walls and peering around corners, observing the bric-a-brac of the rich and disturbed. Heddy Lamarr’s Allida is constantly ensconced/trapped by people and objects – in a literal sense, as Tourneur forcefully arranges figures around her within the frame. At one point, the camera crawls along a hallway to focus on a table decorated with vases and flower bouquets. The camera stops and pans right to reveal a recess to the room; Allida is seated, surrounded by standing figures and vases in the extreme foreground. The image works as both a claustrophobic confinement of the body as well as an exhibition: Allida is another beautiful thing to be displayed. Another nice detail: the Bederaux home’s foray has a series of elaborate fish tanks built into the walls, an understated variation on a bird in its gilded cage – indeed, Tourneur’s sense of objects both defining and trapping his characters rivals that of Sirk.
Tourneur eschews exposition in favor of a long, detailed flashback, revealing the origins of Nick Bederaux’s (Paul Lukas) fascination with Allida – Nick is the rich, dashing and cultured older man who takes a young, naïve Allida under his wing, with promises to show her the world and educate her. This ‘education’ is clearly a molding, as Allida is transformed into a bourgeois. Tourneur explicates these changes with simple yet forceful visual corollaries, creating a sense of pre-marriage and post-marriage, i.e. pre and post assimilation. The ‘pre’ Allida is vibrant, always smiling, and associated visually with the land (open fields, vast landscapes, sitting on the ground, a willingness to ‘get dirty’). ‘Post’ Allida has been trained to sit still, maintain ‘composure’; she is seen only indoors, always seated and wearing dark dresses; the scenario becomes ‘clean’. Tourneur’s critique of ‘polite’ society snuffing out a vivacious personality is damning in its precision; the above mentioned shot of Allida wiping away her own reflection immediately follows Nick’s marriage proposal, and we are meant to understand that her gesture signifies not only her agreement (which we are never shown – the words themselves would be redundant), but her own complicit and tacit understanding that her old life is no more.
Tourneur further explicates these themes with recurring visual motifs. The Bederaux’s grand stair case houses an elegant, Greek-style sculpture of a woman that Nick refers to as his ‘goddess’ (SPOILER: he will meet his demise when this ‘woman’ collapses and literally crushes him); Bailey and the Bederaux’s share a common friend, a bohemian sculptor who has also harbored feelings for Allida – his studio houses a huge, oversized Medusa bust (tellingly, he refers to this as his masterpiece), as well as a large room with various molds of body parts strewn about. The medusa bust suggests, obviously, an object of great beauty that one must nonetheless refrain from looking at (denying the ‘gaze’, as it where), while the miscellaneous body parts floating around seemingly wait to be ‘assembled’, not unlike Allida herself.
* * *
Perhaps due to his reputation as a ‘horror’ director (a designation that is admittedly inadequate, like calling The Rules of the Game a film about a weekend hunting party or Citizen Kane a movie about a guy who runs a newspaper), one is always waiting for something horrific to happen in a Tourneur film. No one uses black and white quite like him; it’s neither high contrast nor inky, where blacks tend dominate everything else, but a silky, gray laden thing. Every scene seems to be waiting to be filled with smoke or fog, almost anticipating an oncoming haze that will envelope the frame, and everything in it. Indeed, Experiment Perilous ends in a kind of apocalypse, the home erupting in an inferno – the patriarchal homestead, built on corruption and subjugation, must be leveled.