Locarno 2017: Two Tourneurs and the Power of Fear

After my last screening on my first day at the Locarno Festival, I took the bus up to my hostel in the hills. In a scene reminiscent of Tourneur’s Cat People, I got off an empty bus and made my way down the quiet road. Even at night, it seems as though the surrounding mountains cast a shadow; the darkness feels dense. Suddenly a canid-like animal quickly jumps out of the woods, across the road, and into a field. In the distance, I can make out its large ears against the darkness where it seems to be sitting in the low grass watching me. I was afraid.

Fear is the forgotten hunger, more insatiable than lust and gluttony. Like a parasite and the more you feed fear, the more it overtakes you. Fear seems to be one of the themes of this year’s Locarno, a reflection of our fractured and troubled climate. Discussing the Tourneur retrospective (in many ways the Locarno retrospectives are the backbone of festival’s themes and obsessions) with Mubi, artistic director of the festival, Carlo Chatrian, described Tourneur’s films as being about fear: “Fear for the foreigners, fear for the animal that lives inside us, fear for not being able to survive our own desire.”

After a long day of travel, I decided to revisit two Tourneurs: The Leopard Man and Out of the Past.

I had always considered The Leopard Man, a lesser Val Lewton. I had wrongly assumed that beyond the fantastic opening sequence that the film, somehow, did not live up to the grandeur of Cat People (Tourneur), I Walked With a Zombie (Tourneur) and The Body Snatcher (Robson). Exhausted, during parts of the film I faded in and out of vivid nightmares and my anxiety only grew – as I began to fear for myself, as much for the characters onscreen.

The Leopard Man is a bleak existential horror. The film itself is about fear and how a domesticated panther might only kill when scared, and how the fear inspired by this incident has the power to transform moral identities – for better and for worse.

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The Leopard Man has one of the all-time greatest opening acts in the history of cinema. At a nightclub in Mexico, a money hungry publicist, Jerry Manning (Dennis O’Keefe), urges his client, Kiki (Jean Brooks), to walk on stage with a live black panther and steal the show from the more popular castanets dancer, Clo-Clo (Margo). Vital and ambitious, Clo-Clo scares off the animal almost with the sheer force of her ambition and the cat-hunt begins.

The musicality of this sequence, edited along the percussive castanets, sets a tone for the unseen. Shortly thereafter, Clo-Clo makes her way home and horror tropes frame her as the first victim (though she won’t be). She continues her musical intonations and passes through the streets from one character to the next, each given a phrase or a verse in her song. She leads us to the eventual victim, Teresa (Margaret Landry), the daughter of a poor family making a late night journey to the store for some cornmeal.

A perfect sequence, each beat resonates with dread up until the moment right before the attack – when Teresa has finally convinced herself there is nothing to be afraid of. As she walks under the tunnel, light cascades off of water, two eyes appear in the darkness and then she sees the beast. As Teresa runs home, she nearly makes it, until she is mauled to death after being locked outside by her mother. A scream, a thump, and blood trickles below the door and seeps between the cracks in the floorboards.

The attack shakes the town and soon more deaths follow. Kiki and Manning are overwhelmed by guilt, a kind of transplanted fear that they are directly responsible for the deaths. Their fear of implication leads them to live better lives. They donate money to the families, they try to stop the carnage, they shift their priorities from greed to compassion. 

More interesting though, is how fear transforms Dr. Galbraith (James Bell). Throughout the film, Dr. Galbraith acts as the authority within the movie, the kind of mentor/scientist who analyzes the panther’s zoological impulses. As it becomes increasingly clear that a panther is not behind most of the attacks – things get interesting – especially as Dr. Galbraith becomes further implicated.

While serial killer narratives have proliferated in recent years, in the first half of the twentieth century they were far more uncommon. Fritz Lang’s M is likely the best known, though there are a handful of others of lesser renown that do exist (1937’s Night Must Fall, starring Robert Montgomery is frightening and smarmy). While Tourneur’s collaborations with Lewton thus far have veered towards the supernatural, this film delves into the consciousness of a man who does the unthinkable – he is the psychopath driven to kill out of a venereal lust for destruction.

When Manning and Kiki finally confront Dr. Galbraith, the face-off takes place at the same time as a procession for the dead. In the distance, the chanting of cloaked mourners sets the scene, as the pair entrap the good doctor into confessing. James Bell’s performance is lusty and invokes a human rather than monstrous pathos.

Apparently, after seeing the body of the mauled peasant, his imagination went off. The contrast of her “frail body” and “soft skin” with her screams of fear and torn up flesh awakened a desire. It was her fear, as much as his bloodlust, that pushed him to recreate the experience with future victims. As he tries to make his escape, he joins the procession of mourners cloaked in black – aligning himself with death.

The film is based on a Cornell Woolrich novel I have not read and revisits themes common in his work as well: obsession, paranoia, and troubled sexual desire. Woolrich’s influence in the American cinema cannot be underplayed, his works serving as inspiration for films like Rear Window, Phantom Lady, The Bride Wore Black, and Original Sin.

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Right afterward, I caught Out of the Past – often hailed as Tourneur’s masterpiece. I have lost count of how many times I have seen it, and I cannot say I agree with the assessment. Seeing it on the big screen and in 35mm raised it in my esteem, but it still seems unfocused in spite of the richness of its textures and faces.

Now working at a gas station, former private eye Jeff (Robert Mitchum), is faced with his past when a former acquaintance shows up in town. Knowing he cannot outrun fate, he confesses his troubled past wrought with obsession, lust, and murder. Will he be able to build a new life, or is his destiny inescapable?

Mitchum and Greer make the film worth watching. Their performances feel modern, evoking a stylized realism. Greer, especially, has an impenetrable energy. Her motives are difficult to decipher and amplified slowly and poetically. There is a tiredness in her eyes, a wearied grace that aspires to transcend performative femininity. She is a villainess in that she aspires for more than her condition demands and at the end of the day, she only takes what the men around her allow to be taken: They are complicit in their own downfall, biting into the apple knowing it is poison.

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I can’t say fully why as a whole Out of the Past does not quite hit. Maybe the obsession is too peripheral and Mitchum’s blonde-haired girlfriend too adolescent. The story’s framing, about a man taking the last dash to save his reputation, feels well-earned but unsatisfying. How good of a man could he have ever been? What scale of morality should he be judged by and does he even need redemption?

Tourneur’s films have a way of bringing up the worst fears you have about yourself and the control over your destiny. What control do you have over your future? Given the chance would you do the right thing? Will you repeat the mistakes of your past? For now, it feels good revisiting mine back at Locarno, but who knows what dark secrets and hidden fears the rest of the festival holds…

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