Tag Archives: Jacques Tourneur

Experiment Perilous (1944, Jacques Tourneur)

Experiment Perilous is a strange film. Not the plot–well, some of how the plot is handled–but the strangeness comes from the result of how the film is executed. It’s a Gothic family drama set in twentieth century New York City without a lot of the family. There’s a flashback sequence, but Perilous is rather modestly budgeted so the flashbacks are pragmatically executed, not abundantly. The family at the center of Perilous is background to the adventure of amiable city doctor George Brent. With a couple of late exceptions, the scenes are always from his perspective.

And, from his perspective (and some of director Tourneur’s perspective), Brent is in a thriller. Rich guy Paul Lukas is mentally torturing his much younger wife Hedy Lamarr. Lamarr is top-billed, but the film puts off bringing her in, treating her as a prize, which is only appropriate because she’s shockingly objectified in every one of her scenes. That objectification is also part of the plot. Screenwriter and producer Warren Duff seems to miss the connection, partially because his script denies Lamarr characterization whenever possible–something Tourneur doesn’t encourage but does utilize to further the thriller vibe at times. Again, Experiment Perilous is a strange film. The way everything comes together but never synthesizes. Despite a thoroughly competent execution, the film just doesn’t have the scale to succeed. Separate from Lamarr’s problematic part is the budget. The film aims for Gothic melodrama and concludes as one, much to the determent of its cast.

So the film opens with Brent meeting scared old lady Olive Blakeney on the train back to New York. There’s a terrible storm, there might be danger. Brent comforts her. It’s good stuff and Brent and Blakeney are both extremely likable. They soon work up a nice rapport, even if the parts are a little thin. She’s sister to Lukas, on her way home for the first time in five years. Brent hears a little about the family, doesn’t think much of it, but takes note of it. Brent’s observant. Unless he’s throwing over de facto fiancée Stephanie Bachelor for Lamarr.

After they get to New York, they go their separate ways. Blakeney off to see Lukas and Lamarr (who haven’t appeared on screen yet), Brent to hang out with Bachelor and drunken sculptor pal Albert Dekker. Experiment Perilous is a Gothic melodrama where the hero’s circle of friends consists of independently wealthy dilletante artists. In 1903 New York. It’s weird. Though there’s some decent foreshadowing from a Medusa sculpture, even if Duff didn’t get it or wanted to avoid it.

Dekker knows Lucas–really, really, really well as it turns out, so well it’s unbelievable Brent could have avoided getting stuck meeting him–and also crushes on Lamarr. All men crush on Lamarr. Young men like independently wealthy poet and magazine writer George N. Neise, old men like Lukas. Men in the middle like Dekker and, eventually, Brent. About twenty percent of Lamarr’s performance consists of listening to men praise her appearance.

Then another five percent for her internal wonderfulness.

It’s not much of a part for Lamarr, except when it’s in the flashback and she gets to enjoy life and not think she’s being tormented by Lukas. See, Lukas is very passive aggressive in his torturing of his wife. He brings in Brent to observe the effects of his abuse on Lamarr. Brent’s supposed to then convince Lamarr she’s unstable. There’s a lot to it. And Experiment Perilous doesn’t get into much of it, because immediately after Brent meets Lamarr a second time, his whole arc is about being in love with her. Only Brent doesn’t play the mad love arc with any more intensity than he played the inquisitive doctor arc, so it doesn’t come off. It also couldn’t come off because of budget and run time and script. But it’s like Brent knows it’s not worth it and doesn’t make the effort.

Because Lamarr’s not really in mad love with Brent. Or Lukas. Or anyone. Because Lukas groomed Lamarr–in the flashback–presumably when she was in her late teens. Even if it’s Lamarr and Lukas playing the characters in the flashback, with no attempt at making them appear younger (again, sometimes just a strange movie because of how things come together). Lukas only sort of weirds Lamarr out–he did keep his hands off for the two years he paid a fortune to turn her into a Parisian society woman in after all–and things are good until they get back to New York. Presumably, there’s a big skip ahead in the flashback.

And then we discover Lukas likes showing off Lamarr and then getting pissed at her for the male attention he invited. Some guys get more serious than most. Though when Lukas lashes out at any of them–we learn in later dialogue–it’s the only time Lamarr finds him desirable.

Lot of depth. But in a throwaway line like Duff didn’t realize what was in it.

Now what’s going to happen with Brent snooping into the family’s secrets, not to mention falling for Lamarr….

There are some surprises, there’s a good fight scene (way too short, but good), there’s not much for the actors. But it’s an engaging film throughout. The parts are thin. Lukas probably makes the most of it, albeit with multiple qualifications. Brent’s a great lead. Lamarr does really well sometimes, kind of flat other times. Tourneur doesn’t do much directing on the actors and Duff’s script doesn’t do much characterizing so it’s a really rough part for Lamarr. She gets her good moments when the movie forgets it’s supposed to be reducing her to a prize.

Blakeney’s awesome. Dekker improves somewhat throughout. Bachelor’s fun.

Decent score from Roy Webb. Decent cinematography from Tony Gaudio. It’s not noir, it’s not a thriller, it’s a Gothic melodrama period piece so the lighting doesn’t add much mood. Similarly, Tourneur doesn’t have any grand thriller sequences. He’s got some effective thriller transition stuff occasionally and his direction is fine. Ralph Dawson’s editing leaves a lot to be desired, however. But it’s not all him. Tourneur’s not comfortable with his actors acting very much in close-up.

Perilous is a strange picture. Not neccesarily successful but far from a failure. It’s always engaging and its cast does put in the work, just within some rather harsh constraints.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jacques Tourneur; screenplay by Warren Duff, based on the novel by Margaret Carpenter; director of photography, Tony Gaudio; edited by Ralph Dawson; music by Roy Webb; produced by Duff; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring George Brent (Dr. Huntington Bailey), Hedy Lamarr (Allida Bederaux), Paul Lukas (Nick Bederaux), Albert Dekker (Clag), Stephanie Bachelor (Elaine), Carl Esmond (Maitland), and Olive Blakeney (Cissie).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR BLOGATHON HOSTED BY SAMANTHA OF MUSINGS OF A CLASSIC FILM ADDICT.


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The Flame and the Arrow (1950, Jacques Tourneur)

The Flame and the Arrow is an unfortunate effort. Most of the fault is Waldo Salt’s strangely tone-deaf screenplay. There’s narrative rhyme and reason, but none of it takes the actual resulting film into account–characters played by actors with no chemistry get thrown together. Director Tourneur doesn’t seem suited for the material. It’s a big swashbuckling epic–though lead Burt Lancaster is adamant about his lack of swordsmanship–and Tourneur doesn’t do anything with the scale.

The film has a bunch of necessary, desirable elements, but nothing to hold them together. Lancaster is agile and amiable. He’s a mountain man who romances the townswomen–married and unmarried–at his leisure (and their pleasure). He’s got an adorable son (Gordon Gebert), whose mother has run off with the Hessian overlord. Frank Allenby’s good as the overlord. He doesn’t get a lot to do, but it’s more than Lynn Baggett gets to do as Gebert’s mother. Salt’s script doesn’t dwell much on the characters, but least of all on Baggett. It’s unfortunate, because it seems like there should be something serious to Arrow, but no one wants to acknowledge it.

Virginia Mayo is the love interest. Unfortunately, it’s for Lancaster. Mayo and Lancaster have terrible chemistry. She does better with every other actor, including Nick Cravat, who plays Lancaster’s mute, acrobatic sidekick. And that particular scene is awful, because Cravat’s not funny and Tourneur has no idea how to make him any more amusing.

Robert Douglas is okay as Mayo’s other suitor and Lancaster’s reluctant ally. Salt’s script does him no favors either.

Arrow runs less than ninety minutes. Some natural narrative gestures go incomplete; maybe things got cut. Max Steiner’s score is energetic without being inspired. Ernest Haller’s photography operates on a “good enough” principal.

But the good pieces aren’t just Lancaster and the castle sets, there are good ideas in Salt’s script. He just doesn’t bring anything together. He’ll come up with a great set piece with obvious ways to tie it into the rest of the picture, but Arrow will just drop it in. And even if the script functioned better, Tourneur’s direction is too disinterested.

The film’s often tedious and painfully lacking in charm, but it ought to be a lot better. The third act, where Arrow could redeem itself, instead weighs it down even more.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jacques Tourneur; written by Waldo Salt; director of photography, Ernest Haller; edited by Alan Crosland Jr.; music by Max Steiner; produced by Harold Hecht and Frank Ross; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Burt Lancaster (Dardo Bartoli), Virginia Mayo (Anne de Hesse), Robert Douglas (Marchese Alessandro de Granazia), Aline MacMahon (Nonna Bartoli), Frank Allenby (Count ‘The Hawk’ Ulrich), Nick Cravat (Piccolo), Lynn Baggett (Francesca), Gordon Gebert (Rudi Bartoli, Dardo’s Son), Norman Lloyd (Apollo, the Troubador), Victor Kilian (Apothecary Mazzoni) and Francis Pierlot (Papa Pietro).


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Out of the Past (1947, Jacques Tourneur)

Out of the Past always has at least two things going on at once. Not just the double crossings, which is so prevalent lead Robert Mitchum even taunts the bad guys with it, but how the film itself works.

Daniel Mainwaring’s script–which gives Mitchum this lengthy narration over a flashback sequence–gives the impression of telling the viewer everything while it really leaves the most important elements out. The whole plot has the bad guys coming out of Mitchum’s past (hence the title), but the way he deals with them has all these elements from between that past and the present. It means Mainwaring and Past can surprise the viewer, but it also gives Mitchum this rich character. As much exposition (not to mention the flashback) as he gets about his past, the complications all come from the unexplained things.

And Tourneur’s direction matches this narrative style. He, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca and editor Samuel E. Beetley have foreground and background action. A scene will focus intensely one character, but in contrast to the scripted character emphasis. The visual disconnect pulls the viewer, causing a palpable, beautifully lighted edginess.

And Mitchum and his nemesis slash alter ego Kirk Douglas also have that edginess; they’re uncomfortable with one another but reluctantly. It’s wonderful.

All the acting is great–especially Paul Valentine and Rhonda Fleming–and, of course, femme fatale Jane Greer and good girl Virginia Huston.

The narrative tricks–while always beautifully executed–aren’t necessary. Past would be better without them.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jacques Tourneur; screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring, based on his novel; director of photography, Nicholas Musuraca; edited by Samuel E. Beetley; music by Roy Webb; produced by Warren Duff; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Robert Mitchum (Jeff Bailey), Jane Greer (Kathie Moffatt), Kirk Douglas (Whit Stefanos), Rhonda Fleming (Meta Carson), Steve Brodie (Steve Fisher), Virginia Huston (Ann Miller), Paul Valentine (Joe Stefanos), Wallace Scott (Petey), Richard Webb (Jim), John Kellogg (Lou Baylord), Ken Niles (Leonard Eels) and Dickie Moore (The Kid).


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I Walked with a Zombie (1943, Jacques Tourneur)

Before it stumbles through its third act, I Walked with a Zombie’s biggest problem is the pacing. It’s exceedingly boring during the second act. Its second biggest problem is it’s too short. The second act plays so poorly because there’s not enough going on, there’s just not time for it in sixty-eight minutes.

Otherwise, the film’s wondrous. Tourneur’s direction is sublime, beautiful music from Roy Webb, luscious black and white photography from J. Roy Hunt and these amazing sets. The film takes place on a small Caribbean island, with a nurse (Frances Dee) caring for a strangely ill woman. The nurse discovers she’s the fourth wheel on a love triangle between the woman and two brothers (Tom Conway and James Ellison).

The great performances from Conway and Ellison can’t make up for them disappearing occasionally for relatively long stretches. Dee’s fine in the lead–a more dynamic performance might have helped with the second act but nothing can fix the ending. Nice performances from James Bell, Edith Barrett and Theresa Harris too.

Some of the problem is the script, obviously. Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray accelerate the romance between Dee and Conway and don’t actually give them a courtship. Instead, Ellison gets those scenes. And it’s never clear if Harris is a villain or not. Not to mention there being a mystery angle introduced late in the second act. It’s all a mess.

It’s a beautiful one, but Zombie’s often magnificent pieces don’t add up to a successful picture.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jacques Tourneur; screenplay by Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray, based on a story by Inez Wallace; director of photography, J. Roy Hunt; edited by Mark Robson; music by Roy Webb; produced by Val Lewton; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Frances Dee (Betsy Connell), Tom Conway (Paul Holland), James Ellison (Wesley Rand), Edith Barrett (Mrs. Rand), James Bell (Dr. Maxwell), Christine Gordon (Jessica Holland), Theresa Harris (Alma), Sir Lancelot (Calypso Singer) and Darby Jones (Carrefour).


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