Shadows of Resignation: Jacques Tourneur in Locarno

What does it say about the state of cinema when the cinephile excitement and quality of a festival such as the 70th edition of the Locarno Film Festival derives more from a retrospective than the latest batch of contemporary films? There is more than one possible answer to such a question, so we might as well pose another one: Why is it important to see Jacques Tourneur? Isn’t it just self-affirmation, a sort of homecoming, or even a celebration of sorts? When I told people that I would be in Locarno this year, many replied rather enviously: “Ah, I would love to be there with Mr. Tourneur.” Is such a desire connected to the idea of discovering something new with or in Mr. Tourneur or is it just about the pleasure of returning to a place one likes? Both might be true and valuable, and after Olaf Möller’s discovery tour into the neglected history of German cinema during the 69th edition Mr. Tourneur is a reasonable step for the festival. Yet, I couldn’t help thinking – though I must admit I didn’t see as much of Mr. Möller’s choices as I could have – that the element of surprise and discovery was much bigger in Mr. Tourneur, who always switches between chameleon and auteur. One is never quite sure what to expect, always astonished at where one lands but still feeling that all these different paths were followed by the same filmmaker.

I walked with a Zombie

Before seeing and re-seeing many of his works in Locarno, my impression of Jacques Tourneur was a certain movement connected with a certain half-light. It is a travelling that follows characters through various states of light and shadow, like the famous invisible chase sequence in Cat People, or a sleepless night and dreamy gaze into the dark horizon in Anne of the Indies. These certainties are in fact describing uncertainties of intermediate worlds, desires, absences, or the supernatural which, as the director states in the accompanying catalogue of the festival, he believes in. Through those moments and states, a feeling that I can best describe as a sort of fever arises. It is connected to something I discovered while revisiting films like I Walked with a Zombie (which was shown at midnight at the Piazza Grande while a thunderstorm approached and eventually made me leave in the pouring rain) or Night of the Demon: There is an idea of the past tense in the films of Mr. Tourneur. His cinematographic language speaks in the present but his narratives seem to have already happened. This becomes very clear in the short films he did for MGM such as the mesmerising The Ship That Died or The Face Behind the Mask. Most of those shorts are narrated by Carey Wilson or John Nesbitt in an exaggerated, dramatic, but still sober tone, recounting mysterious incidents in the way an enthusiastic explorer might tell a story to a group of old, cigar-smoking men. The manner in which these stories are told makes it clear that they have already happened. There is a time before the film, sometimes even a time before time. Fittingly, some of the shorts deal with historical topics such as the French Revolution or the history of radium in Romance of Radium. Those films are less about what is happening than they are about our position towards it. Most of all, they ask the question: Do we believe or not? The same is true for many feature films. In fact, the camera deliberately tends to arrive at the scene a bit too early or a bit too late. Actions have already taken place or will take place no matter what we see. Maybe some secrets can’t be shown at all. One could talk about an economy of means that was perhaps also formed during the short film years. Mr. Tourneur doesn’t show too much, he just shows what is necessary. There is an air of something unavoidable, as if many characters in his films were not presented as real beings but ghosts from a story that has already been told.

Mr. Tourneur has always been the Hollywood director I found most difficult to write about. There are many elements that escape us while being with his films and a high level of ambiguity to them. It seems fitting that Chris Fujiwara used introductory quotes by writers such as Maurice Blanchot or Hélène Cixous in his great book on Mr. Tourneur called Nightfall – writers who are capable of expressing things that escape the notion of expression. The retrospective didn’t make the task any easier since it was the first time I saw very strong films like Les filles de la concierge or Easy Living, which add new colours to the palette of the filmmaker. His very precise, comedic talent which shows in Les filles de la concierge is came as a particular surprise. In constant movement between different love stories, the film tells not only about class relations but more about the way gazes and perspectives are organised between desire and duty, expressing and hiding. It was also a pleasant surprise that the screening of the film (even if it was shown without subtitles) was packed. So there might be a hunger for discovery in Locarno. I wasn’t able to see Pour être aimé, another French comedy by Mr. Tourneur before he moved back to the USA. Despite those “new” facets, there was something that struck me in almost all the films and which shed a new light, or maybe a shadow on all of his films: The mode of resignation. Fujiwara mentions resignation in his book. He writes:

“For Tourneur, resignation isn’t a moral ideal in itself but comes as the inevitable result of the displacement of the hero in history (the prolonged aporia of Way of a Gaucho) or as a convulsion or exhaustion, like the confessions of characters in I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man, and Great Day in the Morning and like the surrender of Vanning in front of the church in Nightfall. Tourneur’s sense of passivity and inevitability colors even his most straightforward and positive protagonist, Wyatt Earp in Wichita, who has to be goaded into action by events and who apologizes to his enemy in advance for the bullet with which he kills the latter in a duel.“

anne of the indies

It is an observation I find to be very true. The displacement of the protagonists as well as the feeling of exhaustion are on the one hand connected to what I described as the past tense in Mr. Tourneur, but, on the other hand, they are related to a form of resistance his cinema keeps hidden like a treasure. In this aspect of his cinema we can find an antipode to filmmakers like Steven Spielberg for whom wonder and overpowering mean everything. Mr. Tourneur tells about greater and truer miracles, but he never counts on the reaction of the protagonists to those miracles and supernatural happenings. Of course, in some of his films closer to the horror genre, most notably in Night of the Demon, there are close-up shots of people being afraid and staring at something unknown. However, there is a resistance to seeing supernatural and natural miracles as something extraordinary. This is most notably true for one of his best films, Stars in my Crown. In the film, a typhoid fever breaks out in a small village. It is one of the many sicknesses in the films of Mr. Tourneur. One finds many fragile and tender shots of people lying in bed, unable to move, pale and in a state between life and death or just between being able to perform or not as in Easy Living. It seems very fitting that the well-deserved winner of the Golden Leopard, Mrs. Fang by Wang Bing is also a meditation on sickness and death. Where Wang Bing finds a tender insecurity in the close-up of a dying woman, Mr. Tourneur tends to avoid lingering on a dying face because it might move and reawaken any second. Both filmmakers find each other in open eyes that are not awake.

Those sicknesses add to the feeling of exhaustion but they also help establish the recurring conflicts between resignation and hope. In Stars in my Crown a moral conflict between a priest and the new doctor develops as both struggle with helping the desperate people. After the disillusioned priest goes through a period of resignation, he performs a miracle on the doctor’s dying wife. Despite the musical crescendo accompanying this miracle, which almost recalls Carl Theodor Dreyer (the miracle, not the music), Mr. Tourneur does not call attention to this scene as one of an overpowering salvation. Instead, it seems very natural that saving lives is not only about bodies but also about souls. The true miracle follows and it is an act of humanity in the face of racism. The priest addresses the heart of Ku Klux Clan riders who want to slaughter a black man to gain his property. He reads them (from an empty piece of paper) how the man about to be murdered bequeaths them his belongings. After listening to the priest, consumed with a feeling of shame and guilt, the men leave the place. One can find a lot of belief in these shadows of resignation, since they are not about telling us something extraordinary has happened but just that it has happened. This means a great deal if we are talking about miracles.

stars in my crown

Mr. Tourneur constructs his strategies of resignation concisely. Often, establishing shots are a drama of their own. The films jump right into some actions leaving the viewer clueless as to how they got there; it is like the displacement of the protagonists becomes clear in the very first shot. For example, in Circle of Danger (Mr. Tourneur’s first independent production), one of the many films that begin on a ship, there is a scale to the opening which almost feels like a red herring. We are on a ship and the protagonist played by Ray Milland is in the middle of some masculine action. Those seconds on a ship that merely serves as a character background and has nothing to do with the narrative of the film, shows how much Mr. Tourneur is interested in the mood surrounding his character and how he constructs a feeling of being out of place not only for the protagonists but also for the viewer. Fujiwara writes about this scene: “As in I Walked with a Zombie, Out of the Past, and Appointment in Honduras, we have the feeling of having arrived late to witness a process already about to be concluded.” The stuffy atmospheres, the sweat, the shadows, the male shoulders and soft female voices add to a mixture of temptation, sickness and giving in. Many writers on Mr. Tourneur (apparently mostly male as the catalogue and the round table in Locarno unwittingly showed) mention that he loved to make his actors talk very silently and move slowly. The latter is, for example, also true for Manoel De Oliveira with whom Mr. Tourneur shares the sense of predestination as well as the poetic soberness of looking at it. A title of a never-realised film of Mr. Tourneur, Whispering in Distant Chambers, seems to best describe the way people talk in his films. Especially in Nightfall, where the voice of Aldo Ray is surprisingly soft and silent in the face of the brutalities he has to go through. Detachment on the brink of alienation creates a distance in accordance with a knowledge about life which will sooner or later come to an end. For better or worse. Mr. Tourneur also talks about this process in an interview on Appointment in Honduras: “But I noticed that actors in most films tend to shout. The same dialogue said half as loud is more memorable and intense. To be worthwhile, dialogue should be said naturally, the way we talk everyday. You need to make actors not declaim and when they talk loudly, they have a tendency to declaim.” In his casting choices, especially concerning male actors, Mr. Tourneur seems to look for the type of actor that is sure not to declaim: Dana Andrews, Robert Mitchum or Aldo Ray are perfect examples of this. One could rightly ask what all of this has to do with resignation. It is the understatement and somnambulistic way of movement that is true for the protagonists as well as the camera and the way those movements face miracles and dramas. Moreover, the films focus on an absence of hysteria when confronted with tragedy. It is not that any of those elements, be it the past tense, the half-light, the camera movements, the way of talking, or the establishing shots are special per se. However, the combination of those elements forms a broken unity aiming at moods and memories in distant chambers.

easy living

Resignation is also a way of concealing an immense capacity for romanticism. In many films “strange forces” are at work. They bring perdition or redemption. The protagonists protect themselves against those forces by treating them normally. Even Dana Andrew’s role of the scientist in Night of the Demon or Frances Dee’s nurse in I Walked with a Zombie are never truly naive when confronted with things they normally wouldn’t believe in. They just struggle for rationalism which is, for Mr. Tourneur, closely related to resignation. In Easy Living, a film which Mr. Tourneur did not particularly like although it contains some of his finest directing, the whole idea of rationalism versus supernaturalism is turned upside down. A sportsman and star is told he should stop playing football because of a heart murmur. Afraid of his demanding wife and insecure about his post-career life, he keeps his condition a secret and goes on playing. Here, the seemingly supernatural force is the most natural of all: The fading of the body. The supernatural lies in not accepting nature. So, the film narrates the same battle as many other films by Mr. Tourneur, yet the protagonist has to learn to believe in the natural instead of the other way around. In place of fear, a sort of sadness informs the picture. In a brilliant move, the film establishes a character who could be called a figure of resignation, the one who knows about all this days before the protagonists or the viewer, the one who has seen it all before: A cynical journalist-photographer happens to be in the right place at the right time and helps dedramatize every possible flicker of romanticism until the very last shot. He appears to comment on the reunion kiss: “Yeah, yeah.” There is a sad undertone in this. These characters appear in all of Mr. Tourneur’s films and are best condensed in the stage worker in the short The Rainbow Pass, which should have been part of the program but was left out. The film presents a Chinese stage play and focuses on a stage worker dressed in black whom everyone in the audience pretends not to see when he goes about his business in creating imagination in the most bored way imaginable. To speak in John Ford’s terms: These are the men that print the legend. Yet, they don’t believe in it. The question is rather, as another title of a Tourneur short proposes: What Do You Think?

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