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PEDRO COSTA AND CHRIS FUJIWARA / Conversation about Jacques Tourneur

PEDRO COSTA AND CHRIS FUJIWARA / Conversation about Jacques Tourneur

Pedro Costa and Chris Fujiwara

Tokyo, May 11, 2010

Pedro Costa: What was your first Tourneur film? Do you remember?

Chris Fujiwara: Cat People. It was on TV when I was a kid on the horror movie show on Friday night.

PC: But you didn’t know it was Tourneur?

CF: I didn’t know anything about Tourneur.

PC: But you remembered the film.

CF: I thought it was a great film. What was your first Tourneur film?

PC: I’m not sure. I probably saw a few on TV. I’m sure I saw The Flame and the Arrow, Way of a Gaucho, Appointment in Honduras.

CF: Those were on TV in Portugal?

PC: Sunday afternoon. Some guy I knew had recorded videos of the shows in the Betamax era. So I was not very young, but the first I saw in the theater, and the one that really, really impressed me, was Stars in My Crown. That was ’81, around then, ’79 maybe.

CF: So you saw Stars in My Crown before you saw the Val Lewton films?

PC: I think I saw all. A lot of Tourneur films and Fleischer and Walsh, because those were the Sunday afternoon pirate, adventure films. Probably I saw all of them before, but I think I saw Stars in My Crown before I saw Cat People or the other ones. But what was so special to you about Tourneur?

CF: The atmosphere of Cat People is very special, I think I must have appreciated that, and later when I saw Out of the Past and Berlin Express, then I could recognize that there was a common feeling to these films.

PC: To me it was the name. Perhaps because I speak French. I didn’t associate immediately the meaning of “tourneur” in French, but just the word; there’s something special about his name, isn’t there? There are lots of Tourneurs in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Just “Tourneur.” No first names.

CF: Have you been to Bergerac?

PC: No. Have you been there?

CF: No.

PC: But I guess you made Tourneur a little bit your own special man, no? Because I guess the first book written about him was your book. Well, I’d heard about your book before I met you, as you know, and actually I had a friend, I saw Stars in My Crown with him, who later went to film school with me. Later we talked about your book; for some reason we couldn’t get it; this was before Amazon, I think.

CF: There had been some things in French. A special issue of Caméra/stylo.

PC: I have that, yes. But at that time I thought your book was a biography. I hoped. Probably true for every filmmaker, but in Tourneur’s case, there’s something about his life, not life, the absence of life, or something; there’s a contradiction there between the guy and his films, or– not at all, I don’t know; I’ve never researched much about family, lovers; the French don’t talk about that, they don’t care about that. I read Walsh’s biography, and a lot about Ford, and a lot about Lang, and even Richard Fleischer’s biography, about Allan Dwan… Jacques Tourneur seems just this guy who drove his car back and forth to the studio.

CF: We don’t know very much about him. The things we do know are very suggestive. He drank. His wife was maybe a bit of a problem for him.

PC: But did you talk with people? Where did you write your book?

CF: In Boston. But I went to LA to do a lot of research.

PC: Is Boston the city of David Goodis?

CF: Wasn’t he from Philadelphia?

PC: Perhaps, yes.

CF: In LA, the best contact I met for Tourneur was Bert Granet, who produced Berlin Express. He was a good friend of Tourneur, and he introduced me to another guy who was a good friend of Tourneur, who was a make-up man, and Granet’s wife, Charlotte, was also a good friend of Tourneur’s wife. They told me what he was like. They liked him a lot, he was fun to be with, but he was very quiet.

PC: Shy?

CF: Somebody who wasn’t really a Hollywood type, not aggressive, not loud. And Granet told me something interesting about Berlin Express, he said when you looked at Tourneur’s rushes, you wouldn’t think you had very much of a picture, because he would shoot exactly what he needed, just short shots. In fact when he was shooting Cat People, the studio wanted to take him off Cat People at first, from looking at the rushes.

PC: Really?

CF: And Lewton insisted on keeping him. Tourneur drank rather heavily.

PC: Alone? I mean, not socially, in bars, in Hollywood?

CF: He would go to parties and sit quietly drinking. On Way of the Gaucho, some of the crew said he was drinking on the set.

PC: Did he talk with other filmmakers?

CF: I don’t know who his friends were among directors. One doesn’t feel he was too close to other directors. Robert Wise was interviewed all the time, but he didn’t seem to have too much to say about Tourneur; they don’t seem to have been close. Dana Andrews was a friend of his. They would go yachting together. Some of the French people in Hollywood– Victor Francen was a friend of his. The makeup guy who was Tourneur’s friend said something interesting to me. He knew him for a long time. The makeup guy never realized that he was a significant director, just thought he was a guy who hung out and went on a boat.

PC: Was Simone Simon his choice?

CF: I don’t know, but I assume not.

PC: Probably not, a guy like him wouldn’t have the power to impose–

CF: He had a few years when he was a major director, ’44, when he made Days of Glory, Gregory Peck’s first film, until say ’52, Way of a Gaucho, that was still a major picture.

PC: Did he ever take sides in the McCarthy era, did he say something?

CF: The only thing that he said was, he claimed that he was on a kind of gray list in Hollywood, and he said it was because he liked black people too much, he gave them parts in Out of the Past and I Walked with a Zombie. And Stars in My Crown.

PC: Sure.

CF: He didn’t sign that famous petition in support of Mankiewicz. Presumably he was a liberal. Yet he made The Fearmakers, a very strange film, did you see it?

PC: No.

CF: An anti-Communist film with Dana Andrews. You’re a big fan of Dana Andrews?

PC: Especially Night of the Demon. Well, of course, he’s a bit more alive in the Preminger films, but…

CF: Night of the Demon really seems to be about Andrews more than a lot of his films, about somebody who is marked, who is doomed. Somebody who drinks; he’s always drinking in that film. Somebody who’s trying to deny something. Tourneur’s characters are always in some kind of contradiction, they’re trying to deny who they are. Dana Andrews in Night of the Demon is one of these people. All through the film he’s denying something that the whole audience knows is true, and it’s something inside him. One of the things that’s special about Tourneur is the acting. It’s a strange kind of acting, because you don’t know how much he was responsible, how much he directed people to do this. Somebody like Dana Andrews is carrying someone inside him that he’s trying to deny.

PC: You’re saying, something physical, that you can see.

CF: Yes.

PC: Bodies.

CF: Yes.

PC: Yes, that was my impression, something very very mysterious, almost a stiffness. I don’t know how to say it, in English… Even the girls, sometimes. They don’t move the arms like they do in other films, it’s like they’re glued to them, it’s a tension.

CF: There’s something very studied, mannered, self-conscious about the way they are posed sometimes. Ellen Drew in Stars in My Crown is a little this way. It’s a beautiful kind of acting, it’s very natural also.

PC: Was The Sun Shines Bright before Stars in My Crown?

CF: The Sun Shines Bright was ’53, so three years after Stars in My Crown. There’s a relationship.

PC: There is. But no common scriptwriters or producers?

CF: No, the writers and producers are different. Stars in My Crown was definitely inspired by Ford, it’s based on a novel by Joe David Brown, and most of the incidents in the script come from the novel, and I think Brown must have been inspired by Ford films, such as Young Mr. Lincoln, and probably Judge Priest. What do you think of the Joel McCrea character in Stars in My Crown? He’s different from a Ford character.

PC: He’s a bit closer, a bit warmer in general than Ford’s characters. There’s no John Ford picture with Joel McCrea, so we’ll never know.

CF: Tourneur liked the prewar Ford.

PC: Well, I have an affection for Stars in My Crown because it was really the first one I saw consciously, and it was a big screen, and it’s a rural, small-world thing, I have an affection for those. Probably something to do with realism or something; not realism, but something there that– Well, it’s America, small town; all the other Tourneur films, they are not really anchored anywhere, or it’s always kind of– could be an imaginary [place], the islands, the ruins, all of them, I think. I don’t know. You saw all of them, I didn’t. Even London [in Night of the Demon]. It’s too poetic, too vague, no, not vague, too misty. Stars in My Crown is probably a sentimental thing, and a visual thing; perhaps he cared a little bit more about detail, or he had more time. You can feel it. For instance, the sequence with the hay, and the boys, I don’t think you can think about that at home. Perhaps, but… I don’t know how he worked, if they had a storyboard, or… Do you remember that sequence?

CF: With the traveling shot from below, on the haycart–

PC: Yeah, that one, and everything that comes a little bit before and a little bit after. He probably had, I don’t know, two or three days to do that; he could try some things, have the boys move a little bit… Even the camera thing, it’s difficult, it’s technically unusual, there’s like seven shots or eight shots… It does not seem like a preconceived storyboard thing. Why do you think there are so many diseases and sicknesses and epidemics and all sorts of fevers going on in his films?

CF: You could say it goes back to this idea of denial of who you are, because the people are sick, but they live anyway. If you’re sick you have to go on anyway. That means either accepting it or denying it, but in any case you carry it with you. Stars in My Crown is like Dreyer, everyone is getting sick.

Atsushi Funahashi: Did Tourneur have many disabled characters in his films, like the mute guy in Out of the Past?

CF: No, not so many. I guess being a zombie is a kind of a disability; he had zombies.

AF (to Costa): Do you like Berlin Express?

PC: Yes, it’s not one of my favorites, but… It’s like what Straub said, when I asked him about Tourneur: “He’s a good watchmaker. We need that type of guys…” But the one I prefer is Nightfall.

CF: Why do you like Nightfall so much? Because of Aldo Ray?

PC: Probably, yeah. Night of the Demon, Nightfall.

CF: Late films.

PC: There’s something exhausted, and helpless, and fragile, and old… They have a strange quality of– I don’t know where it comes from; I’m trying to think of some other films of filmmakers who walk that same land, films that seem to generate their own, some kind of oblivion inside of them. You tend to forget parts of the film, or–. For me it’s always been difficult to tell the story of Nightfall, the continuity, even Night of the Demon.

CF: Both of those films are about oblivion, too.

PC: They are. I don’t know, it feels close, it feels human. I mean, taxi, London street, taxi, library, taxi, countryside– it’s strange… And I think it works better for him in black and white, it’s not that his color films are [failures], but there’s something about this monochromatic, monotone, it’s something to do with the way Aldo Ray or Dana Andrews in Night of the Demon or Mitchum of course — but that’s obvious, because that’s the story — the way they ruminate, their thoughts…

CF: The rhythms in those films are very close to a certain experience of life…

PC: There’s something schizophrenic about them, also. Very very short shots, a succession of medium, or almost the same length, shots, and then– it’s a bit schizophrenic. Sometimes with no apparent reason, sometimes it almost seems shot hastily, too fast, because they didn’t have time or something, almost like a TV, that’s very obvious in Night of the Demon, the car shots, and things like that. There’s a U-turn that I see over and over again. The girl’s car coming to the séance, I think. And she arrives at the séance; they’re not together, she makes a U-turn and calls him, he’s on the sidewalk, I think. Or he’s going to his hotel, or somewhere, and she calls him, and he gets into the car. I don’t know if [Tourneur] was interested, or if he said, OK, now we’re going fast, we have to do it; I think people will get the point if we just do seven seconds of that, very fast, and then we go on with the stupor or the limbo or whatever he’s into. It’s really the rhythm, yeah. Sometimes it seems a bit schizophrenic or–

CF: Like split, or removed, somehow?

PC: I don’t know, in the psychological, I don’t know. It’s more probably depressive, paranoid, or… You’re mostly in a catatonic state and you have these brief moments of enthusiasm or excitement or activity.

CF: There’s something very sad about Night of the Demon.

PC: They all are.

CF: It’s very strange, the relationship of Andrews and Peggy Cummins in that film, there’s something so normal about it, completely unresolved, and on the train Karswell says, “I know there’s something between you,” and he tries to leave, but the relationship is completely unspecified. In a way’s nothing between them. In Nightfall everything is about being able to make a contact with another person, being able to care about another person, to recognize somebody else. It’s probably Aldo Ray’s best performance. Something happened there that nobody recognized. This adds to the mystery of Tourneur for me. Tourneur was not highly regarded, he was somebody who was going to disappear soon, and there’s a beauty in those films of being about to disappear, somehow that become part of the film itself, as if they knew.

PC: Because you think people in Tourneur films feel differently, or the characters, they think more, or you feel they are more tortured?

CF: The characters know they’re already gone, like Mitchum in Out of the Past. In Nightfall, Aldo Ray.

PC: Don’t you feel a certain absence? Perhaps for some films this is not true to say, because they’re obviously studio things, or the adventure things. But the background is very empty. There’s no extras, or there’s few extras. Or he doesn’t use them, or he uses them in another way. Even [in comparison with] the same B films at the same time, it feels more lonely for the people walking around in the shots. Not Anne of the Indies because there’s lots of pirates, or Way of a Gaucho, but Night of the Demon, Nightfall. In Nightfall it’s terrible. I think I’m right, because it’s so there, in Nightfall, when you see this guy, you know this guy’s in trouble, and then there’s someone that recognizes that for you, the investigator who sees him, and he says, uh-oh, I feel something for this guy. It’s strange. In a Lang film, he would go after him. There’s something gentle immediately, about this guy wanting to go follow this guy, or wait for this guy; he talks at home with his wife. It’s rare. That’s this sentimentality of Tourneur.

CF: It comes out of the void at the beginning of the film.

PC: It’s a great thing how he managed to do films the way he did in that place at that time, that are not so utilitarian as other films that existed at the same time; they don’t exactly serve… The thrillers, Out of the Past, they are not exactly… It’s a little bit more complex than Edgar Ulmer films. Some of Ulmer’s films are very good, some are very nice, some are so-so, sometimes when they’re not so good they’re just deranged, too deranged sometimes, they fall into some traps for me that date the films immediately, that paralyze the films. I’m not a big fan of Ulmer. Or Lang, actually. There’s something probably very irrational [with Tourneur] in the way sentimentality is mis en scène, it’s much more complex and subtle, it escapes a lot of traps, really, traps or codes. There are a lot of films with the same themes. Lang’s a bit more intelligent than other guys, but they’re more or less the same, I think, and Tourneur escapes that. I don’t know if it’s some sort of irrational thing, or suicidal, almost. Obviously these guys are already dead, or they’re about to take the final trip; when the films start, it’s the last part of their journey, always. The cars in Night of the Demon are terrible. It’s the only film that makes me scared of cars, as silent films or things like that. I don’t know if it’s the sound; the sound is bad, it’s post-synchronized… The way he organizes the taxis and the white convertible car… One day I talked with Philippe Garrel. He hates American films in general. I told him, You should watch Tourneur. I think he’s a guy for him. He has something in common with Garrel, I think. It’s probably the black and white, they’re both very black and white guys, I mean, cinema is black and white…

CF: Out of the Past is a lot like a Garrel film.

PC: Yeah, it is.

CF: Did he watch one?

PC: No. He dismissed it, he said, yeah, I think I saw something, Cat People or… There’s something else. Do you know Blake and Mortimer? It’s a Belgian comic book, a great, great series of books, with Captain Blake, an officer, and Mortimer is sort of a detective. Both English, of course. The adventures are always in London. It’s great, great, great. Night of the Demon is amazingly close to that. The most famous is called The Yellow Mark, about this creepy underground guy, Mabuse-Karswell sort of guy, he lives in the sewers or the subway of London, tries to steal the Crown Jewels or something, and he has this death ray somewhere. Some of Tourneur’s films, there’s a perfume somewhere that’s close to that. It’s the same time as Tintin, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s. But we didn’t talk about the most important thing. You betrayed Tourneur.

CF: How?

PC: By writing a book about Preminger.

CF: Yes, that’s true.

PC: Preminger must have hated Tourneur.

CF: If he knew who he was.