Stars in My Crown
- I've been watching Jacques Tourneur's "Stars in My Crown" lately; I saw it
for the first time on tape in December, have re-watched the film twice since
then, and find myself revisiting individual sequences repeatedly. I'm simply
astounded at the greatness of it. The amazing "I Walked With A Zombie" was my
favorite Tourneur film prior to "Stars," but I must say that, great as "Zombie"
is, it almost pales in comparison to "Stars." I thought I'd post some
thoughts as a way to kick start a discussion on "Stars."
There are some spoilers below.
The opening shot and the final succession of shots are stunning in the way
they are tied to the singing of the beautiful hymn "Stars in My Crown." The
opening shot is a slow reverse dolly shot moving away from the church as the
music is heard on the soundtrack. The same camera move is repeated in the film's
very last shot and it's echoed in the next-to-last-shot, which is a reverse
dolly inside the church as the congregation is singing the hymn; Tourneur
dissolves from this shot to the final shot, creating a sense of movement across
space. (Incidentally, the context of the singing of "Stars in My Crown" in the
final scene is quite different from the singing heard over the first shot due to
events which have transpired in the story.)
Another standout scene in the film, for me, is the wordless sequence when
Josiah (Joel McCrea - superb) visits the bedside of a dying woman at the request
of her doctor. He sits beside her bed in prayer as Tourneur frames him in
alternating close-ups and wide shots. After several moments, the wind suddenly
picks up outside and the woman awakens and grabs Josiah's hand; this shot is
the first time in the sequence that we see a medium shot of the woman, by the
way. Seemingly 'cured,' I suppose, she and Josiah exchange looks, and he exits
the room. Tourneur's mise-en-scene renders this scene utterly amazing.
As Mike Grost notes in his essay on the film, "Stars in My Crown" is also a
very bold film from a political standpoint, containing one of the most
clear-eyed attacks on racism of any film I've seen (let alone a film released in
1950). We were talking about movie lines on the group recently; Josiah's line
("It's the will of God") following his preventing the lynching of Famous is one of
the great lines in the cinema, I think. Wind also plays a role in this
scene; the two blank sheets of paper which are so important to the scene are swept
up by the wind for John (who narrates the film as an adult, looking back) to
"Stars in My Crown" is an astonishing film and one of my very favorites.
I note on the IMDB that the author of the novel upon which the film is based,
Joe David Brown, also wrote the novel which inspired another of my favorite
films, Peter Bogdanovich's "Paper Moon." Another of his novels was the basis
for a Delmer Daves film, "Kings Go Forth." Has anyone seen this one? Zach?
- The shot of the trees seen by the kids lying in the hay wagon recalls
Dreyer's Vampyr. It was the omnipresent (since his death) Jean-Claude
Biette who pointed this out, in a piece on the film that begins by
listing Tourneur's recommendations for young directors in the
interview Maxime posted a bit of: "establish strong visual points of
reference and suggestive rhythmic contrasts, fix the spectators'
attention on one or two pieces of visual or aural information each
time you change shots..." Then JCB points out that in Stars in My
Crown Tourneur breaks all his stated rules: scenes that follow with
no marked change in composition of the shots, relatively little
rhythmic variation, no strong contrasts in sets or characters
("nothing could be further from the grand contrasts of Ford").
"In fact the art of Tourneur Jr. is secret and stubborn: even though
this cineaste accomodated every assignment, he was always able, even
in the worst stories, to impose objectively [your word, M. C.] and
without bothering anyone (least of all the spectator) his point of
view...The way Tourneur films - with the sureness of a sleepwalker -
imparting a unity of rhythm that borders on the monotonous to his
mise-en-scene, refers all differences to the essential one: the
thematic opposition between the medicine of the spirit and the
medicine of the body... Tourneur believes in what can seem like dime-
store irrationalism, which recurs throughout his films, but since his
mise-en-scene is entirely based on this belief, its logic gives his
belief objective form...For example, in the very beautiful scene
where the boy is poisoned objectively by the well-water, but
subjectively by the way the magician addresses him during his
performance. [There you go!]
"All this reminds us of Dreyer: the resistance of bodies,
resurrections, miracles, the force of the Word (the reading of
Famous's will to the Klan members - a scene where non-differentiation
is carried about as far as it can go), or the scene where the boys
lying on the hay-wain watch the leafy branches passing overhead,
which recalls by contrast the voyage in the coffin in Vampyr. In
Tourneur and in Dreyer there is the same close attention to light and
to vocal dynamics. But something very strong separates them, in which
we can see the influence of Hollywood.
"The laws governing the economy of the spectacle are not the same in
their respective films, but they are both extreme cineastes: Dreyer
in his revolt (and its consequence: intransigence - no one has ever
accepted less), Tourneur in his acceptance (and its consequence:
renunciation - no one ever revolted less against his working
conditions). The first wanted to seize the absolute of life; the
second explored as deeply as is possible the relativity of art."
This is essentially what Maxime and Mike both heard in JCB's
definition of "cineaste" - a word which I notice recurs twice in this
passage. And I like the fact that Mike stresses the idea of
originality: Tourneur recalls Dreyer, but creates a vision that is
completely his own, unique, based on an individual viewpoint - one
which includes but is not limited to Tourneur's occultist beliefs -
that even extends to things like the common view of race differences
in 1950. And by being original - a word I would like to underline in
relation to "What Is a Cineaste?" - the true artist creates something
that will endure.
I'll quote from a thread running parallel to this one, Fred in
6637: "Work made with passion makes itself" without aiming at short-
term success, at pleasing an audience, at anything but the
imperatives of the artist's individual viewpoint, which can be
expressed in personal styles as different as Dreyer's intransigence
and Tourneur's submission. That kind of work will last through the
ages, but it isn't even made with that aim (says idealist Fred) -- or
maybe it is, says Freudian Bill, but there we are talking about
fundamental differences in our theories of just HOW Tourneur handled
the influence of Dreyer, and that's a whole other conversation that
will get me hooted at by David if we ever get to it.
The main thing for me is that whether we accept JCB's terms or not,
some of us seem to understand what he is getting at in his definition
of "cineaste," and it beats "repeated themes and obsessions" by a
- --- In email@example.com, "hotlove666" <hotlove666@y...>
> This is essentially what Maxime and Mike both heard in JCB'sIsn't it interesting, though, how Tourneur has gradually become a
> definition of "cineaste" - a word which I notice recurs twice in
>this passage. And I like the fact that Mike stresses the idea of
> originality: Tourneur recalls Dreyer, but creates a vision that is
> completely his own, unique, based on an individual viewpoint - one
> which includes but is not limited to Tourneur's occultist beliefs -
> that even extends to things like the common view of race
>differences in 1950. And by being original - a word I would like to
>underline in relation to "What Is a Cineaste?" - the true artist
>creates something that will endure.
> The main thing for me is that whether we accept JCB's terms or not,
> some of us seem to understand what he is getting at in his
>definition of "cineaste," and it beats "repeated themes and
>obsessions" by a country mile.
cineaste-like figure over the last couple of decades?
Sarris's "Expressive Esoterica" category seemed to stick for a
while. Even critics (at least English-speaking ones) sympathetic to
Tourneur's work in the 1970s, like Robin Wood or Roger McNiven, were
much more cautious in their praise. In an early essay on Tourneur,
Wood referred to the general excitement he felt when he first began
to discover Tourneur through things like I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and
CAT PEOPLE, wondering why Tourneur wasn't in Sarris's pantheon, and
he thought Tourneur comparable with Ford and Mizoguchi -- until he
began to see films like EASY LIVING,etc. And Roger also explicitly
resists seeing Tourneur is such canonical terms, insisting that while
Ford and Mizoguchi "offer a rather monumental concept of society in
terms of the historical evolution of cultures" Tourneur operates on a
much smaller level, more as a metteur-en-scene.
Unfortunately, I haven't had a chance to read Chris Fujiwara's book
yet but I wonder if he traces out JT's reception history in this
- Wholeheartedly agree with Peter Toungette's post: "Stars in My Crown" is the
best Tourneur film ever seen here. It even surpasses his classics in the
horror film (I Walked With a Zombie, Night of the Demon) and film noir (Out of the
Past, Berlin Express, Nightfall).
I think Tourneur's reputation has risen with 1) the increasing availability
of his films, and 2) the ease of rewatching films on tape or DVD. Tourneur is a
"pictorialist" filmmaker: someone whose films are rich in beautiful
compositions, like Ford, Sternberg, Mizoguchi. Being able to watch the films again and
again, hit the pause button on frames, and so on, allows one to really
appreciate the beauty of his visual style.
"Stars in My Crown" was simply never shown on TV here, until recent
screenings by TCM. I had barely heard of it, till Jonathan Rosenbaum included it on his
list of Top 100 American films. This list is available in Rosenbaum's book
"Movie Wars", and on the Chicago Reader web site. It repays serious study - it
is full of important classics.
"Stars in My Crown" now represents Tourneur on my own list of Outstanding
American Films, on my web site (shameless stealing from another and better
scholar!) It IS an important film, and demands inclusion on any such list (my
The story of "Stars in My Crown" shows how difficult it is for people to
arrive at truth. People eventually discover the true source of the epidemic, and
how to defeat it, but only after a titanic struggle. They have to abandon all
their cherished beliefs, re-learn reality from the ground up, and struggle and
struggle to arrive at the truth. Very important lessons for anybody to keep in
mind, in all fields of study. Tourneur would be appalled at all the people
with "easy answers" about things. "Stars in My Crown" would make a good double
bill with "The Magic Alphabet", Tourneur's short film about the equally
difficult real-life discovery of vitamins.
- And let me add that the presence of a sturdy A-lister like Stevens in
The Far Side of Paradise while Dwan, Ulmer, Boetticher, Siegel and
Tourneur languish in Expressive Esoterica confirms it. This doesn't
mean that the hierarchy isn't any good - I love The American Cinema.
But it is not based on solely esthetic criteria.
- --- In firstname.lastname@example.org, "hotlove666" <hotlove666@y...>
> I repeat, Sarris's hierarchy is half esthetic, half socio-economic.Right, but my question was not Why did Sarris rank Tourneur as
> No one but H'wd A-list directors need apply for the Pantheon.
Expressive Esoterica in 1968? Rather, I was asking why, over the
last couple of decades, has Tourneur's reputation steadily risen to
the point where Biette (and Biette doubtless does not stand alone
here in his opinion) can come to regard Tourneur as a cineaste rather
than a metteur-en-scene.
- --- joe_mcelhaney <joe_mcelhaney@...> wrote:
>I think this relates to Tourneur's elsusiveness in
> Right, but my question was not Why did Sarris rank
> Tourneur as
> Expressive Esoterica in 1968? Rather, I was asking
> why, over the
> last couple of decades, has Tourneur's reputation
> steadily risen to
> the point where Biette (and Biette doubtless does
> not stand alone
> here in his opinion) can come to regard Tourneur as
> a cineaste rather
> than a metteur-en-scene.
terms of the Hollywood studio system as a whole. First
he's part of the Lewton team, then he's off on his
own. He never has a log-term contract with a major
studio the way Walsh did, nor is he a
producer-director like Hawks. He's all over the map.
While most people who are interested in his work start
with the Lewton material and then skip right to "Out
of the Past" and "Curse of the Demon," they overlook
the fact that Tourneur is a major director of
It should also be noted that in the same career he
managed to direct the pro-Soviet "Days of Glory"
(Gregory peck's debut) AND the McCarthy era insanity
"The Fearmakers" -- with Dana Abdrews, Mel Torme and
Veda Ann Borg.
Do you Yahoo!?
Yahoo! Hotjobs: Enter the "Signing Bonus" Sweepstakes
- --- In email@example.com, "joe_mcelhaney" <joe_mcelhaney@y...> wrote:
>Sarris's own summation changed from "a stylist, if not a full-fledged _auteur_" (!!) in the American Directors issue, to simply "a triumph of taste over force" in the book. Was this an elevation, or otherwise?
> Isn't it interesting, though, how Tourneur has gradually become a
> cineaste-like figure over the last couple of decades?
> Sarris's "Expressive Esoterica" category seemed to stick for a
> Unfortunately, I haven't had a chance to read Chris Fujiwara's bookFujiwara ascribes "the belatedness of this attention" in France to "accidents of distribution that kept some of Tourneur's major films off French screens until the late sixties."
> yet but I wonder if he traces out JT's reception history in this
- --- In firstname.lastname@example.org, "jess_l_amortell" <monterone@e...>
> Fujiwara ascribes "the belatedness of this attention" in France to"accidents of distribution that kept some of Tourneur's major films
off French screens until the late sixties."
An article in the Dec. 1963 Cahiers du Cinéma lists some of the
American films that hadn't yet been released in France. Tourneur's
Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man, Stranger
on Horseback, The Fearmakers, Easy Living, Days of Glory,
Nightfall, and Night of the Demon had not yet received a release.
Not being able to see the Val Lewton films must have given a
different perspective on Tourneur...
(Some other films unreleased in France: What Price Glory (Ford);
The Man I Love, One Sunday Afternoon, A Lion Is in the
Streets (Walsh); The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees (Donen);
Force of Evil (Polonsky); Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Siegel);
Detour (Ulmer); The Actress (Cukor); The Tall T, Ride
Lonesome, Decision at Sundown, and Comanche Station (Boetticher);
China Gate, Crimson Kimono, Forty Guns, Park Row (Fuller);
Paths of Glory (Kubrick); The Clock (Minnelli); The Track of
the Cat and Lafayette Escadrille (Wellman); The Phenix City
Story (Karlson); The Tall Target (Mann); Flame and the Flesh,
and A Catered Affair (Brooks); My Son John (McCarey); A Kiss
Before Dying and Fury at Showdown (Oswald); Carmen Jones
(Preminger); Take Me to Town, All I Desire, There's Always
Tomorrow, Hitler's Madman, Meet Me at the Fair, Has Anybody
Seen My Gal (Sirk); Comrade X, H.M. Pulham, Esq., An American
Romance (Vidor); The Damned, The Boy with Green Hair, The Big
Night (Losey). Carmen Jones wasn't released because of a dispute
with the estate of the opera's librettists. What Price Glory,
Lafayette Escadrille, and China Gate were unreleased, and Paths
of Glory was banned, because of unfavorable depictions of the
French military. My Son John and Force of Evil were too
politically controversial for the distributors.)
In a discussion on Usenet you mentioned the fairly obscure
Tourneur films two Cahiers critics chose as among the best
American films: Bernard Eisenschitz chose "Way of the Gaucho"
and Dominique Rabourdin selected "Wichita." (I haven't seen
either -- I don't think they were at the Tourneur retrospective at
Here's the entry on Tourneur by Jean-Louis Comolli in the dictionary
of American directors that appeared in the Dec. 1963 issue.
Erreur de le croire précis parce que raffiné : Tourneur,
précieux à ses moments perdus, et surtout (et quand il est pressé)
cinéaste du mal-à-l'aise et de l'instable. En marge d'Hollywood
funambule et somnambule, il traverse le cinéma U.S. sur une
corde et dans un rêve. Il a l'air tout autant égaré en
lui-même qu'en ses films, où il perd pas mal de plans et
gagne plus d'inquiétude à se chercher. Quand il se trouve :
efficace et concis, il montre un peu de sa force à foire
rimer présence et violence (Nightfall) ; quand il se cherche,
il s'épuise en méandres : filandreux et faible, il s'embrouille
dans ses scénarios (Cet People) ou dissipe son esthétisme
en épiphénomènes (Flame and Arrow). Quand il ne se cherche
ni ne cherche, il se rencontre et se possède : c'est la
rigueur et le dénuement d'un poète des contrastes (Timbuktu),
ce sont aussi les variations d'un découvreur d'accords
subtils (Great Day in the Morning). Dons tous les cas, soins
et soucis extrêmes se retournent contre lui ; l'audace peut
le sauver, le laisser aller doit le mener, et la décontraction
l'accomplirait, mais ce ne serait plus Tourneur, cinéaste de
l'entredeux mises et des demi-mesures par excès déplacé.
- J.-L. C.
- Movie magazine's editorial board listed its favored American
and British directors in May 1962. It seems to be limited to
directors still working in 1962. Tourneur rates high.
Howard Hawks Alfred Hitchcock
George Cukor Stanley Donen Anthony Mann Leo McCarey
Vincente Minnelli Otto Preminger Nicholas Ray
Douglas Sirk Jacques Tourneur Raoul Walsh Orson Welles
Robert Aldrich Budd Boetticher Richard Brooks Frank Capra
Blake Edwards Richard Fleischer John Ford Samuel Fuller
Henry Hathaway Elia Kazan Jerry Lewis Sidney Lumet
J. L. Mankiewicz Gerd Oswald Arthur Penn Don Siegel
George Stevens Frank Tashlin Edgar Ulmer King Vidor
Richard Breen Roger Corman Andre de Toth Gordon Douglas
Allan Dwan J. Frankenheimer Michael Gordon Byron Haskin
John Huston Phil Karlson Stanley Kubrick Mervyn LeRoy
Rudolph Mate Robert Mulligan Joseph Newman Robert Parrish
Richard Quine Mark Robson Alexander Singer Andrew Stone
Don Weis Paul Wendkos Fred M. Wilcox Richard Wilson
Robert Hamer Seth Host Karel Reisz
COMPETENT OR AMBITIOUS
Joseph Anthony Jack Arnold Laszlo Benedek David Butler
John Cassavetes Joseph Cates Shirley Clarke Herbert Coleman
Hubert Cornfield Michael Curtiz Delmer Daves
Edward Dmytryk V. J. Donehue Philip Dunne John Farrow
Jose Ferrer Mel Ferrer Melvin Frank Jack Garfein
Hal Kanter Harry Keller Gene Kelly Irvin Kershner
Henry King Howard W. Koch Stanley Kramer Anatole Litvak
Joshua Logan Ranald MacDougall Daniel Mann Delbert Mann
George Marshall Lewis Milestone David Miller Richard Murphy
Norman Panama Joseph Pevney Irving Rapper Martin Ritt
Robert Rossen George Sidney Jack Webb William Wellman
Billy Wilder Robert Wise William Wyler Fred Zinnemann
Michael Anderson Ken Annakin Anthony Asquith Roy Baker
John Boulting Roy Boulting Jack Cardiff Michael Carreras
Don Chaffey Jack Clayton Robert Day Basil Dearden
Charles Frend Guy Green Val Guest John Guillermin
Guy Hamilton Ken Hughes Pat Jackson Philip Leacock
David Lean Jack Lee J. Lee Thompson Michael McCarthy
John Moxey Ronald Neame Michael Powell Alvin Rakoff
Carol Reed Tony Richardson Wolf Rilla Wendy Toye Harry Watt
Irwin Allen Hall Bartlett James Clavell Morton da Cos
Jerry Hopper Bruce Humberstone Nunnally Johnson Nathan Juran
Henry Koster Walter Lang Robert Z. Leonard Jean Negulesco
George Pal Daniel Petrie Dick Powell Russell Rouse Roy Rowland
George Seaton Jack Sher George Sherman Vincent Sherman
R. G. Springsteen John Sturges Norman Taurog Richard Thorpe
Robert D. Webb William Whitney
Julian Amyes Robert Asher Baker & Berman Compton Bennett
Muriel Box Stuart Burge J. Paddy Carstairs Henry Cass
Arthur Crabtree Charles Crichton Paul Czinner Cy Endfield
William Fairchild Terence Fisher Lewis Gilbert Sidney Gilliatt
John Gilling B. Desmond Hurst Anthony Kimmins Frank Launder
John Lemont Jay Lewis David MacDonald Kevin McClory
Leslie Norman George Pollock Vernon Sewell Alfred Shaughnessy
Gerald Thomas Ralph Thomas Herbert Wilcox Terence Young
- For those who've seen Stars in My Crown recently, a possibly dumb question.
***For others, possible epidemic SPOILERS***
Even though I'm not especially strong on narrative plausibility in general (and not that great at simply following plots - which may be part of the problem), one thing did puzzle me the last time I saw it (when it was blessed, by the way, with an introduction by Chris Fujiwara, whose chapter on the film is so wonderful): Why don't they ever check out the well? Even the wise Uncle Famous rules it out as the source of the epidemic because he's sure it would have been tested by then. But it seems that it hasn't been, and apparently only because Joel McCrea *assumed* that the boy wouldn't have drunk from it before school started ... although Tourneur makes sure that *we've* seen children playing there. (The boy himself presumably being as yet too sick to be interrogated.) Is this some sort of comment on civic and medical negligence or is it a hole in the plot, or most likely, is there something else I'm neglecting, perhaps key to Tourneur's often curious, convoluted yet understated approach to narrative.
Mike Grost, actually, seems to be referring to this on his Tourneur page when he calls attention to Tourneur's "deluded" characters: "In several Tourneur films, Something Bad is going on. The audience knows this, but the good characters are either in ignorance or denial. The Bad activity is often quite destructive. Eventually the Bad activity can locate itself near water: the sea ships here, the swimming pool in Cat People, the aquariums in Experiment Perilous...." What seems so odd in Stars is that much is made of the McCrea character being accused, and eventually cleared, of one delusion -- his alleged denial that he may be transmitting the disease -- but (as far as I recall) he's completely let off the hook where it matters: the film never seems to make a point of, or even especially notice, the actual delusion inherent in his curiously automatic and unthinking assumption about the well...
--- In email@example.com, MG4273@a... wrote:
> The story of "Stars in My Crown" shows how difficult it is for people to
> arrive at truth. People eventually discover the true source of the epidemic, and
> how to defeat it, but only after a titanic struggle. They have to abandon all
> their cherished beliefs, re-learn reality from the ground up, and struggle and
> struggle to arrive at the truth.
- I'll have to re-watch "Stars in My Crown" for a definite answer. But memory
People in the film think they "know" how the epidemic is being spread. They
do not. And this "knowledge" blinds them and makes it almost impossible for
them to learn the truth. The same thing is true in "The Magic Alphabet", a
recreation of the discovery of vitamins. The scientist in that film "knows" why
people are dying of disease. It is caused by a germ - like other diseases. He
does all the "right" things to look for the still unknown germ. And he never
finds it. Meanwhile, people are dying like flies all around him. Eventaully,
chance and humbling experiences and great effort slowly make him realize the truth
- there is no germ. In fact, people are dying because they are not getting an
essential ingrediant in their food. Once he learns this, he can immediately
start saving lives. And he has discobvered the "vitamin principle" - that people
need to eat vitamins to stay healthy.
Both of these films give a terrifying look into the scientific process. The
people in them are confronted with genuine mysteries. And they have to unlearn
all their bad ideas first. This is an authentic portrait of real science and
real scholarship - but you don't often see it in the movies outside of Tourneur!
Tourneur's short films are amazingly complex in terms of plot and
characterization. And his long films are correspondingly even more complicated in plot
and character! There is an especially good discussion in the fujiwara book of
the fabulous complexities of "I walked With a Zombie". (And I hope my discussion
above about science in Tourneur is not just lifted from somewhere in
Fujiwara's excellent book. If so, my apologies!)
- --- In firstname.lastname@example.org, "jess_l_amortell" <monterone@e...>
>>>Why don't they ever check out the well? Even the wise Uncle Famousrules it out as the source of the epidemic because he's sure it would
tested by then. But it seems that it hasn't been, and apparently only
Joel McCrea *assumed* that the boy wouldn't have drunk from it before
started ... although Tourneur makes sure that *we've* seen children
The other reason, which is stressed more strongly in the novel than
in the film, is that the town's one doctor - blinded by envy - is
absolutely convinced that the parson is the carrier. (To the point
where, in the novel, the parson feels he must bring a sample of the
well water to another town to be tested, because he thinks the doctor
will just laugh at his suspicion that the well is infected.)
In the film, the handling of this part of the plot somewhat lessens
the blame to be attached to the doctor (even at the risk of making
the parson seem negligent, as Jess's reaction proves), making it
possible for us to see him as a more sympathetic, though still
misguided, character (while making the parson more complex).
Also, the failure to test the well, if we see it as questionable,
heightens the emphasis throughout this section of the film on the
irrational, fear, and doubt. And by showing the two white adult male
authority figures as unable to see the truth, the film sets things up
for the realization to come from the boy, inspired by Uncle Famous's
chance remark: another critique of institutional power and knowledge
(as in the Tourneur-Lewton films) and another case of the socially
marginal character becoming central to the story, as happens in
several Tourneur films.
- I watched STARS IN MY CROWN the other day and wanted to briefly
revive the discussion from a few weeks ago (as per Peter's
suggestion to me). This is a tremendous film. (Spoilers follow.)
Tourneur may have been the greatest of 'atmospherists' in all of
cinema, or at least, narrative cinema. Bill discussed (I believe)
Biette's characterization of Tourneur as someone who could run a
monotonous rhythm through scenes, and barely alter the mise-en-scene
from shot to shot. Tourneur's great gift was in making tangible the
atmosphere of his given film-worlds. The air between objects is
always deeply felt, often greatly charged, in his films: tense and
electric in much of I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (culminating in the
frightening nighttime journey to the voodoo site), dark and
suggestive in CAT PEOPLE, thin and desolate in NIGHTFALL. The
camera angles, the lighting, the production design, and the acting
all seem to cohere in Tourneur's work to create a precisely balanced
tone: to make the very environments of the characters of a certain
piece. This environment returns to everything else (those angles,
the acting) a highly finished, sustained *tone*. The mood of a
Tourneur film seems to be the way Tourneur made the atmosphere, the
environment, the space seem. What other Hollywood filmmaker was so
consistently concerned with the expressive possibilities of light,
shadow, the (in)visible, and the wind? Sternberg for the first two,
STARS IN MY CROWN has that amazing scene where the Parson prays for
Faith Samuels in her room, and Tourneur's imaginative realization of
her miraculous recovery (a plot turn that might well have turned out
hackneyed) is to alter the atmosphere of the image before our very
eyes. In a room contrasted between light and dark, the wind picks
up and sets to motion the composition, suggesting the currents
that 'move' Faith back into health. Inscribed in the back of our
minds is the image of the Doctor praying in the hallway, which was
the shot immediately preceding the one inside Faith's room. I don't
think any Hollywood filmmaker comes to mind who would have handled
the scene in such a way, and it stands as perhaps the most
unexpected and briefest tour-de-forces in Tourneur's filmography. I
was moved to tears and (because I was watching this on video)
immediately rewound the scene to watch it again, something I don't
know that I've done in recent memory.
A striking thing about STARS is that it, like Mulligan's MAN IN THE
MOON and Tarkovsky's NOSTALGHIA, doesn't seem to work unless you
invest at least a hypothetical belief in God/providence/the
supernatural. I don't know how seriously we can take Tourneur's
films on a metaphysical level, because my impression is that
Tourneur would apply his talent (rather than express it full-
fledged) to bring out and, hmm, ennoble his plots' often run-of-the-
mill worldviews. And yet there's nothing run-of-the-mill about the
things we experience in CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, or STARS
IN MY CROWN.
- I want to propose another paradigm for Tourneur, one that makes him,
along with Walsh and Boetticher,
a profoundly radical filmmaker in terms of conventional Hollywood
At the heart of the classical narrative structure is the ability of the
protagonist (heck, the hero, 'cause it's
almost always a male) to control the narrative. Someone -- I think it
was Pascal Bonitzer but I wouldn't
stake my life on it because we're talking about a 27 or 28-year-old
memory here -- describes this as "the master position"
in the narrative. It's the ability to take an active role in determining
the outcome of events, often even a sort of surrogate metteur-en-scene
role (in the more literal, rather than the Biette, sense of the term).
To some extent, the master position is determined by the
centrality of the hero to the narrative, the certainty and correctness
of his actions; in the work of someone like Hawks -- I think the best
example of this principle in action -- it also comes out of the
protagonist's place in the mise-en-scene.
Where Tourneur differs is in the basic narrative structure of his best
films -- all of the Lewtons, Out of the Past, the westerns,
Curse of the Demon, Stars in My Crown, Easy Living, even a rather
pedestrian work like Berlin Express. In these films the
hero -- and it is signficant that the character in question in these
films is invariably male -- is confident of his ability to control
events and of the rightness of his worldview. At each turn his
confidence and his philosophical position is undermined by
events. The shrink in Cat People, the husband in I Walked with a Zombie,
Jeff and Whit in Out of the Past, Holden in
Curse of the Demon, -- these are all sexually agressive men whose
control over the world is predicated on a mixture of
rationalistm and testosterone. By the end of each film, their worldview
is shattered, they have either lost control of events or,
in the cast of Demon, only survive by giving in to the seemingly
irrational. I think that you can make a fairly good case for
Stars and the westerns as adhering to a milder, less sexually charged
version of the same structure.
So Tourneur is offering a counter-view to the traditional,
phallocentric, hero-driven narrative of the period. Why do I bracket him
with Walsh and Boetticher? Because Walsh's films are usually structured
around the out-of-control forward rush of his heroes who
are unable to understand the forces of history arrayed against them
(think of the amazing crane shot at the Little Big Horn in They
Died with Their Boots On, when Walsh reveals that Custer is chasing a
diversionary movement by the Sioux and that he is about'
to be cut off -- and massacred -- by the main body of their troops). My
favorite example of this is Objective Burma -- is there any
other Errol Flynn film in which he spends more time totally unsure of
what to do next? As for Boetticher, the Ranown cycle, Legs
Diamond, A Time for Dying, The Killer Is Loose, even Arruza, are all
films about heroes whose chief project is doomed, either
by their inability to control events that they have set in motion or
because they are ultimately irrelevant to the narrative (as Kitses
aptly points out about Buchanan Rides Alone).
And I suspect that it is the sheer subversiveness of these three
filmmakers -- as well as the usual problem of working with
unfashionable actors like Andrews, Scott, Flynn, in unfashionable genres
-- that is why they are regrettably neglected.
- Zach Campbell wrote:
>I watched STARS IN MY CROWN the other day and wanted to brieflyThanks for sharing your thoughts on this amazing film! It's great to see
>revive the discussion from a few weeks ago (as per Peter's
>suggestion to me). This is a tremendous film. (Spoilers follow.)
that "Stars in My Crown" has so many supporters on a_film_by. Tag has said that
it wasn't too widely seen in the '60s and perhaps this is the reason why even
such a major Tourneur supporter and scholar as Robin Wood doesn't even mention
the film (or barely mentions it) in his otherwise superb entry on the
director in the Roud volume. Does anyone know if Wood wrote about "Stars in My
Crown" at a later date?
>STARS IN MY CROWN has that amazing scene where the Parson prays forThis is my favorite scene of the movie and I also found myself rewinding it
>Faith Samuels in her room,
and watching it again on my first viewing.
>In a room contrasted between light and dark, the wind picksWhat's particularly astonishing is that the atmosphere changes within a
>up and sets to motion the composition, suggesting the currents
>that 'move' Faith back into health.
single shot: the long shot of the Parson praying at the bedside of Faith. I
haven't clocked the exact duration of this shot, but it feels lengthy in relation to
the cutting rhythms of the rest of the scene; the wind picks up towards the
very end. Also notable is the shot following it, of Faith turning her head,
'cured'; her recovery has been almost instantaneous.
A small thing I commented upon in my original post on "Stars in My Crown" is
that Tourneur also utilizes qualities of the atmosphere by having the wind
sweep up the fake 'will' of Famous's at the end of that extraordinary scene.
Fred Camper wrote:
>I stillYou know, I have to say that probably the biggest change I've undergone as a
>remember seeing "Mouchette" for the first time in French without
>subtitles, not getting much of the dialogue, and still being
>overwhelmed, and overwhelmed in a way consistent with my later viewings.
filmgoer over the past year or so is my belief that looking at even sound
films as one would look at a silent film is >not< an impoverished way of viewing
cinema - provided that it's a great movie. In fact, as Bogdanovich noted
thirty years ago in an essay in his "Pieces of Time," sound movies have an
advantage over silents in terms of one's visual experience of them; there aren't title
cards which interrupt the imagery. Spoken dialogue is a lot easier to block
out than title cards.
Anyway, if I find myself watching a narrative film and drifting from
following the plot as its expressed through dialogue or acting, that's sometimes all
it takes to convince me that the film I'm watching is a great one.