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October 08, 2007

War-Gods of the Deep

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Jacques Tourneur - 1965
MGM Region 1 DVD

How many film directors know when they are making their last film? I had read that Nicholas Ray had a dream while filming 55 Days in Peking that his career as he knew it was over. The other point of interest is how filmmakers can still leave their imprint on films that either came about as assignments, or that were made in spite of constant interference. I have yet to read Chris Fujiwara's book on Jacques Tourneur, but am inspired to do so primarily to compare what has been documented about the making of War-Gods of the Deep with my own speculations.

That Tourneur's final work was originally written by his Night of the Demon collaborator Charles Bennett suggests thwarted promises of what might have been a better film. There is the argument that Night of the Demon might have also been better had their been no studio interference. What is certain is that in spite of some woeful casting and re-writing, War-Gods of the Deep has visual and thematic links to Tourneur's films produced by Val Lewton.

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I imagine Tourneur arguing with the production executives about showing as little as possible of the underwater "gill men". The most interesting of these semi-human creatures is first seen mostly in the shadows, marked by a long Mohawk hair-do. Subtlety was rarely valued at American-International Pictures, and the film ends with more revealing shots of the monsters, looking mostly like submerged, malevelont Teletubbies. I would like to imagine that what Tourneur and Bennett had in mind were creatures indirectly related to the animal-human hybrids out of the past, the cat people and leopard men.

It is with the same spirit that this tale, told mostly in the dark, reminded me also Berlin Express in which the characters find themselves lost in a maze of ruins. Even the giant, unexplained statues are reminders of Tourneur's previous explorations into men and myths. What does not help is the casting of Tab Hunter and the blandly attractive Susan Hart as the romantic leads. Far better are Vincent Price in a well-modulated performance, and character actor John Le Mesurier in a role orignally pegged for Boris Karloff. Louis Heyward's hand in re-writing the film for the presumed American-International audience is evident in broad comedy with David Tomlinson and a pet chicken named Herbert. There is greater humor in the suggestion that Susan Hart's character, believed by Price to be the reincarnation of his dead wife, has the faintly aquatic last name of Tregillis, as if she could be an unknowing descendent of the ocean creatures.

Certainly one should consider what Fujiwara has said in describing Tourneur in putting his films in context, "Tourneur seems never to have been completely at home in America, and lots of his films are about outsiders, about being 'strange' in a place. They have a similar emotional quality to the books of Marguerite Duras: both are concerned with people remote from each other and themselves, who inhabit weird, distant realms. Yet Tourneur allows us a kind of nostalgic connection with his characters, even to fall in love with them."

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Posted by peter at October 8, 2007 12:24 AM

Comments

Great review of Tourneur's last film. I've never seen it, but I certainly want to now. Is it on one of those MGM Midnite Movies double bills?

I've got the last television work that Tourneur directed ("T.H.E. Cat" episode, "The Ring of Anasis")kicking around here, but I haven't watched it just yet.

Posted by: Aaron W. at October 8, 2007 12:14 PM

It's amazing to me how little producers learn from the movie making business. I just watched Night of the Demon (or "Curse of" depending on which print you see) the other night on TCM and Robert Osborne spoke of how Tourneur wanted to only suggest something malevolent at the climax but Hal Chester insisted on showing the demon and had it done without Tourneur's approval. What a god-awful result! The finale was ruined by what had to be one of the worst crafted costumes I have ever seen and clearly an abominable artistic choice. But Tourneur had already shown that less was better with his great films done in collaboration with Val Lewton (notably of course Cat People) and yet Chester still didn't trust Tourneur's instincts. What a pedestrian, what a wretch. Sounds to me from what you're describing that Tourneur had to suffer this kind of willful ignorance for much of his career.

Posted by: Jonathan Lapper at October 8, 2007 02:45 PM

Aaron: I never saw "T.H.E. Cat", but I read that Tourneur's "Twilight Zone" episode, which I probably saw at least once but don't remember, is quite good. War-Gods is on a Midnight Movie double feature DVD with At the Earth's Core although Amazon also has it available by itself. My intro to Tourneur was Comedy of Terrors which I saw on a double feature with Corman's X - The Man with the X-Ray Eyes.

Jonathan: The history of Hollywood is about production executives who never actually watch films. Think of what happened when Paul Schrader made his Exorcist film and the producers were shocked to see a Paul Schrader movie.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at October 9, 2007 03:19 AM