Monday, July 5, 2010

#13: Jacques Tourneur

- "Everything must come from inside. It mustn’t be superficial.”

Jacques Tourneur unfortunately remains a director that is fully appreciated by only a select few. To those that delve deeply into the world of film noir or classic horror films, Tourneur is rightly recognized as being one of the preeminent stylists of either genre. For the general movie fan, though, his name is likely to elicit little recognition beyond Out of the Past. At the risk of sounding elitist, I know that most of those reading this post are much more familiar with the work of Tourneur beyond just his most famous film (I know my readers!). And so I think that I will get little argument from anyone when I give him such a prominent placement on this list.

When I hear the name “Jacques Tourneur” I instantly make the connection to film noir, which is interesting because in my opinion he only made one truly great noir - Nightfall pushes closes, but not quite. That one great noir, though, is the most quintessential film of the entire genre/style. I may have rated Out of the Past at #2 in my noir countdown, but I did so reluctantly, as I made clear in my entry. It should be the first film that any newbie to film noir watches and I have yet to meet a single person who dislikes it. Even with this fact, ranking his films shows what an accomplished director of horror Tourneur was. The movies he made with producer Val Lewton are among the finest horror movies ever made. I prefer I Walked With a Zombie, but I know knowledgeable critics who argue that Cat People transcends the horror label is actually a Top 10 all-time caliber film. What makes Tourneur’s horror films so great – and this includes Night of the Demon/Curse of the Demon – is how the scares and horror come not from shock tactics, but from psychological intrigues. Tourneur gets into your mind and plays on universal fears and neuroses. There is no need to for gore or blood; he is talented enough to terrify you without them.

And while he rarely receives recognition for his work with westerns, both that I have listed here are of very high quality. Wichita has recently become available via Warner Brother’s Archive series, which is how I was able to finally watch it. It is a fictionalized account of Wyatt Earp’s (played by Joel McCrea) days in the famed cattle town. I recommend it highly both for fans of westerns and of Tourneur. Canyon Passage is even better and fortunately can be obtained on DVD. I have long felt that if Canyon Passage had a name like Ford, Hawks or Mann attached to it, it would have a reputation as one of the most overlooked westerns of its era. Unfortunately, it has no such reputation, but it should.

1. Out of the Past (1947)
2. I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
3. Night of the Demon (1957)
4. Canyon Passage (1946)
5. Cat People (1942)
6. Wichita (1955)
7. The Leopard Man (1943)
8. Nightfall (1957)
9. Berlin Express (1948)
10. The Flame and the Arrow (1950)
11. Stars in My Crown (1950)


  1. This may not be on topic but I have always thought that "The Seventh Victim" a 1943 Val Lewton produced horror/noir was a very good movie. I know that Lewton & Tourneur worked together on "Cat People" the year before.
    BTW another great countdown that keeps me coming back even if I haven't commented publicly.

  2. Have not seen too much of Tourner but he did make one of the masterpieces of film noir and some fine eerie horror. Still need to see NIGHTFALL and BERLIN EXPRESS.

    Out of the Past
    The Cat People
    The Leopard Man
    I Walked With a Zombie
    Canyon Passage

  3. Moremiles - Thanks for the compliment on the countdown. The Seventh Victim is actually a Lewton film that I still need to see, but glad to hear that I have something to look forward to.

    John - Nightfall is definitely the superior of the two you list, although Berlin Express is very interesting to watch because of the photography of post-war Berlin. Also, Night of the Demon is essential horror viewing and I think you would appreciate that one.

  4. Dave I actually consider The Seventh Victim to be the best Lewton film. It actually feels like more of a noir than horror. I think you will love that film whenever you see it.

    1. Out Of The Past
    2. Night Of The Demon
    3. Cat People
    4. I Walked With A Zombie
    5. The Leopard Man
    6. Nightfall
    7. Berlin Express
    8. Wichita

    I need to see Canyon Passage and Experiment Perilous. Tourneur clearly deserves more recognition. He may be the greatest director of horror films. I wish the road he and Lewton travelled in this genre were copied more often......M.Roca

  5. Dave:

    1. Out of the Past (1947)
    2. I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
    3. Cat People (1942)
    4. Experiment Perilous (1944)
    5. The Leopard Man (1943)
    6. Berlin Express (1948)
    7. Night of the Demon and Curse of the Demon (1957)
    8. Canyon Passage (1946)
    9. Stars in My Crown (1950)
    10. Easy Living (1949)

    I have a high regard for Tourneur, but imagine what he might have done if more studios (and producers) were amenable to his talents. I suspect my first two choices might be similarly placed among most of your followers. And I can add little to the vast literature about them.

    I watch most of the Lewton unit films regularly, having many in my library and because of recurring appearances. So, I am comfortable with Cat People and The Leopard Man as placed. Sandwiched in between is Experiment Perilous. Although I have not seen it in quite some time, I remember fine performances, a sinister Lukas, and a dark brooding European atmosphere.

    I include Berlin Express for the excellent cast, the lure of trains in film, and the fine footage of Germany after the war. The latter is reminiscent of that shown in A Foreign Affair and Decision before Dawn. But I also have a personal reason for its inclusion, which I have written about elsewhere (and encapsulate here).

    I like it for other than artistic resonance or technical achievements – it transcends such consideration. I was stationed in Frankfurt am Main in 1958 and 1959. Berlin Express was shot on location in Germany shortly after the war. Its title to the contrary, a good part of the film takes place in Frankfurt. The Frankfurt sequence shows a city that was close to that which I remember: the trolleys, the populace with missing limbs, the multiplicity of bicycles and especially -- the Paternoster elevators in the I.G. Farben Building. The elevators went up and down and one entered and alighted while they were in motion. They are an endangered species in these times. But we will always have them in Jacques Tourneur's Berlin Express.

    In the last year I have watched both versions of Demon. The first was quite good except for the jarring appearance of the demon at the end. I know Tourneur was pressured into such a manifestation, but he was surely appalled.

    The rest on my list are from remembrance, but not necessarily very well remembered.
    Each is a like a person that one knew once, but has not seen in multiple decades. One is left with a fond memory, but as the years encroach, the causes of such remembrance are not immediately at the forefront. I suspect I have seen more than twenty of the Tourneurs (due to my longevity). Yet I remember less than ten very well: seven vividly.

    Thank you.



    I finalized this before reading your introduction, lest I be influenced in my initial response. Thereafter, of course, I reflect on your thoughts and those of others and use such as a guide to future viewing. Nightfall moves on to the future viewing list. I have no clear remembrance of it.

  6. Dave, I think it's fair to say that both you and I have dedicated a lot of our movie watching time focusing on one genre -- you on film noir, me on westerns -- so perhaps it's no surprise that your favorite film of Tourneur's is Out Of The Past and mine is Canyon Passage. And I'm sure there are several horror buffs here who would call Cat People their favorite of his. Which makes him a really unique and astonishing filmmaker in a way; I am positive there is no other director who I would list as making one of my five or so favorite films in three different genres. Not only that, but I'm sure some would substitute Wichita for Canyon Passage, Nightfall for Out Of The Past and Night Of The Demon for Cat People. And that's not even mentioning Stars On My Crown or Way Of The Gaucho or I Walked With A Zombie or any of his other great films. He really does need to be re-evaluated as one of the greatest directors to ever work in the studio system.

  7. Maurizio - If The Seventh Victim is better than I Walked With a Zombie I will be both shocked and very excited!

    Gerald - Lovely list and comments as usual, particularly with your connection to Berlin Express. With Night of the Demon, you are absolutely right, as I have always read that Tourneur fought to never have to show the actual demon but was forced into doing so. The film would be much better served without it, but the movie is still spectacular regardless. Without that slight misstep and it could move to #2 on my list I suppose, but Out of the Past is firmly established at the top.

    Doniphon - Canyon Passage was a revelation to me. You hear so little about it and it turned out to be a genuinely great western. Why it is not more well know is a great mystery to me. I'm glad to hear that you share my sentiments concerning Tourneur's overall career - definitely one of the greats, as you acknowledge.

  8. Shameful neglect on my part here. I definitely want to check out Tourneur's westerns. This is what I've got:

    1. I Walked With A Zombie
    2. Out of the Past
    3. Cat People
    4. Night/Curse of the Demon

  9. Oh boy Dave, I had it in my mind that this post was going up on the 6th, not the 5th. I am losing it. Tourneur is a true master, and three of his film are unquestionable masterpieces. (OUT OF THE PAST, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and CURSE OF THE DEMON) On those hree alone he deserves premium placement. The greatest noir, and two of the greatest horror films of all time. Not too shabby! Just recently saw WICHITA!

    1 Out of the Past
    2 I Walked With A Zombie
    3 Curse of the Demon
    4 Cat People
    5 Nightfall
    6 The Leopard Man
    7 Wichita
    8 Canyon Passage
    9 Berlin Express
    10 Stars in my Crown
    11 The Flame and the Arrow

  10. I haven't seen enough Tourneur, but obviously I love his work with Lewton, and Out of the Past is a brilliant noir. On the other hand, I've always thought that Night of the Demon isn't anything special, a doomed attempt at recapturing the ambience of the Lewton films, instead coming off as kind of plodding and awkward. I'm happy to see some love for Canyon Passage, though, a fine Western.

    1. I Walked With a Zombie
    2. Cat People
    3. Out of the Past
    4. Canyon Passage
    5. The Leopard Man
    6. Night of the Demon

  11. Oh, and though Zombie is unquestionably my favorite Lewton production, The Seventh Victim is a close second, a very odd and evocative film.

  12. I too need to check out Tourneur's westerns. And I'd put THE SEVENTH VICTIM on par with any of the other Lewton produced films.

    Anyways, I've seen four of his films and I gave them all the ***** treatment, so picking a particular order is kind of arbitrary, as I unquestionably love them all:

    1. Out of the Past
    2. Night of the Demon
    3. Cat People
    4. I Walked With A Zombie

  13. Samuel - His westerns were a real surprise to me - both Canyon Passage and Wichita are excellent.

    Sam - No problem, this is precisely why I think allowing two days per entry works well! I agree with you on his top three masterpieces, but Canyon Passage, Cat People and Wichita are all nearly at that level also. Definitely an underrated man of his era.

    Ed - I obviously disagree on Night of the Demon, but do think that a little more restraint would have helped the film even more - but that inclusion of the actual demon was done at the behest of producers, not Tourneur. I am shocked to see Out of the Past at #3! I'm not arguing the position at all, just hadn't seen anyone dare to do it yet (LOL). Glad to see that Tourneur is a favorite among so many others.

    Troy - As I said to Samuel, his westerns are really good, so it is shame that they aren't more readily available or more well known. I agree with you that all four of the films you list there are stone cold masterpeices.

  14. The monster in CURSE OF THE DEMON (imposed by the studio) is that rarest of instances where inexplicable studio interference produced a creature so terrifying that nothing in the imagination could quite equal it.

    Yeah this is practically unheard of, and it flies in the face of creativity and imagination, but there you have it.

  15. Just watched Nightfall & loved it. BTW where the hell have you been?

  16. Night Of The Demon is still probably the best classic example of supernatural horror on film. Even if it shows the Demon, it never really takes away anything from the film. I do believe they should have saved it for the end but even still it's wonderful.

  17. If he is in that position. It is for something and I know that people disagree with his methods but at least he is still doing a great job.

  18. ´

    I agree that Jacques Tourneur & Jean-Pierre Melville are often underrated. Both are also amongst my top ten directors of all-time.

    On the other hand, some names wouldn't even make it into my top fifty - the negligible Brian De Palma for example. I'm glad that there is no Quentin Tarantinolisted, since he is in my opinion the most overrated director ever.

    Notably or not, not one of my personal Top 8 directors nor their best movies are billed above.

    So here are their names....

    8. Sergei Eisenstein ('Ivan the Terrible')

    7. Akira Kurosawa ('Ikiru', 'Ran')

    6. John Boorman ('Point Blank', 'Deliverance')

    5. Samuel Fuller ('Shock Corridor', 'Naked Kiss')

    4. Luis Bunuel ('Viridiana' , 'Los Olivados', 'El', 'Nazarin', and many others...)

    3. Andrei Tarkowski ('Stalker')

    2. Erich von Stroheim (everything, especially 'Foolish Wives', 'Greed' & 'Queen Kelly'

    1. GLAUBER ROCHA ('Deus e o diabo na terra do sol' , 'Terra em transe', ' Antonio das Mortes')