Out of the Past (1947)

Out of the Past (1947) movie poster

director Jacques Tourneur
viewed: 12/27/2013

Considered by some to be the archetype of the Film Noir, Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past has long been a personal favorite of mine as well.  I’m a big Tourneur fan in general, but like a lot of things, I got turned onto this film, Tourneur, and a lot of other cinema from the half year I spent in Sheffield, England.

I was staying with the woman that I would eventually marry and three other young schoolteachers.  But I was on a tourist visa, no way to work or go to school, just washing the dishes, reading a lot, and watching a lot of telly.  Of course, four channels in the UK at the time still broadcast a lot better stuff than hundreds plus do on cable over here.  And for my luck, it was 1995, the centennial of cinema, and so both the BBC and Channel 4 had tons of great stuff showing day and night throughout.  And with only The Guardian‘s short blurbs to guide me, I discovered any number of those things in those months.

Across the pond, Out of the Past  is known as Build My Gallows High, adapted by author Daniel Mainwaring from his novel of the same name.  With Robert Mitchum as the retired gumshoe who is re-embroiled in his old life by affable villain Kirk Douglas, and gorgeous femme fatale, Jane Greer, it’s set up and down in California, Arizona, Mexico, and Lake Tahoe, a true West Coast noir.

I don’t know what else to add to what others have written about the film.  It had been some while since I’d last seen it, which I think was at the Roxie Theater some years back.   I guess everyone has their favorite noirs.  My other two would probably be Edgar Ulmer’s Detour (1945) and Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (1944), though as much noir as I’ve seen, I’m constantly reminded how much more of it there is.  Still, this is one with which you cannot go wrong.

Night of the Demon (1957)

Night of the Demon (1957) movie poster

director Jacques Tourneur
viewed: 01/26/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

It’s a little hard for me to believe, but I think this showing of Night of the Demon was my first to San Francisco’s Noir City Festival, even though this is its 11th year.  Odder perhaps that the first film I see at this notable film noir festival is not exactly a noir film.  But rather, it’s the first of a double feature starring Peggy Cummins, who was this year’s guest of honor, most notable for her amazing performance in the remarkable Gun Crazy (1950), which opened the festival the night before..

It was fine enough for me, a fan of director Jacques Tourneur and the film itself, glad to see it on the big screen, glad to have impetus to finally go to the festival.

Luckily, this time around, they showed the original British Night of the Demon as opposed to the truncated American version Curse of the Demon.  It’s a little longer and features a particularly uncanny scene with a clan of probably devil worshipers in the English countryside.

For a film that Martin Scorsese has listed as one of the scariest movies of all time (a pretty damn fine list), it’s certainly one of the more bizarre horror films of the 1950’s.  As the film was introduced, the discussion highlighted the conflict between producer Hal E. Chester and director Tourneur on the showing of the demon.  Chester wanted to market a “monster movie”, which unsurprisingly required a monster.  Tourneur, no doubt hearkening to his work with Val Lewton, desired to build the dread and keep the mystery by never showing a creature at all, leaving it up to the imagination.  Though it’s hard to imagine the movie without the demon (he is very prominent, even on the poster), one could imagine a version that had no creature could have been paired very well with Lewton’s The Seventh Victim (1943), a devil worshiping horror film he made with Mark Robson a decade earlier in which atmosphere and dread permeate the film rather than anything “physical”.

I don’t know.  I think I’m in the minority that I actually like the monster.  I don’t necessarily know or think that it’s “better” with him than without.  Rather, I like him.  I was no doubt a child of that crowd to which Chester was marketing the film initially.  Devil worship in the 1940’s and 1950’s is much more far out than later in the century.  Considering it comes from a story written in 1911,  “Casting the Runes” by M.R. James, perhaps adds even more deep dark past to it.  Who knows?

Great stuff, nonetheless.


(1957) director Jacques Tourneur
viewed: 07/14/10

Just released as part of a Columbia Pictures Film Noir collection, this 1957 film had two key points of interest going for me.  First, a film noir directed by one of my favorite directors, Jacques Tourneur (Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), Night of the Demon (1947)).  And second, it’s adapted from a novel by a great crime fiction writer David Goodis (Dark Passage (1947), Shoot the Piano Player (1960)).

Made the same year as Night of the Demon, sadly however, the film isn’t anywhere along the lines as striking, startling, or incredible.  Rather, it’s a mediocre noir, actually suffering from a pretty illogical story.  Aldo Ray is a veteran who is on the run from some bank robbers, bank robbers from whom he’d stolen their stash sort of accidentally, when they killed his friend and tried to frame him for the murder.  And the loot is lost in a national park in Wyoming which has been snowed over for months and so unattainable by anyone.

Aldo Ray is an odd lead, with his football lineman build and his raspy voice.  He doesn’t seem like the most natural of actors.  Starring alongside Anne Bancroft, who is quite striking as the model that he meets in a bar and falls in love with, he holds his own okay.  Brian Keith is the “good” bad guy, while Rudy Bond plays the juicier villain role, the unpredictible and violent “Red”.  Character actor James Gregory has a good turn as an insurance investigator.

The film opens with its strongest visuals, the oncoming night, with the theme song “Nightfall” crooned over the soundtrack, with the neon lights popping on, giving Ray a sense of paranoia (as he is hiding out).  The film flashes back for its narrative, not the strongest of narrative styles, and not the most effective.  The story goes back to Wyoming landscapes, snow-covered and broadly contrasting to the city, yet the point of the contrast doesn’t seem particularly employed.

Kind of disappointing for me.  Tourneur has an excellent film noir to his name, 1947’s Out of the Past, which is one of the greats of the style.  But this film does fall toward the end of the period.  It’s not a fine example of anything really.  Though I’ve read some positive things about it, for me, it doesn’t feel entirely too memorable.  Oddly enough, I don’t recall much about the novel either, though I’m sure that I read it some years ago.

The Leopard Man

The Leopard Man (1943) movie poster

(1943) dir. Jacques Tourneur
viewed: 05/21/10

So many movies, so little time.  Of the many tropes and avenues of film-viewing that I follow, the entire catalog of films by director Jacques Tourneur and producer Val Lewton are actually high on my list of things to see before I die.  Problem is that my list is long, the breadth of topics/directors/genres/producers/stars/everything is tremendous, and while perhaps not infinite, the numbers of specific films that I want to see is longer than my poor little Netflix queue will allow me to hold (limit 500).

For producer Lewton and director Tourneur, the B-movies of the 1940’s are legendary and quite short, packaged happily often two films to a disc.  And in the horror/thriller genres, this is the kind of stuff that I could watch just about any day.  With such masterpieces as Cat People (1942),I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and Night of the Demon to their credit as a team, they still have a lot of others left that I haven’t seen. And Lewton, as a producer, worked with other directors as well (and he is often given much of the credit for the consistency and quality of the films he produced on such low budgets.

But Tourneur has long been a favorite of mine, and as far as I can tell, he actually directed the best of the films produced under Lewton’s production staff (which included many other talented filmmakers such as Robert Wise (The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945)).  Among his Lewton horror films, Tourneur also directed one of the best films noir, Out of the Past (1947), starring Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer (that’s a movie I need to see again!)

The Leopard Man, while receiving high praise on the film’s commentary by director William Friedkin, and certainly demonstrating flair of genius and quality filmmaking throughout, really isn’t as masterful as the others I’ve mentioned before, but is still a very quality flick.

Set in a small New Mexico town, the story follows a couple of competing dancer/performers in a local restaurant/club, who flare in their competition when the boyfriend/PR man for one of them brings a live “leopard” (the same black cat from Cat People) as a striking attention-getter.  But when this cat is frightened by the noise of castanets and patrons, it escapes into the darkness of the night, eventually mauling a young Mexican girl to death as she goes for a late night grocery run.

The PR man is beside himself with guilt over the death of this innocent, but is further perplexed when the hunt for the animal remains unsolved, and the killings keep coming.  Is it truly this black panther who is slaughtering the women of this village, or is it perhaps a man, a serial murderer who is imitating the panther’s mauling style to hide behind a veil for the brutal killings?

There are many nice sequences, visually, using the RKO filming lot effectively, developing atmosphere and creepiness far outstanding of the budgets with which they were working.  As well, the setting, this small New Mexican village, tints the narrative significantly, from the many Latina women in the story, songs sung, to even the strange, spooky religious precession that happens late in the film, commemorating the slaughter of the native people by conquistadors (but which looks like something of devil worship, perhaps, with black-hooded, candle holding men).  Again, it’s not germane exactly to the story, but it’s part of the mise-en-scene, the atmosphere of strange darkness.

Lewton and Tournuer, always interesting.

Night of the Demon

Night of the Demon (1957) movie poster

(1957) dir. Jacques Tourneur
viewed: 10/10/09

One of those movies that I’d wanted to see for years and for reasons impossible to understand, I never did until now.  Director Jacques Tourneur is one of my favorites, noted mostly in his pairing with producer Val Lewton, but he made a number of the most haunting horror films (Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943)) and one of the greatest film noirs (Out of the Past (1947)). And Night of the Demon fits well along with these other excellent films.

What is most shocking about it in some ways is its focus on demonism, black magic, Satanic cults, and the like.  The subject matter, devil worship, and the summoning of a demon, somehow, seem more foreign in this time period.  I don’t know if it’s truly so unique in that way, but it’s how it struck me.

Starring Dana Andrews as a professor who has come to England to help debunk and disprove the teachings and statements of a bizarre demonologist, the film ties the depths of devil worship back to pagan times, even pulling Stonehenge into the picture, carved with mystic runes.  Having been publicly decried, the villain summons a demon upon his critics, the disbelievers who only disbelieve until it’s too late.

The demon itself is both campy and scary, quite iconic in its own way.  Though there is some dispute over whether or not Tourneur wanted to display the demon or not, the effects that display it in its two appearances are striking: sparks in the sky, an unfolding cloud, and then the demon, a horned beast, who grows to enormous size and wreaks his vengeance.  The ending, I believe, has long been considered one of the scariest of horror films by many.

I ended up watching the version called Curse of the Demon, which is a truncated version released in the US.  I didn’t do my proper research ahead of time, or I would have watched the Night of the Demon version, the original, longer UK version of the film.  I skimmed it, but didn’t see significant enough differences enough to watch it again, though I was certainly willing.  My recommendation would be the slightly longer original, just for propriety sake, not that it’s so importantly different.

Cat People

Cat People (1942) movie poster

(1942) dir. Jacques Tourneur
viewed: 05/05/07 at the Stanford Theater, Palo Alto, CA

This is the kind of thing that I do not do enough of: take advantage of some cool repertory house showings of double features of films.  And to go to the beautiful Stanford Theater in Palo Alto, CA.  It’s a beautiful and well-kept theater.  I’d only been there once before for a Hitchcock double feature.  It was a similar experience, hopping CalTrain and journeying down the peninsula for a lark.  That was only 10 years or so ago, so it’s not like I do this all the time.  But when I read in the paper that a double feature of Val Lewton produced Cat People films was on, I recognized that it was time to do it again.  And I will re-emphasize how nice the theater is, and it’s totally worth the trip to add on lunch at the Peninsula Creamery, which is just about as awesome as it comes for burgers and milkshakes.

I’ve been a Jacques Tourneur fan since I saw I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and Out of the Past (1947) when I was living in England.  Cat People is one of his most famous works, and as several of his films, are noted for the helming of the production by the legendary Val Lewton.  It’s all great stuff, perhaps the best of the B-movies ever produced in Hollywood.  Dark and unusual, full of high Expressionism and amazing shadowplay and cinematography, often pulling its best moments in purely visual sequences.

Based on a “myth” of some Serbian legend of women who turn into panthers when aroused by their lovers (who are then killed) or through jealousy, which also leads to death, the sweet, yet strange Simone Simon plays the foreign gal with the dark secret.  There is much here of repressed sexuality and sexualized danger, both towards her lover/husband and toward her “nemesis”, the ultimate lover that her husband takes and also becomes the stalking victim of the film’s two most notable scenes.

The best of the two is the stalking scene Jane Randolph walks along the isolated street, in and out of light, against a large concrete wall.  Staccato footsteps echo off the cement and the pacing turns on the sound of footsteps as she moves through the lamplight and the darkness.  Though the scene in the swimming pool, where she is stalked against the flickering light of the water reflecting on the ceiling as her screams echo against the low growls of the panther.  It’s dark and creepy but aesthetically beautiful, low art and high art perfectly merged.

That’s the stuff of this film, it’s a low-budget horror film that bears much of that fact, but is ultimately an amazingly executed and clever film that stands much above many of its contemporaries and its followers and imitators.

I Walked with a Zombie

I Walked with a Zombie (1943) movie poster

(1943) dir. Jacques Tourneur
viewed: 05/21/06

I had seen I Walked with a Zombie when I was living in England 11 years ago and the film had made a great impression on me. I have long been a fan of producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur’s collaborations and really think that this film is pretty darn amazing.

These zombies are not the blood-thirsty killing machines of the 1960’s and beyond, but the more Voodoo-inspired walking dead that embody the term “zombie” (meaning catatonic more or less) more than the ones that want to eat people’s flesh.

It’s a Gothic tale in a true sense of the genre. I’ve read that it is a loose adaptation of Jane Eyre which is further insistence that that novel hits my summer reading list. Atmospherically shot, with shadows of Venetian blinds and jungle leaves, it’s a dark nightmare of a dream, with visions of fear and death.

The most striking images are those of Darby Jones, the dead-eyed African zombie, who lurches around like a specter. The shot by the tree with the hanging goat is iconic, often cited in texts. It’s really of something from a lost time. The attitude towards racism is mixed, somewhat well-intentioned, but using fear of the unknown of Voodoo as outre, there is a malignity in this, probably not entirely out of step with the Hollywood, even the B-movie Hollywood, of its era. Still, there are more African-Americans in this film than in many. But I must say, after reading a few short stories that focused on African or Caribbean Voodoo and religion as a site of horror and titillation, I would say that this comes from a small sub-genre of horror that makes it interesting, too.

The film is beautiful, particularly in its poetic ending. One other thing that struck me about it is that Val Lewton and Co. were true pre-cursors of Roger Corman in creating low-budget horror films that transcend genre and elevate into great art.