Justine Smith


Why Jacques Tourneur is a filmmaker for our troubled modern times

The French master’s work mirrors today’s climate of social anxiety, as revealed in a recent retrospective.

A new age of anxiety has set in and a wave of horrified anticipation whispers into your ear that things will only get worse. This feeling was mirrored on the screen for a new retrospective for filmmaker Jacques Tourneur, which debuted at Locarno and will be traveling across Europe and North America in the coming year. Best known for his work with Val Lewton and his steamy film noirs, Tourneur’s cinema is deeply rooted in anxiety.

More than nervousness, anxiety is an anticipation that something bad will happen: It can be the fear that you will fail an exam or else that society as we know it will crumble. In the works of Tourneur, these feelings are expressed through the presence of doubles and in the depiction of otherness. As most of his most noteworthy output comes out of World War Two and the aftermath of the Red Scare, the anxiety he depicts is centred on the exchange of power and the changing landscape of America and beyond.

The idea of double identities emerges in nearly every one of Tourneur’s works as assumed names, mistaken identities and hidden politics become integral to the plot. This is present in Out of the Past, where a small-town gas station owner is confronted with his past as a private detective. Tourneur’s other notable noir, Nightfall, similarly deals with a protagonist escaping the mistakes and violence of the past with a new identity. Even before their true identities come to light, these characters live in a fugue state of anxiety, waiting for the past to catch-up with them.

Tourneur, generally, does not treat assumed identities as malicious. In many cases, using a false name or having a hidden past is a form of protection. This sense of duplicity runs contrary to the straight-shooting American hero of many films of this era, as Tourneur consistently favoured ordinary or complicated characters over gun-toting heroes. If anything, his characters uniting quality is a devotion to work and how their identities are intertwined they derive from a job well done.

This is the case of one of Tourneur’s least appreciated films, Easy Living, which depicts the fall of pro-footballer Pete Wilson (Victor Mature). After being diagnosed with a rare disease that threatens his future, Wilson could easily switch to a less-strenuous career and live a long and full life, but under the pressure of his ambitious wife, he worries that giving up his sporting life means giving up his manhood.

Easy Living is about more than Wilson’s secret is about his health, the film is explicitly about the duplicity of the American dream. It doesn’t matter how hard Wilson works, his success is temporary as the sports world comes to represent a social structure that offers limited support to workers rights: Wilson’s labour is only respected within the brief window of his liminal success and beyond his glory days, he is literally left with nothing. The certainty that Pete Wilson embodies early on in Easy Living is tied to the fact Wilson that represents the American male ideal in his career, his athleticism, his relationship and his race but that is portrayed as fragile and temporary within an unequal power structure.

The film’s bleakness emerges as Wilson’s identity becomes increasingly threatened and the American dream fractures. In a stunning sequence during a party, Wilson’s wife Liza (an ice-cold Lizabeth Scott) threatens to break up the marriage. She has been spending a lot of time with a wealthy patron and is frustrated by her husband’s personal struggles. As she storms out, Wilson leaves too, but the scene does not end. The camera lingers on a lounge singer and cuts to a young model we had been introduced to earlier: she is leaning against the wall with an expression of longing on her face. We do not know the context of her sadness, which makes the sequence all the more harrowing, especially as she has such a marginal part within the film (she never appears again).

Easy Living is deeply concerned with the idea of the American identity, in particular, the fragility of happiness. Even in the film’s tacked-on happy ending, there is a sense of doom as characters make promises they cannot keep. To a lesser extent, Cat People’s leading man, Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) is privileged with a similar base level of success as Wilson, until he marries a Serbian immigrant, Irena (Simone Simon) and his happiness is threatened.

Cat People expresses American anxiety over immigration. Irena’s beauty allows her to attract an American husband, but she represents a base-level threat to his life and his idea of the happy American family. While Irena embodies many identities (beautiful woman, immigrant, cat), her husband has only one: the white American male. As Reed becomes increasingly frustrated with his aloof and emotionally unavailable wife, he says to his co-worker and soon-to-be love interest Alice (Jane Randolph), “You know, it’s a funny thing. I’ve never been unhappy before. Things have always gone swell for me. I had a grand time as a kid. Lots of fun at school and here at the office with you.” Even Alice can’t help rolling her eyes.

This scene reflects an earlier moment in the film when Irena expressed her jealousy for other women because, “They’re happy. They make their husbands’ happy. They lead normal, happy lives.” From the onset, Irena is nothing but honest with her husband, but the reality she presents is one he refuses to accept. While he may be more than willing to marry a beautiful and mysterious immigrant from Serbia, when confronted with the reality of her experience he shifts his attention away from her. Once it becomes clear that Irena is “other” than the ideal American housewife, she is alienated and pathologised. Marriage is a burden on Reed because it is not easy but marriage is a death-wish for Irena, as she can never live up to his expectations.

Few films express anxiety as poetically as Cat People. Mark Robson’s editing evokes paranoia in fear in cuts and glances, in particular in sequences of pursuit, as Irena’s animal energy reaches towards the outside world. As Irena becomes increasingly alienated, she becomes paranoid her husband will leave her for Alice. Irena is not wrong but her boiling over anxiety is still treated as monstrous as she attempts to hold onto the vestiges of her life.

As Reed is never a convincing audience cipher (he is boring and uncomplicated), we align ourselves with Irena’s deepening sense of otherness. Rather than turn the immigrant-other into a monster that America needs protection from, Tourneur renders the ideal American life as complicit in the maltreatment, alienation, and abuses towards its immigrant population to the point where Irena is literally equated with an animal. The melancholia of the film resides in Tourneur aligning the audience’s sympathies with Irena, even as she transforms into a monster. Irena is accepted by Reed as long as she is not seen as a threat. The myth of American tolerance is reliant on a sense of security: as long as your power, position, and ideas go unthreatened, it is easy to be tolerant (note, not accepting) of the other.

Berlin Express is perhaps most overtly about the anxieties of forming an equal, fair and tolerant society. Set in the immediate aftermath of World War Two, a group of multinational train travellers is headed towards a ruined Frankfurt. On board is a famed German doctor who is the key figure in reconfiguring post-war peace. When his cabin is blown up, everyone becomes a suspect.

Tourneur sets the tone for this uncertainty as the Berlin Express is first boarded. Lucienne (Merle Oberon), the only prominent female character, walks along the train platform. She is approached by four men, each from a different country. In each case, she feigns a new identity, dressing in whatever language best suits her desire to be left alone. She arises immediate suspicions as the men believe it is more likely a beautiful, intelligent woman is a spy than a human being who merely wants to be left alone. Like many of Tourneur’s works, the film operates in doubles. The action hinges on the duplicitous nature of man: the Doctor has a doppelgänger, Merle Oberon’s nationally is ambiguous and from the onset, we know there is a traitor among them.

Shot on location in a war-ravaged Frankfurt, Tourneur lingers on crumbling walls covered in notes and pictures as the residents of Frankfurt search for missing family members. The wall not only holds the key to helping find the Doctor once he goes missing but reveals the desperation of citizens who have lost all hope: Peace holds no promise when you have faced the cruelty of man’s true face.

As the film unwinds, Lucienne opens up to Robert: They are discussing the past few days, and she tells him he has become a citizen of Europe and that he is no longer the confident American he was when he arrived. In Europe, they are used to the sensation “Of fear insecurity, Suspicion of everyone and, everything…” Now that is a part of him as well. In the background of their discussion, a reflection in the window reveals one last betrayal as Lucienne’s paranoid words is emboldened by Tourneur’s framing.

Even in the sunshine of the film’s final moments, as hope for peace seems to be on the horizon, anxiety persists. Tourneur draws out this anticipation of betrayal into the very last moments as the character’s exchange contact information. When it seems one among them has discarded Robert’s paper, the hope for the future seems grim. Allyship is meaningless in the aftermath of a war where the weakness of the human spirit was so swayed by greed, power, and fear. Though this turned out to be merely a misunderstanding, that revelation does little to alleviate the tension and as the end credits roll, Tourneur has a one-legged soldier cross the frame.

Anxiety is rooted in the anticipation that something bad will happen. In times of uncertainty, opportunistic politicians pin that fear on the other: immigrants, difference, falling out of line. Tourneur’s cinema does the opposite, drawing anxiety from oppressive systems and destructive ambitions. The anxiety of his films turns inward to those moments where hopes are dashed and when fear takes over.

Published 23 Aug 2017

Tags: Film Noir French Cinema Jacques Tourneur

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