The Cinema of Nightfall
by Chris Fujiwara. John
Hopkins University Press. Paperback. 344 pages. £12.95
reviewed by Kip Jenkins
Although much has been written about director Jacques Tourneur's
work throughout the years, it has invariably been his connection with the remarkable Val
Lewton horror cycle at RKO during the Forties that his name has become forever associated
with the horror fantasy genre. Meanwhile his other work has received very little scrutiny.
Jacques Tourneur had worked in almost all
genres, including comedies, film noir, westerns, medieval adventures, routine
swashbucklers and was able to combine elements of all styles in any one production. In
fact, as author Chris Fujiwara points out, Tourneur's later films still carry the similar
plotlines, twists and motifs that were found in his earlier movies, alluding to a
trademark that ran throughout his film career.
Jacques Tourneur (1904-1977) had been
exposed to filmmaking at an early age through the work of his famous father Maurice Thomas, the family's original surname,
(1876-1961), a director of considerable talent. When his father and mother moved to
Hollywood, fourteen year old Jacques decided he wanted to enter the film industry. He
appeared as a bit player in Rex Ingram's SCARAMOUCHE during 1923 before he had
finished school and then continued his apprenticeship as a script clerk, assistant
director or editor on many of his father's films.
When Maurice returned to France after the debacle surrounding the production of MGM's Mysterious Island, Jacques directed
four feature films in France before he felt ready to return to Hollywood under his own
steam in 1934 where he was employed as a second-unit director at MGM.
It was after his work on THE WINNING
TICKET in 1935 that Jacques came to the attention of producer David O'Selznick who
hired him to work on A TALE OF TWO CITIES alongside Selznick's story editor and
personal assistant Val Lewton. They developed
a rapport that led, seven years later, to Lewton hiring Tourneur to direct the first film
in Lewton's contract as a producer for RKO.
While Lewton was to receive full kudos for a string of supernatural thrillers made at RKO,
it is commonly regarded that the directors were simply carrying out Lewton's own specific
formula. However, a similar stylistic approach was already in evidence with a series of
twenty shorts Tourneur made for MGM. during the Thirties.
The Cat People (1942) is the first of three classic
films Tourneur contributed to the horror genre which surprised studio executives by
becoming a huge success and saving RKO from its current financial difficulties.
Tourneur's work was highly distinctive. His
night scenes were always predominant with a unique use of light and shadow, particularly
when the use of a single light source in a dimly lit room achieved a generally
uncomfortable uncertainty. Not only did this create the appropriate atmosphere, but
managed to hide the many constraints brought about by a tight shooting schedule and
The success of THE CAT PEOPLE led
Tourneur to direct I Walked With a Zombie and The Leopard Man the following year before studio
chiefs decided to split up the winning team of Tourneur and Lewton, reasoning that more
money could be made out of the two men working on separate productions. The shuffle was
regretted by the two men as they both believed their winning formula could have achieved
even greater success with a less restrictive time frame and budget.
After directing DAYS OF GLORY, a weak Russian propaganda yarn that is only notable
for its introduction of Gregory Peck to the screen, and the pleasurable mystery melodrama EXPERIMENT
PERILOUS, 1948 became the year when Jacques freelanced his talents.
From 1954, Jacques Tourneur began directing for television, while still continuing a
career in feature films. His last recognised classic is Night
of the Demon, which contains all of the hallmarks of Tourneur's directive style. He
later directed two other less distinguished Vincent
Price vehicles, The
Comedy of Terrors (1963) and the rather woeful City
Under the Sea (1965). The latter being his last film credit.
Chris Fujiwara's "Jacques Tourneur:
The Cinema of Nightfall" is touted as the first book-length study of this
director, dividing each of Tourneur's feature films by chapter and boasting a good
cross-section of portrait and production stills. Additionally there is a liberal serving
of a two part biographical treatment, and a welcome chapter devoted to Jacques father
Maurice, described by his son as something of an austere taskmaster. His father's work has
equally been neglected, but this is primarily due to the paucity of his films available.
At the end of the book Chris provides an exhaustive filmography with full credit and cast
If there has to be a criticism, it is that
Chris's work reads too much like an extended thesis and, except for the serious film
enthusiast, there will be those who find the book too scholarly for general
consumption. Furthermore, in-depth analysis and theory takes precedence over detailed
production facts, although this may be due to the unavailability of such material rather
than an oversight.
From July 2nd. 2001 the book is available in the UK., and it will certainly be used as a
good source of reference. Chris Fujiwara has offered up the last word on one of the most
Contact John Hopkins University Press
Available in the UK click here
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