#83 Out of the Past

Watched: February 9 2017

Director: Jacques Tourneur

Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Virginia Huston, Paul Valentine

Year: 1947

Runtime: 1h 37min

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Jacques Tourneur goes down a different route than in Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie with this film noir, but it still works.

Jeff Bailey (Mitchum) runs a gas station in a small California town, is moderately successful at it (he has at least one employee) and is dating a sweet girl, Ann (Huston). However, he has a past and there are those who won’t let him forget it. One day, Joe (Valentine) saunters into town to drag Jeff back into the world he left behind – a world of criminals and Private Dicks. And, of course, Dames.

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As we have established before, there are good girls (pictured above) and then there are Dames

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Jeff spills the beans to his girlfriend and tells her all about a romance he had back in his private detective days with a certified Dame, Kathie Moffat (Greer). He was hired by her ex boyfriend/stalker/victim Whit Sterling (Douglas) to track her down after she had shot him and run away with $40 000 of his hard earned and totally legitimate money. Jeff follows Kathie’s trail to Acapulco and strikes up a conversation with her, which turns into a whirlwind romance. He lies to Whit and takes Kathie with him to San Francisco to start a new life. Which doesn’t exactly go as planned.

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Turns out you can take the Dame away from Danger but you cannot take Danger away from the Dame

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This could have been the end of the story, but Joe’s appearance means Jeff’s past is about to catch up with him. Kathie has gone back to Whit and Jeff has no choice but to do one last job for him. A job which includes murder, frame-ups, tax evasion and even more double-crossing dames.

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As well as Kirk Douglas

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As we mentioned, this is quite the departure from the previous Tourneurs on the list, but there’s still something distinctly Tourneur about it. We’re just not film scholarly enough to point out exactly what that is… Suffice to say, we enjoyed Out of the Past (almost) as much as his earlier ventures into horror (“almost” because horror is our lifeblood). It is exciting and fun with the most duplicitous of Dames, but there’s also love and romance, heartbreak and sorrow. Extremely enjoyable!

What we learned: Drinks in Acapulco are too cheap. They keep leaving half empty (half full?) glasses in bars!

Next time: Bicycle Thieves (1948)

#62 I Walked with a Zombie

Watched: December 11 2016

Director: Jacques Tourneur

Starring: Frances Dee, James Ellison, Tom Conway, Edith Barrett, James Bell, Christine Gordon, Theresa Harris

Year: 1943

Runtime: 1h 9min

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The second Lewton/Tourneur collaboration on the list after Cat People, and every bit as good as its predecessor. I Walked with a Zombie follows Canadian nurse Betsy Connell (Dee) who takes a job nursing Jessica (Gordon), the wife of Paul Holland (Conway), a plantation owner on Saint Sebastian in the Caribbean. Jessica never recovered from a fever and spends her days in a daze, unable to say anything or do anything of her own free will.

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Judging by that waist, she is sadly also unable to eat.

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Betsy’s patient lives on the plantation with her husband and his slightly alcoholic half brother Wesley Rand (Ellison), as well as several black people who are descendents of the slaves Holland’s forefathers brought to the island. Betsy soon learns, through song format no less – the best way to learn anything, that Jessica had an affair with Wesley before she fell ill, and that the two of them even planned on running away together.

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“If there’s anything else you’re wondering about, I’m sure I have a song explaining that as well. Have you heard my one about the periodic table of elements?”

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After talks with the local doctor (Bell), Holland’s mother (Barrett), and maid Alma (Harris), Betsy starts to suspect that perhaps Jessica’s illness isn’t natural at all, but that Voodoo may be at the heart of the problem, especially after the good doctor introduces her to the term “zombie.” She also finds that she has fallen in love with Paul (for some reason) and she finds that the best way to make him happy is to restore Jessica to him. How selfless. The nurse gets instruction from Alma on how to get to the houmfort (where they do all the voodoo-stuff for those not familiar with the term) and decides to give it a try.

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Bombie Zombie lets them pass as they bear very little resemblance to Scrooge McDuck

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Like Cat People, the resolution to I Walked with a Zombie is ambiguous. The audience cannot be certain whether Jessica is really a zombie or not, and that’s part of what makes the film work so well. However, it’s not the only thing by far. The atmosphere is utterly creepy throughout, helped by the drums and chanting often heard in the background. Jessica’s introduction (and pretty much all subsequent appearances) is chilling and there’s a sinister vibe to Betsy’s entire experience, from the boat trip to the end.

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Nighttime visits by apparently zombified locals are surprisingly common on this island

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The island’s history of slavery is an important plot point as well, as is Betsy’s complete lack of understanding of the problems brought on by this (her reply to her driver’s story of how his people was brought to the island is “well, they were brought to a beautiful place”).

There’s beautiful use of light and shadow for those of you who are visual fanatics. As well as wonderful costumes for those of you who are more fashion oriented. And creepy voodoo rituals and sort of incestuous undertones for the more horror minded. In short, there’s something here for everyone!

What we learned: if a vital question in your job interview is whether or not you believe in witchcraft, consider the position carefully.

Next time: Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

#59 Cat People

Watched: November 27 2016

Director: Jacques Tourneur

Starring: Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway, Jane Randolph

Year: 1942

Runtime: 1h 13min

Note: Cat People was watched only by Sister the Oldest, as Sister the Youngest had once again fucked off to Oslo, this time to do exams. How very selfish of her, trying to get an education when there are films to be watched.

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Irina Dubrovna (Simon) is a Serbian fashion sketch artist working on ideas in a New York zoo when she strikes up a conversation with Oliver Reed (Smith – not actor Oliver Reed). They fall in love and get married despite Irina’s conviction that she is a descendant of a coven of devil worshipping witches who turn into cats when aroused or angry.

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“We cannot consummate our marriage. Or kiss. And you shouldn’t make me angry. But other than that, we’ll have a perfectly ordinary marriage, I’m sure!”

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Now, in Irina’s defence, this is not a condition she wants, but she believes the superstitions of her Serbian village and does not want to risk hurting herself or her husband. She agrees to go to therapy to help save her marriage, but it does not do much to help her, especially since her therapist’s idea of a cure is kissing his patient. Very unhippocratic.

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“It’s a new kind of therapy – all up to code and medically approved, I assure you. Now, take off your clothes.”

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To complicate their lives further, Reed’s colleague Alice Moore (Randolph) is in love with him, and since things aren’t going too well at home, he falls for her as well. Irina suspects an affair and gives in to her inner desires to stalk and prey on Alice, who does indeed seem to be followed by a large cat.

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Even in the pool. How rude!

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As the plot thickens, Oliver and Alice keep treating Irina as a child in one instance, a mentally unstable woman in the next, and then as a dangerous threat. It’s no wonder she becomes a bit unhinged and wants revenge on them for shutting her out and starting an affair. There’s nothing inherently bad about her, but she is never taken seriously or treated as an equal by her husband which causes her to snap.

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And what better way to plot vengeance than in a deserted, foggy New York street

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It’s never really clear whether Irina is right or not. She certainly seems to think she turns into a large, predatory cat when angry, upset or turned on, and Alice and Oliver are eventually convinced as well. The ambiguity is one of the main strengths of the film though, and not having clear answers makes it more intriguing than a straight-forward horror film about a shapeshifting woman. What comes across clearly however, is that no one really thinks of Irina as a grown, independent woman – even her therapy sessions consist of her being put in a trance so she has no memory of what she tells her doctor. Despite the fact that she moved to the USA alone and made a career for herself before meeting her husband, everyone seems to think she’s too fragile to be treated like an adult. Probably due to the fact that (they think) she believes in fairy tales, but still.

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We suppose when you marry a cat woman you’re either looking for a pet or a sex kitten. And when she won’t conform to either – well, it’s time to cut her loose.

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Now, I might be reading a bit much into this (I blame my literature background), but it’s hard not to get analytical about this film. What I’m trying to say is that I loved Cat People and I am looking forward to more Tourneur. Which is coming up very soon in I Walked with a Zombie. Yay!

What we learned: don’t have an affair with a man whose wife might be a murderous shapeshifter. Also, don’t treat your wife as a child.

Next time: Road to Morocco (1942)