Underrated filmmaker given spotlight

By Drew Hunt

Jacques Tourneur, one of cinema’s most overlooked directors, is receiving the retrospective treatment at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave. The run started Sept. 1 and will continue through Oct. 3. Using the theater’s ongoing weekend matinee series to feature Tourneur’s notable works.

He is perhaps most famous for his work with RKO Studios and producer Val Lewton during the 1930s, when he was hired to direct a number of noteworthy—albeit low-budget—horror films. The blithe nature of these B-picture masterpieces belies a distinguished virtuosity inherent in Tourneur, as the films are both visually striking and deftly crafted.

Despite this, the genius behind his three most famous films—”Cat People,” “I Walked with a Zombie” and “The Leopard Man”—is largely attributed to Lewton, while his late period noir, “Out of the Past,” is pegged as more of an effective genre exercise than an authorial piece of art.

However, Tourneur’s rarely seen short films—works predating his time at RKO—are indicative of an already capable filmmaker, comprising the thematic elements not only seen in his films with Lewton, but also throughout his career. Lewton’s contribution to those early films is impossible to deny, as historical record and creative consistency proves. But it would be unwise to simply write off Tourneur as a mere vessel for someone else’s vision.

At that, his apparent lack of theme is in fact just the opposite. Tourneur was rarely concerned with the polemical nature of characterization or theme. Rather than authoritative, his films are speculative and exist in a sort of middle ground where his characters constantly seek solace.

The best example of this lies in “Curse of the Demon”—playing at the Music Box starting Oct. 2—a story about an evil magician played by Niall MacGinnis, who can summon a demonic monster by passing along an old parchment to its victims. In the film, actor Dana Andrews, a frequent Tourneur collaborator, does nothing to sway the audience’s mind concerning the existence of the demon. Andrews’s persistent rationalism is the product of his own narcissism, an attribute also found in MacGinnis.

By the end of the film, one character falls victim to his own superiority, while the other proclaims “it’s better not to know”—the main crux of Tourneur’s entire aesthetic.

What may seem like indolent apathy is actually a denunciation of blind dogmatism. In his films, Tourneur frequently suggests the most resolute people are almost always the most clueless.

As evident in his Western “Canyon Passage” (1946), playing Sept. 18, Tourneur creates characters that embody this aesthetic.

The meandering narrative and conflicted, almost existential characters make for a truly immersive experience. The intersecting story lines go largely unresolved, while the majority of the action takes place off-screen and without provocation.

Yet there’s a hypnotic quality to “Canyon Passage.” Its ambiguous narrative structure may seem languid on the surface, but the film lends itself wonderfully to Tourneur’s perception—his “theme,” as it was—of human existence as being

ultimately unexplainable.

The other film remaining in the Music Box’s retrospective of Tourneur is “The Fearmakers” (1958), a prophetic political thriller that once again features Andrews as its star. That film will premiere Sept. 25.

Screenings are at Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., at 11:30 a.m. every Saturday and Sunday through Oct. 3.