“I like the dark,” purrs moonfaced Simone Simon in Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942), her continental lilt toying lightly with each English syllable. “It’s friendly.” Tourneur, too, liked the dark, though his visions were far from friendly. Hollywood’s cunning poet of paranoia, he cloaked his RKO B-movie thrillers in plush swaths of obscurity, vesting stark sets in shadows as carefully as Max Reinhardt did with light.
His films noirs brought Hades to locales usually associated with sunny delight. The otherwise mundane islanders of I Walked With a Zombie (1943) host furtive voodoo rituals after nightfall, murmuring memories of slave ships that brought their ancestors to an evil paradise. Based on Jane Eyre, the film strangely blends Gothic and Caribbean. A pale somnambulist wanders to the pulse of plantation workers’ drums; a street musician’s seemingly innocuous calypso tune unveils the morbid tale behind her curse. In The Leopard Man (1943), a giant ebony feline skulks through a terrified New Mexico town. An escapee from a Latin cabaret, it lurks to the clacketing sounds of black castanets. Later, monk-robed villagers gather for a local ritual remembering the Spanish slaughter of native tribes. They march silently into the desert, overcast with claustrophobic skies. Tourneur’s fascination with ritual belies a mystic sense of history; he claimed to be a true believer in occult philosophies regarding the simultaneity of past, present, and future. In his films, deep memories of human misery emerge, eternalized, through arcane rites. Death, like a long needle, sews painful, hidden continuities through time.
While Leopard and Zombie indulge colonial myths of pagan primitives, Europe is more often the director’s favored agent of horror. Son of director Maurice Tourneur, he grew up both in sunny Hollywood and la vieille France. Throughout his career, he drew out a symbolic opposition between bright, innocent America and eldritch Europe. In Cat People, the title’s covert werecat women are Serbian imports, cursed by a centuries-old legend of Dark Age depravity. Simon’s Irena, like a good immigrant, struggles to suppress her ancient ways. As in Tourneur’s other bargain-budget masterpieces, the worst terrors in Cat People are unseen, manifesting as echoing screeches or Langian penumbrae. Curse of the Demon (1957) casts Dana Andrews as a straitlaced psychologist brought to Blighty to tussle with a decadent goateed sorcerer. Supernatural motifs return even in Tourneur’s non-horror films. A young Victorian boy in Experimental Perilous (1944) is tormented by imaginary tigers stalking his Murray Hill bedroom; his sadistic Austrian father feeds his fears with tales of witches. In Berlin Express (1948), a nightclub fortune-teller holds the key to a crime, and a murderous clown confronts his own greasepainted doppelgänger.
Darkness occurs not merely as the absence of light or mystic confusion. It also plays out in the narrative baffles and existential culs-de-sac of Tourneur’s more earthly crime films. The deadpan-ironical patter of Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas in Out of the Past (1947) renders each player ultimately unknowable; the plot snakes through so many double-crosses that viewers are left punch-drunk. Weighted by their past crimes, the characters move in Tourneur’s labyrinth with the unnervingly calm detachment of the damned.
Savage histories and uncertain futures loom even heavier in Berlin Express, a strange rarity that inserts a noir thriller into post-war Germany, augmented with documentary travelogues of rubble-strewn cities. Only four years after the fall of the Reich, the Germans scrabble for falling cigarette butts, their lives literally in ruins. The protagonist, a corn-fed Yank trying to solve a neo-Nazi kidnapping plot, grows confused at his alien surroundings. His French companion offers a comparison between Americans and Europeans. “We are more used to the sensation,” she says, “of fear, insecurity, suspicion, of everyone and everything.” Her words are yet again a stab through time; Tourneur’s obsession with fallen innocence feels uneasily contemporary.