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Tourneur, Jacques (1904-1977)


Main image of Tourneur, Jacques (1904-1977)

Jacques Tourneur's contribution to British cinema consists of three films, principally Night of the Demon (1957), a work of distinct and poetic power in a field of British cinema increasingly dominated by the more forthright spectacle of Hammer horror films. Born in Paris on November 12, 1904, and naturalised American in 1919, Tourneur maintained a European feeling for subtle visual spectacle and naturalistic acting, qualities also visible in the French and American films of his father, the director Maurice Tourneur.

Jacques Tourneur began directing features in France in 1932. Returning to Hollywood in 1935, he slowly climbed MGM's ladder, directing second units and two-reel productions. In the 1940s he hit his stride working at RKO for producer Val Lewton; films like Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie (both 1943) used hints and shadows to find new ways of scaring people. His first British production, Circle of Danger (1951), made at London Film Studios for David E. Rose's Coronado Productions, featured Ray Milland as an American in Scotland, investigating his brother's death during a Commando raid in the war. Flatulent as drama, it still used Tourneur's foreign perspective to good advantage.

Night of the Demon, expanded chiefly by Hitchcock's former script collaborator Charles Bennett from a tale of the supernatural by M. R. James, was his next British venture, shot at Elstree for Hal E. Chester's Sabre Film Productions. Like Hitchcock, Tourneur delighted in seeking horror in the ordinary surface of British life - a walk through the woods, a children's party suddenly interrupted by a violent storm, a farming family staring frostily at an intruder, a railway station's night-time steam and commotion. In the process Tourneur threw down a stylistic challenge few subsequent British fantasy directors took up; popular fashion dictated otherwise. The film's character interplay is intriguing: Niall MacGinnis's insidiously charming devil-worshipper Dr Karswell is a far more sympathetic figure than Dana Andrews' arrogantly sceptical American psychologist. Bennett's original script was further adapted by an uncredited Cy Endfield, who had taken shelter in England from America's HUAC investigations; not for nothing, perhaps, is this a story of fear, self-protection, and betrayal. With a finger on developing public taste, the producer insisted on toothy close-ups of a demon Tourneur had always planned as a creature of mystery and suggestion. But not even these additions could lessen the film's power.

Tourneur's feeling for the strangeness of ordinary life could find little outlet in his last British film, City under the Sea (1965), a hodge-podge of fantasy elements loosely linked to Edgar Allen Poe, co-produced with American International Pictures. A further Anglo-American fantasy venture, based on H. G. Wells's novel When the Sleeper Wakes, was planned; in the event Tourneur made no further features. He retired to France and died in Bergerac on December 22, 1977.

Fujiwara, Chris, Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000)
Tourneur, Jacques, 'Biofilmographie de Jacques Tourneur, commentée par lui-même', Présence du Cinéma, Autumn 1966, pp. 56-83
Tourneur, Jacques, 'Taste Without Clichés', Films and Filming, Nov. 1965, pp. 9-11

Geoff Brown, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Thumbnail image of Night of the Demon (1957)Night of the Demon (1957)

Clever, subtle occult chiller by American director Jacques Tourneur

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