Out of the Past, 1947, Jacques Tourneur

Out of the Past
Maurice & Jacques Tourneur

May 4 to June 2, 2018

Film history is, to a large extent, family history: parents and children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, brothers-in-law and relations of all kinds have time and again, together and apart, worked in films. Compared to many of these dynasties, the duo of father and son Tourneur seems downright modest – however, if we take their significance into consideration, they make for one of the brightest constellations in the firmament of cinema.
Father Maurice, born in Paris in 1876 under the surname of Thomas, came from a family of jewelers. His path to cinema led him through graphic design and theater. In 1911, he found a position as director's assistant at Éclair; next year, he was already directing his first films. Another two years later, he became so important to the company that he was sent to Fort Lee, New Jersey, where Éclair was opening an American branch studio for the transatlantic market. The foreign land suited Tourneur (a stage name Maurice took in his theater days) rather nicely; albeit he had already traveled all across South America as a member of Gabrielle Réjane's world famous theater troupe. He soon left Éclair for the World Film Cooperation, where he made some of his first major films such as Alias Jimmy Valentine (1915) and The Closed Road (1916). In 1921 Tourneur became an American citizen thinking that he will spend the rest of his life there. Far from it: In the early 1920s, with films like The Blue Bird (1918) or The Last of the Mohicans (1920), he was still one of the most important directors in the world, but by the end of the decade, he found himself on the industry's back burner – his ingrained pre-classical European style and its powerful lyricism focused on the single image rather than montage suddenly appeared out of keeping with the times.
So he returned to France, a country that he had meanwhile become a stranger to. Nonetheless, Tourneur soon found a new niche: As a director with Hollywood experience, he could teach the local art of cinema something about verve and pluck. A second, historically overlooked, but brilliant period in his work began, whose great variety is exemplified by works as different as Accused, Stand Up! (Accusée, levez-vous!, 1930) and Crimson Dynasty (Koenigsmark, 1935). This phase in Tourneur's work can be admired for its art of serenity and generosity; although its gaze is almost pitiless, it remains light and casual in its movements. Whether in a thriller, melodrama or farce, Tourneur Sr. always celebrates the beauty of the moment.
This is where Tourneur Jr., Jacques, enters the film scene. Raised between France (*1904, Paris) and the United States, he started early as an extra and a script clerk: his fate was already sealed. Between 1930 and 1933, he learned the trade as editor and film assisstant at his father's side. Before long, history repeated itself: Jacques was invited to the U.S. by MGM, where he would direct a string of short films like Romance of Radium (1937) and The Ship That Died (1938), followed by B-movies such as They All Come Out (1939). When Jacques was dismissed – just as his father had been 13 years earlier – Val Lewton brought him to RKO, where he made those gray-in-gray, bone-chilling pieces that he is remembered for to this day: Cat People (1942) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943).
While Jacques made his first great horrors and noirs, most notably Out of the Past (1947), Maurice directed his last films in the same genres, La Main du diable (1943) and Impasse des deux anges (1948). A car accident in 1949, in which he lost a leg, put an untimely end to Maurice Tourneur's career.
Unlike Maurice, Jacques never made it into the A-League: His work remained in the partial shade of a middle range ready-made manufacture until the 1960s, the world of small westerns (Canyon Passage, 1946), adventure films and thrillers (Nightfall, 1956); ultimately the genre of Peplum and the AIP teen entertainment, finally dying away with pearls like The Twilight Zone: Night Call (1964), which was shown on television. However, such a fate fits Tourneur's melancholy cinema of half tones and lost illusions, whose protagonists often seem either hypnotized or happily imprisoned in their dark dreams; cursed, yet somehow cheerful in the knowledge that they will one day wake up, released. Jacques Tourneur's antiheros often stare into the distance, looking at a faraway shore only their eyes can see.
With our twofold project we aim to listen for consonance between the two Tourneur oeuvres: Finding out what connects these works, some as historically far apart as Trilby (1915) and Experiment Perilous (1944), With a Smile (Avec le sourire, 1936) and Stars in My Crown (1950), Valley of Hell (Le Val d'enfer, 1943) and Berlin Express (1948), Lorna Doone (1922) and Great Day in the Morning (1955). Taking all this into account, this retrospective is a highly condensed history of classical cinema from the point where it established itself as a worldwide indutry to the point where it began to mix with other media.
The retrospective is kindly supported by the Institut français d’Autriche and the Locarno Festival.