FICUNAM 2020 Interview: Chris Fujiwara On The Legacy Of Jacques Tourneur
French filmmaker Jacques Tourneur is, certainly, an important part of the history of horror cinema, because he was one of the directors in Val Lewton’s low-budget horror unit at RKO Pictures. In the forties, Tourneur directed the Lewton-produced classics Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man, notable for being able to build suspense and scare the audiences without being explicit. Several years later, in 1957, Tourneur also directed Night of the Demon, a masterpiece about the supernatural and those who vainly deny its existence.
But Tourneur was much more than those horror efforts, he made a wide variety of movies once he left his country for Hollywood. The recent Tourneur retrospective that the FICUNAM put together as part of its 10th edition –which took place in Mexico City from March 5th to 15th– was a magnificent display of the director’s range, with some of the films projected in 35mm and 16mm no less. Westerns (such as Canyon Passage and Way of a Gaucho), noirs (Out of the Past in 35mm!), a technicolor pirate film (the memorable Anne of the Indies), an ode to the American criminal justice system (They All Come Out), postwar films (Berlin Express and an incredibly unique Spanish print of Circle of Danger), Tourneur's favorite from his own filmography (Stars in My Crown), and of course the aforementioned horror classics, were part of FICUNAM’s program to highlight the legacy of Tourneur.
On top of that, film critic and programmer Chris Fujiwara, author of the quintessential book on Tourneur (Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, which was first published in 1998), attended FICUNAM for a masterclass about the director in question. I was lucky enough to interview Fujiwara a couple of days before his masterclass and, of course, the one and only subject of the conversation was the cinema of Tourneur!
ScreenAnarchy: I think for many people the first approach to Jacques Tourneur is through his horror films from the Val Lewton era at RKO Pictures, and also NIGHT OF THE DEMON. In your case, how was your original approach to Tourneur’s work?
Chris Fujiwara: Exactly that way. I mean, when I was just starting to get seriously into movies, I was a teenager, so I would see many films on TV and I saw a lot of horror films on TV ‘cause I was really into horror films.
I discovered Tourneur in that way, I think I saw Cat People first, on television, and I was very taken by that film. It was only after that that I could see some of the others: I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man.
Night of the Demon, I must have seen when I was very young also, when I was 13 or 14. In fact I even had a 50 feet, 8mm version of Night of the Demon, three-and-a-half minutes or so of that, it was just mostly the shots of the demon, but I owned that so I must have been into that film too.
The documentary VAL LEWTON: THE MAN IN THE SHADOWS, narrated by Martin Scorsese [and part of The Criterion Collection’s edition of CAT PEOPLE], reminds you that, back in the day, people screamed and were genuinely afraid when watching those horror films of Tourneur and Lewton. Those were low-budget movies but nonetheless created a more psychological type of horror. How was your first reaction to those movies when you were very young?
I don’t remember being traumatized. Of course with Cat People, that scene with the bus, Jane Randolph is walking through the transverse to the park and then she feels that she’s been pursued and then suddenly you hear the sound, you think it’s the sound of the cat but it’s actually the bus. This, of course, always shocks people the first time they see it, I think even today probably, so that must have impressed me a lot.
What’s your own take on what Tourneur brought to horror cinema? I mean, he was part of a low-budget unit with Lewton and the same crew, but in a more artistic, cinematic way, what do you think he brought to that genre?
Val Lewton had a very, I would say, literary sensibility, that he was very interested in certain values that maybe belonged somewhat to literature as much as to film. So he was interested in creating a kind of heighten version of everyday life, he wanted the characters to be psychologically believable, he wanted the films to be sort of grounded in a recognizable reality. So that was very important to Lewton and all of the films that Lewton produced had this in common, including the ones that Mark Robson and Robert Wise directed after Tourneur went on to other things; Wise did The Body Snatcher with Boris Karloff and then Robson did Isle of the Dead and Bedlam with Karloff.
I think Tourneur, since he was a great filmmaker, was able to bring a real cinematic fluidity to match Lewton’s ideas about cinema. Tourneur was an excellent director of actors, he was perfectly able to get them to tone down their performance. When you compare the acting in the Lewton films in general, but particularly in Tourneur’s films, with the performance style of that time, it’s much more low-key, much more naturalistic, very simple kind of performance. But above all, I think a great sense of, like I said, the fluidity of a film: how to keep things moving, how to create a chain of images that go from one to another smoothly and yet with a kind of suspense, a kind of underlaying threat in them. Tourneur had a wonderful sense of visual design also. So all of this Tourneur brought, I think.
Tourneur himself, he talked a lot about the supernatural in his interviews, because he believed in certain aspects of the supernatural.
He believed that there were parallel worlds; the world that we live in our normal life, usually appears to us to be the only world but Tourneur thought that the past still existed on a parallel plane and that the future also existed on another parallel plane, and that it was possible from time to time for us to have access to this other worlds.
I think some his films, especially Night of the Demon, are realizations of this kind of conception.
He also said, very clearly, that he didn’t like the word “horror film” and he didn’t think that he was making horror films. He said he was making films about fear, he was very interested in the psychology of fear, he was interested in why people are afraid, why they like to be afraid, what is frightening was an interesting question for him. I think he even had a sense of the political importance of fear, that fear could be a way of exercising power over other people, the way governments do for example. I think Tourneur was very aware of that and there’s a sense of that dimension in some of his films too.
He thought he was making films on fear and on the supernatural, horror he rejected. Of course a lot of people said that, I think Terence Fisher said the same thing, he didn’t like them to be called horror films.
Talking about your book on Tourneur, JACQUES TOURNEUR: THE CINEMA OF NIGHTFALL, why did you think it was necessary to explore the world of this particular filmmaker?
I told you earlier about my teenage years when I saw the horror films of Tourneur. Later on, as I started to write more about cinema and think more about cinema in different ways, I was able to see many other Tourneur films besides the horror films and I became very interested in him. This would have been during the nineties I guess; at that time there was no book in English on Tourneur, there was a special issue of a French journal called Caméra/stylo that was all about Tourneur.
The history of how Tourneur was appreciated is a little particular.
A lot of the Hollywood directors were championed by writers like Manny Farber and later by Andrew Sarris, so that’s how people like Don Siegel, Samuel Fuller, Anthony Mann, all of these directors were discovered and pretty much established as auteurs, not just in France, which had made the initial discovery, but also in the United States and in the UK.
That had happened by the sixties, but Tourneur had been somewhat passed by, even a little bit in France although by the late sixties, thanks in part to Pierre Rissient and other people, Serge Daney, Tourneur was beginning to be better known and people were starting to write about him.
Even in the nineties, Tourneur was not a forgotten figure but a somewhat neglected one. There was a retrospective of Tourneur at the Edinburgh Film Festival in the 1970s, I think 1975, there was a short book published in connection with that. There was some awareness of Tourneur but, as I said, there hadn’t been a real book in English. So I thought, this is an interesting thing, I would like to work on this. I originally thought that I would put it in the context of other European directors who were working in the United States in the so-called classical period of Hollywood cinema, Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir. But then I decided to do just Tourneur and I’m glad I did.
I think almost all of Tourneur’s films are interesting, even the short films, which were completely unknown to me. I had to sort of dig them up, I mean, it wasn’t difficult but I contacted Turner Classic Movies which owns them and I said, “hey, could I see these?.” And they actually made me VHS dubs of all of the shorts, it was so nice of them to do that. That’s how I saw the shorts. Later on, they were broadcasted on TCM so people could see them. Then I got to see some of the television work that he did, which was very hard to access but you could see some at the Library of Congress or at the UCLA Film Archive. Almost everything was interesting that Tourneur directed.
You’re saying that Tourneur was almost forgotten back in the nineties. Cut to 2020, The Criterion Collection has released CAT PEOPLE, filmmakers like Scorsese have been talking about him, there’s your book obviously and now this retrospective at FICUNAM. What do you think about how Tourneur is perceived nowadays?
Tourneur has definitely come to be more appreciated over the past 20 years or so. There have been more retrospectives, Lincoln Center in New York did a retrospective in the early 2000s I believe, there was a major retrospective at Locarno and then at the Cinémathèque française three or four years ago, here at FICUNAM and elsewhere there have been retrospectives. So Tourneur, I think people do know him better now and that’s partly because a lot of filmmakers have been talking about him, that are interested in him: Pedro Costa, Apichatpong Weerasethakul for example. More has been written about him. It’s very exciting.
It’s interesting also about Tourneur that he’s somebody very special in relation to Hollywood cinema. Directors like the people I mentioned, Don Siegel or Anthony Mann, they kind of helped define the genres that they worked in, their works are classics within those genres, the thriller, the western. With Tourneur, I think he’s a little bit on the side of the genres, he doesn’t really belong to the main current of the American genres, the American film history. He’s a very individual kind of figure.
Do you think he deserves to be more recognized as a western or film noir director?
Maybe. I value his westerns very much, Canyon Passage is one of his masterpieces. Stranger on Horseback, Wichita, Great Day in the Morning are maybe not great films but certainly at least very good and interesting ones. I think Tourneur’s films get a lot of strength from being a little bit apart, I think that’s a good situation for him.
In a way it’s a restatement of the actual position that he had when he was working, somebody who appeared from the outside to be a typical director, not at the top commercial level, not quite at the bottom commercial level, but somebody in between who could do all kinds of films; that’s how he was seen in Hollywood by the producers, they used him sort of interchangeably probably with people like Stuart Heisler, there were a number of directors at that level. But Tourneur was able to do his own thing, he was kind of a smuggler in a way, that he could smuggle his ideas, his own way of thinking about cinema, fear and so forth, he could do what he wanted to do within these rather inconspicuous films.
What are the essential films by Tourneur and also those that were your main discoveries back when you were doing the research for the book?
I think the essential Tourneur films are the three Val Lewton films [Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man], Canyon Passage, Out of the Past, Stars in My Crown and Night of the Demon. That would be basically the essential ones.
The films that I saw and that were amazing discoveries to me when I first saw them, I would mention Experiment Perilous, which is kind of a gaslight story about an evil husband and a persecuted wife. That’s quite an interesting film.
Easy Living, his film about a football player who finds out that he has a heart murmur and that he needs to quit playing sports, otherwise he might get killed; this is quite an impressive film. Anne of the Indies, Way of a Gaucho, these were discoveries for me when I first saw them for writing the book, I thought they were quite amazing. Appointment in Honduras, Wichita, Great Day in the Morning, Circle of Danger. Even a film called The Fearmakers, which perhaps I kind of underrated in my book, is a quite interesting film.
Anybody who gets into Tourneur through the better-known films and is really into him, would want to see all of those films ‘cause they all have something in them that’s incredible.
In this specific retrospective at FICUNAM there are several Tourneur films on celluloid, 35mm and 16mm. Why do you think is important to keep film alive?
It’s absolutely essential. I think a well-made DCP, if it’s made carefully, can be OK, can give us a fairly good representation of the film. I’m not necessarily against DCP, it would be stupid to be against it anyway because we can’t resist it, it’s the norm. But like many people, I think that there’s something special about seeing a 35mm print projected, it’s hard to talk about it because I don’t want to sound like I’m fetishizing it. I’m one of those people who, if there’s a retrospective, I would look at the catalog and see which ones are going to be on 35mm, which are on 16mm, which are on DCP; the DCP ones I know that you can see later, so I’m not going to make them a priority, but the ones that are being projected on film I would try to go see. It’s essential that archives preserve these prints and it’s essential that they are shown sometimes for people to see them, as is being done here.