A few weeks ago, the American Film Institute in Washington, D.C. sponsored a Val Lewton retrospective that included such films as Cat People (1942), The Leopard Man (1943), and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), three of Lewton’s most famous productions, all directed by Jacques Tourneur. In many ways, Tourneur’s reputation has always struggled to free itself from Lewton’s name since the RKO producer made a series of inventive, low-budget horror films which emphasized shadows and mystery, offscreen space, and a strong sense of theme. (Working with other directors, Lewton also produced such classics as Curse of the Cat People and The Seventh Victim, along with a string of films Warner Brothers is currently preparing for a DVD box set.)
But Tourneur’s “auteurist” talents were to be further confirmed outside his Lewton associations in such films as the western fable Stars in My Crown (1950), the horror classic Night of the Demon (1957), and a quintessential film noir, Out of the Past (1947), released last week on DVD as part of Warner Home Video’s new film noir collection, another example of Tourneur’s work being packaged as a genre piece rather than the work of a key artistic voice.
Jacques was the son of Maurice Tourneur, a successful French filmmaker with a background in illustration and graphic design who began making films in 1912. Maurice then directed a string of films in America from 1914-1926, revealing a visual flair in works like The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917) and The Blue Bird (1918), but became disillusioned with the Hollywood system and returned to Europe. In Germany, he made Ship of Lost Men (1928) starring Marlene Dietrich, a film which gave Jacques his first production experience as an assistant and editor.
Jacques then moved to Hollywood himself and began working as a second unit director for MGM, for such pictures as A Tale of Two Cities (1935), where he worked alongside Val Lewton. After their MGM contracts expired, Lewton hired Tourneur to direct Cat People for RKO–and the rest is history.
Out of the Past was a strong entry in the film noir genre in the late-’40s, but its reputation grew in later years as a prime example of noir iconography (the private eye, the femme fatale, the chiaroscuro lighting and world-weary dialogue) and particularly the genre’s use of flashbacks, emphasizing the imprisoning past and doomed future.
One of the best and only books written about Tourneur is Chris Fujiwara’s 1998 study, The Cinema of Nightfall. In it, he pinpoints the importance of the film as an auterist work:
“If Out of the Past seems in some ways like a typical film noir, this is only because Tourneur’s constant preoccupations–the unreliability of appearances, the helplessness of people to resist their obsessions and avoid becoming the victims of an apparently impersonal fate–are also those of the genre. Tourneur places these concerns within a context marked by his realism, humanism, and love for aesthetic fascination and mystery.”
Robert Mitchum excels as the laconic protagonist who seems impervious to fate, acknowledging his self-destructive tendencies with matter-of-fact lucidity. As he shambles from scene to inexorable scene, attempting to bring closure to his past, he merely ensures his doom–and never seems to mind all that much.
The DVD boasts a luminous transfer and an amiable commentary by James Ursini.