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Issue 04, Volume 02

Michael Henry Wilson on Tourneur's Night of the Demon

by Theo Zenou

This article is part of an ongoing series of published conversations held between Double Exposure contributors and established film writers. Each installment will be devoted to a single film of the critic’s choice. 

Born and educated in Paris, France, Michael Henry Wilson is a bi-cultural filmmaker, film historian and writer residing in California. He has written and directed Reconciliation: Mandela’s Miracle (2010), a documentary focusing on Nelson Mandela’s historic achievements to end Apartheid and usher in a new era for South Africa. The film has won several awards – including Best Documentary at the Hollywood Film Festival – and is currently a PBS/Warner Bros. release available on Netflix. Previously he wrote and directed In Search of Kundun (1998), a theatrical documentary chronicling Scorsese’s encounter with the Tibetan people and the Dalai Lama. With Scorsese he co-wrote and co-directed A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995).  As a screenwriter, he has long been associated with director Alan Rudolph. A creative consultant on The Moderns (1988), Wilson co-wrote the surrealistic comedy Intimate Affairs (2002) starring and produced by Nick Nolte, as well as currently in development projects. Wilson’s books include Scorsese on Scorsese (2011) and Eastwood on Eastwood (2011), Jacques Tourneur ou la magie de la suggestion (2003) or Raoul Walsh ou la saga du continent perdu (2001). A longtime contributor of the French monthly review Positif, Wilson has interviewed at length most major filmmakers of the old and new Hollywood. His upcoming projects include a documentary on Aung San Suu Kyi (Burma’s Gandhi), co-writing and co-directing with Martin Scorsese a documentary on British cinema and A la porte du Paradis (2013), a personal survey of American cinema through 55 directors, from Griffiths to Lynch.

Theo Zenou:

As always with Jacques Tourneur, it's what you don't see that is powerful, evocative, haunting. I find Night of The Demon to be an ideal example of this because the structure of the film bears in itself a contradiction - one that is not Tourneur's fault... And yet the movie's still incredibly effective.
Night of The Demon opens with a now-classic voice-over sequence, which sets up and explains to the audience the fantasy element of the diegesis. But this feels like it was a producer's call; it's very much crafted like a producer's scene.  I always find that this 2 or 3-minute narration undermines everything Tourneur builds up in the film. Why? Simply because, in its straightforward affirmation of the supernatural, it deprives the film of its greatest weapon: initiation. Tourneur is a master at atmospheres and moods, and throughout Night of The Demon, he orchestrates the character’s journey with great care, lets it seep in. He wants us to ask ourselves: is the paranormal real or is it not? It's through such questions that Tourneur can use the "magic of suggestion" and, in a very minimalistic way, share his spiritual truth. Another scene that is problematic in this sense is the very early reveal of the monster. After this, it only becomes a matter of when the character will find it. This can be a very exciting arc but it doesn't seem like this was the one Tourneur shot. I think it was the producer's decision to show the monster this early; again, it goes against Tourneur's entire vision. 

Yet that contradiction aside (and in my mind I always obstruct the two scenes mentioned when watching it) - the picture is a remarkable metaphor, both narratively and visually, on the nature of belief and the materialism of our world. Sometimes, in novels or films, a sentence or quote can define the spirit of the entire work. In Night of The Demon, I feel like Joanna's line does: "They [children] believe in things in the dark until we tell them it's not so. Maybe we've been fooling them." I find it to be very moving in its reference to a question that animates us all, in its potent evocation of a universal moment in our lives. The decision to set the film in England makes us constantly aware that our hero is not only an hardcore scientist, but also an American. He's from the "new world". Here, we're (relatively) in the old world, and it is a symbolic opposition that we witness between two worlds. That theme is a real continuation from Cat People. There's another quote in the picture that I like, and this one establishes more firmly Tourneur as a moralist: "If this world is ruled by demons and monsters, we might as well give up right now." I don't believe Tourneur thinks we should give up. But he's certain that for darkness, there's also light. It's not a surprise that the first post-credit shot of the film is a flare out of blackness.

Before we realize it's a car, we see light. In short, the moral of Tourneur lies in the profound belief that for every curse there's a way to break it, and, as briefly mentioned in the picture, for all black magic, there's white one. Tourneur, though, is a cinematic painter at heart, and lets his images speak louder than words. There's a shot in Night of The Demon that - to me - captures the essence of the theme. Dana Andrews is standing at the top of the stairs; the staircase is in blackness. The bottom of the stairs is in the light, and so is the top. In between, is the leap of faith - the initiation, the forces he can't comprehend. In between is the decision to know or not know. That might be the most beautiful visual representation of faith and belief I've seen. 

Michael Henry Wilson:

I entirely agree with you. All your quotes and examples are excellent.

To me, Night of The Demon is one of the most representative Tourneur films because it directly deals with a subject matter dear to his heart: the existence of parallel worlds. It has always preoccupied him and has often infiltrated his films, but it has not necessarily been their exact focus…. Because, with Tourneur, there’s always something bigger happening beyond the frame. Logically, Night of The Demon is almost the perfect case for the late director’s filmography. The main character is a skeptic, a scientist who only believes in what experience validates. The film tells the story of someone who experiences the supernatural while he is supposed to fight it.

Tourneur did a lot of research, went to libraries and museums. He actually loved going to castles in England, and he dreamt of doing an actual recording of ghost happenings. He was extremely committed. As a consequence, it’s a film with a lot of convictions! Yet Night of The Demon is very sober: there’s a monster indeed, but it’s mostly about fear and how it creeps into your mind. Tourneur suggests that through chiaroscuro. It is a very cinematic style because it lends itself to using light or the lack thereof, which is an element of the mise-en-scene he was extremely sensitive to. Charles Bennett – a regular collaborator of Hitchcock – wrote the script. And he got along well with Tourneur. Furthermore, Tourneur had his best friend Dana Andrews play the lead. This was very helpful in the filmmaking process. But the main problem, production-wise, was the monster. In the original short story, it is not described. But the producer insisted. He wanted the monster to be visualized! Nonetheless, it was only put in after Tourneur had finished the picture. Regarding this late addition, Tourneur always complained…  This was justified by a reason deeply rooted in his belief system: to him, the real fear is what you don’t know, what you don’t visualize. To some extent, it cheapens the film that the monster is represented in the opening, briefly, and again in the end. The suspense loses its essence, it is not about the nature of the threat anymore. Whereas, in Tourneur films, you always feel that what is genuinely scary is what you don’t expect, what happens suddenly.


This approach to mise-en-scene is something that always fascinated me. It makes me think of Hitchcock’s motto: “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” And it’s that same element with Tourneur, the build-up towards the unexpected or the sudden that creates fear.

But this is something that is very true with cinema in general. Violence in film works the exact same way. Because, truly violence is fake and we know it is. We know that it’s ketchup! So, all of it is in the build-up, in essence, building the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Drive did that beautifully, Taxi Driver too. In the latter, in each scene, there’s a hint, an element that could make the protagonist go off––but he doesn’t. So, that crescendo is what makes the final explosion so memorable and powerful. Really it works like a piece of music, it can’t be forced upon the picture – it has to be built into it, and have its foundations in the characters.

So, if you show violence or the monster quite quickly, like in Night of The Demon, it becomes a spectacle, it becomes fun at best and camp at worst. And it’s a shame because Night of The Demon wants to be taken seriously, and it should be. I believe it’s as “profound” as any film that, say, Bergman did. Showing (or not showing) the monster is something that has preoccupied genre directors forever, and the choice not to show has sometimes allowed greater critical recognition for certain films by drawing attention instead to the true power of the mise-en-scene. Tourneur is often lauded for that reason.


Tourneur often said he did not want to show the monster. But I think he was probably truer to himself when he told me - in the 70s – that he had planned to show it very briefly, in a quasi-subliminal way, at the end. And the viewers wouldn’t have been a 100% certain they saw it. In my opinion, it could have worked, it would have felt like a hallucination.


And this is what made Cat People so efficient. It was very designed, eerie and above all, completely devoid of any stuffing. It uses suggestion as its main visual language, and that’s what has made it a landmark. That’s the “magic of suggestion”, to translate in English the title of your book on Jacques Tourneur.          


Yes, indeed. It’s important to explain the difference between Cat People and Night of The Demon. The former has a great producer, Val Lewton. He truly elevated the filmmakers he worked with; he made them surpass themselves in some cases. With him, Tourneur really found his footing. He recognized it, often saying: “Val Lewton was the poet. I was always the realistic, pragmatic one”. It makes no doubt that this collaboration made the films wonderful. They were always believable stories – which Tourneur insisted upon – but at the same entirely supernatural. The chemistry between Lewton and Tourneur was essential, and finally very similar to the balance between the real and the fantasy of their pictures.


Definitely. To come back to Night of The Demon, there’s another aspect that always delights me. It’s the way Tourneur develops his characters, his great affinity with them. Take the opening scene in the airplane, in which there’s a visual and verbal gag between Dana Andrews and Peggy Cummins. The staging is perfect, the performances as well. It’s incredibly funny, but it’s comedy grounded in characters. With this little interlude, you not only laugh the characters; you get to know them in such a clever way.


Jacques Tourneur’s films are not easy to encapsulate in a single mode or feeling. Indeed, there is a comedic element, but at the same time every line will later have dramatic repercussions.

Tourneur takes you on a journey to a different land. I Waked with a Zombie is a fine illustration. The nurse sails to the island. As she arrives, she believes it is the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen: the ocean at night, a star sky, the infinity of it all. Nevertheless, she meets this character who reads her mind, and he says, “it’s not beautiful - it’s death in decay, all around us”. Immediately, this radically changes her perspective, she thus is taken to a different realm of human experience.

Tourneur wants to establish that central theme in his first scenes. The character is going to experience something major on his journey. It will make him undergo a process where he has to reconsider his religious, spiritual and philosophical thinking. It’s important to specify that Tourneur believed in the supernatural. Naturally he was aware you can’t impose it on an audience without precautions. Tourneur had psychic gifts as a person, and as an artist was in some ways a medium.


It’s remarkable to know Tourneur was so deeply involved in the world of his films; there’s no doubt it was his calling to make supernatural dramas. I feel like this close, spiritual relationship to the supernatural is something that is quite rare. Nowadays, when looking at filmmakers working in those paranormal dramas, I can only see one who has - openly - deeply spiritual and supernatural beliefs: M. Night Shyamalan. And he has a quiet style, a will not to reveal that could make him a child of Tourneur.

Another contemporary who could be linked to Tourneur is J.J. Abrams, a firm believer in suggesting and understating in genre storytelling. When you watch Super 8 you only see glimpses of the monster until the emotional climax (in this case, the inspiration is probably, mostly from Jaws and Halloween). But for instance, in Lost, the "monster" turns out to be a trail of smoke (oddly similar to the one from Night of The Demon––could Tourneur have been an inspiration?). So a couple of directors today are sort of continuing this tradition of storytelling.

When you look at filmmakers out there, do you see any successors of Jacques Tourneur ?


I don't see many current filmmakers influenced by Tourneur, at least in Hollywood. The rule now is to show everything and not trust the imagination of the audience. The aesthetics of "suggestion" have become obsolete - a lost art form, I'm afraid! Shyamalan may have applied them in his first couple of films. John Carpenter and Ridley Scott are solid filmmakers and may have some affinities with Tourneur, thematically if not stylistically. As to European filmmakers, I would look at the work of Kieslowski and Zulawski.



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