The Westerns of Jacques Tourneur
Updated: Feb 6
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Jacques the lad
The French movie director Jacques Tourneur (1904 – 1977), son of director and screenwriter Maurice, who came to Hollywood as a boy in 1913, then permanently in 1934, and was often addressed there by the anglicized form Jack Turner, is probably best known for classic noirs such as Out of the Past (1947) and horrors such as Cat People (1942), both selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”, but he had quite a line in Westerns too. Like fellow European émigrés André De Toth and Rudolph Maté, he had a love of the American hard-boiled and tough-guy genres, and he turned to the Western with some relish. All his pictures, including the Westerns, showed a great command of mood and atmosphere.
Jacques, between gargoyles (not cat people)
He directed his first American features for MGM but in 1941 was dropped by Metro and worked with producer Val Lewton over at RKO (Cat People being the first success there). Though Cat People was low-budget and was sometimes dismissed as a B-movie, as Wikipedia says, “the style of lighting and cinematography gave it an edge”, and Tourneur was promoted to A-list pictures – such as Out of the Past, with Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer.
The first Tourneur Western was Canyon Passage (1946), a seriously classy example of the genre. It was put together by Walter Wanger, one of the more literate Hollywood producers. He had been a big wheel at both MGM and Paramount in the silent days but had gone independent in the mid-30s, with an impressive roster of stars on his books. From a Western perspective he had had a huge hit with John Ford’s Stagecoach in 1939.
Set unusually early, in 1850s Oregon, and shot there, around Diamond Lake and in the Umpqua National Forest, Canyon Passage starts with pouring rain and a ship in the background. It’s a “holster-less” Western in which guns are realistically stuck in pants and belts. So it’s not a typical Hollywood quick-draw oater or anything like that, coming across more as a period piece.
The photography, by the really talented Edward Cronjager, is truly beautiful. You want to go there. And the color of the Optimum Western Classics DVD print is warm, subtle and entirely fitting.
A lot of the credit for the quality of the movie must go to the fine Ernest Haycox novel on which it is based, skillfully adapted for the screen by Ernest Pascal, the English-born screenwriter, author, playwright and poet. The story is plausible, the relationships complex, the dialogue authentic and often moving. As The New Yorker put it, “The smell of death hangs heavy over the Edenic splendor of the Oregon landscape of Jacques Tourneur’s 1946 Western” and they called it “a pastoral film noir”.
Tourneur’s direction is subtle and he draws underacted, powerful performances out of the cast, especially Dana Andrews, in his first Western lead, who is excellent. It was the first of three pictures Andrews and Tourneur would work on together. According to The Los Angeles Examiner of February 6, 1945, Wanger’s first idea was to pair John Wayne and Claire Trevor in the picture, following Stagecoach, and Republic’s Dark Command. In the event, Andrews and the excellent Susan Hayward did very well instead.
Dana very good in this
Andrews plays a successful store-keeper and freighter, a man who is restless, unsatisfied and doesn’t know really what he wants. His best friend is Brian Donlevy (one of his better Western parts; he wasn’t always good in the genre), a compulsive gambler who embezzles to pay for his habit. The two compete for the affections of red-headed, fiery Lucy (Hayward in her first of eight Westerns: she was always absolutely outstanding), yet Donlevy lusts after the wife of the consumptive gambler he loses to (Onslow Stevens, excellent) and Andrews has proposed to Caroline, an English rose (Patricia Roc). Andrews and Donlevy are more alike than at first appears. Both are gamblers - Andrews over-extends his business, while Donlevy plays poker, badly. Both are rootless and have itchy feet. They do what they do but have not settled.
All three top class
There are four excellent minor characters: odious bully Ward Bond, bushwhacker, rapist, killer; earnest preacher Frank Ferguson; loutish mob leader Lloyd Bridges out to hang Donlevy and anyone else he disapproves of; and cynical minstrel Hoagy Carmichael, wry observer, a one-man Greek chorus. All are very good indeed. There are also great performances from Andy Devine and Dorothy Peterson as a settler couple and their two sons (played by the Devine boys). There are fearsome Indians on the warpath who burn a cabin (which we had seen raised by the community in a heart-warming scene) and murder the young couple of owners. Yet Andy Devine says at one point, “It’s their land and we’re on it.” This is not a one-dimensional Western like so many. It is lifelike. No one is all good or all bad, except perhaps Ward Bond who has very little to recommend him and eventually gets his just deserts at the end of a scalping knife, though we almost feel sorry even for him at the end.
Overall, there is real sense of brooding, an almost tangible atmosphere. This is helped by the music, by Frank Skinner, which is sometimes somber, often lyrical. Of course Hoagy contributes the occasional (rather 1940s) song, one of which, Ole Buttermilk Sky, was Oscar-nominated.
The picture was a modest success at the box-office, apparently making $5m on its $4.5m budget – though according to an article by Mathew Bernstein it made a loss of $63,784 - but it was a much bigger hit with the critics. The New York Times talked of “Good acting by all concerned, a smooth-flowing script and generally well-paced direction”. More recently, Martin Scorsese has described it as “one of the most mysterious and exquisite examples of the Western genre ever made” and Dennis Schwarz has called it “One of those great Westerns, equal to John Ford's top work, that has somehow been undeservedly ignored”.
So that was a pretty good start.
Four years later he was back at MGM for Stars in My Crown, with Joel McCrea. Actually, this was more a slice of Americana than a true Western, and indeed, by the end of his career, several of Tourneur’s ‘Westerns’ were hardly that. Still, the director really loved the story for this picture, and put his heart and soul into it. Modern Western-lovers might agree with me that it is only a Western in the same way that Friendly Persuasion is a Western. But Stars in My Crown is saved by the performance of Joel McCrea, just as Friendly Persuasion was salvaged by Gary Cooper. Otherwise, spectators would have drowned in a sea of treacle. The producers of the DVD cover and poster could really be had up for an infringement of trade description. It shows a frock-coated McCrea in a smoky saloon with two drawn guns below the slogan Take your choice … Either I speak or my pistols do! This is a reference to the opening scene of the movie where McCrea’s ex-soldier Josiah Doziah Gray arrives in town after the Civil War (in cavalry breeches of a faded color to match his name) to set up as a preacher and gives his first sermon at pistol-point in a saloon. It is the only truly Western episode in the movie and it lasts thirty seconds.
Otherwise, bucolic is the word, I’m afraid. We may be in a Western town in the 1870s but it’s just a wholesome 1950s family film about a cute community with a parson and a doctor and how they cope with a typhoid epidemic. Think Driftwood or Intruder in the Dust. Not my cup of tea, though I do admit to falling victim to the sentiment here and there, dammit. Children loom large and the picture is aimed at them, as well as their (undemanding) parents. At least the movie is decently anti-racist and may have had a good influence on its young audience.
Atmospheric scene of KKK assault
But it's a family film (I'm afraid)
In 1952 Tourneur made another picture, this time at Fox, only tangentially a Western, really, though it was a better movie, Way of a Gaucho. Fox deserved credit for taking cast and crew to Argentina and engaging Tourneur to direct it in Technicolor. They certainly threw budget at it. And it rewards in the sense that it is attractive, colorful and occasionally even beautiful. The DP was Harry Jackson.
Rory gets the local color right
It got Western validity partly through its lead, the oater-specialist Rory Calhoun, and partly for its plot. When Rory rides the range in a wide-brimmed hat in the 1870s and there are guns and chases and outlaws, it doesn’t really matter if it’s prairie or pampas. Calhoun was occasionally much better than he often got credit for, though The New York Times was snooty about him, calling him "sturdy but sullen". In fact, the picture was quite a hit and it boosted Rory's screen career. In it he does the moody doomed gaucho with aplomb. It’s an ‘end-of-the-West’ tale, set in a different West. “Foreigners and city men have taken the pampa away,” says gaucho Rory. And later he opines that “Our time is past”.
It was both produced and written by Philip Dunne, John Ford alumnus, who adapted the Herbert Childs novel. Dunne had adapted Fenimore Cooper for the 1936 The Last of the Mohicans, the Randolph Scott one, and done it rather well too (it’s a dreadfully turgid book and Dunne managed to distill it down to all the good bits). But he didn’t do Westerns. He doesn’t do a bad job on Gaucho, though.
Two ‘real’ Westerns followed in 1955, both once more with Joel McCrea, who admired Tourneur greatly and requested him. In March United Artists released Stranger on Horseback, the tale of a circuit judge (McCrea) out to bring law ‘n’ order to a frontier town, in classic style. “A United States circuit judge,” says Joel in an introductory voiceover, “needed three things to bring justice to this country: a law book, a horse and a gun. The further West, he got, the less he needed the book.”
Joel was the stranger on horseback
It’s actually a little 65-minute gem. Partly this was due to the excellent support cast, John McIntire as the ruthless rancher with ne’er-do-well son (Kevin McCarthy), Emile Meyer as the local lawman and John Carradine as an enjoyably scoundrelly lawyer in a planter’s hat that has seen better days, Colonel Buck Streeter, a dime-store Southern gentleman with a heart of nickel.
Tourneur used Ray Rennahan, one of the very best Western cinematographers, and visually this film is very good, especially once the characters get out of town and ride through that Sedona, AZ landscape (there was some Mexican shooting too).
The writing is good (a Herb Meadow/Don Martin screenplay from a Louis L’Amour novel) with some snappy lines. McCrea told of a compliment about the film received from L'Amour: "He told me that my playing of his character was exactly what he had in mind when he wrote it. I was very proud to hear that."
They worked very well together
Stranger on Horseback is not great landmark of the genre but it just shows that if you put a classy director and cinematographer together with a fine actor and some good writing you can end up with a terrific little Western that sticks in the memory.
In July that year, however, Allied Artists bigwig Walter Mirisch, who would become another longtime McCrea collaborator, saw his production of Wichita premièred in Wichita, Kansas. This was a much bigger effort – Mirisch had dreams of grandeur, wanting to bring AA into the big league of A-picture studios. Many would regard Wichita as Tourneur’s best Western, and they could be right. It’s a Wyatt Earp tale, though very much the mythic Wyatt Earp and nowhere near the historical reality. That’s OK; Westerns aren’t supposed to be documentaries. They are dramas and romances and action movies. The real Wyatt Earp, then 26 (McCrea was 50) was some kind of auxiliary lawman for a short time in Wichita, by all accounts an effective one, as well as dealing faro and possibly helping out in his brother James’s brothel, before being fired from the police force after beating a former marshal, Bill Smith, in a fist-fight and getting fined $30. He and James moved to Dodge to carry on their prostitution/saloon business there. But of course none of that appears in Wichita.
Once again there’s a good cast: reliable heavy Robert J Wilke (one of my favorites) plays Ben Thompson, with Jack Elam and Lloyd Bridges as his sidekicks; Edgar Buchanan is the rascally saloon owner Doc Black. Good old Wallace Ford is there, editing the local paper. Peter Graves is Morgan Earp and John Smith from Laramie is James (though the brothers are reduced pretty much to sidekicks). It's an excellent line-up. Perhaps Ford favorite Vera Miles wasn’t quite as strong as the love interest.
It was in Technicolor and CinemaScope (Tourneur's first widescreen picture), with DP Harold Lipstein doing a fine job. ‘Kansas’ looks like California and in fact is. Visually, the picture is a treat. And the lyricism of Hans Salter's music complements it admirably.
The script is sharp and tight. It was by the enormously experienced Daniel B Ullman. His screenplay actually had something interesting to say about business interests conflicting with law and justice, and how to reconcile security with liberty. It is finally pessimistic about the possibility of fighting disorder with guns.
Dan was the script man
It got good reviews at the time, and did well with ticket sales, though of course got nowhere near the likes of Lady and the Tramp that year, or even the top Western, The Tall Men (a much more turgid film). Indeed, it’s another excellent Tourneur Western. One of our readers, Jerry Entract, has said, “Nothing jars throughout this movie; the pacing of the storyline and action, the fine supporting cast and of course, Tourneur's directing and McCrea's central performance.” It’s well put.
A classic mythic Wyatt Earp
There was, sadly, only one more big-screen Tourneur Western to come. And it wasn’t one of his best, either. There are in fact echoes of Stars in My Crown in Great Day in the Morning (1956). Both have a complex and sensitively handled relationship between a man and a boy. In this one, the hero Owen Pentecost (Robert Stack, not really a Western specialist and second choice after Robert Mitchum) shoots a man (George Wallace) dead in a gunfight, and then feels obliged to semi-adopt the man’s son, Gary (Donald MacDonald, the lad who had been Burt Lancaster’s son the year before in The Kentuckian). Finally, Pentecost feels obliged to tell the boy who shot his father: hence the complex relationship.
The excellent Leo Gordon is the chief thug and Raymond Burr the slimy saloon owner. Top-billed Virginia Mayo and third-billed Ruth Roman provide the glamour.
It’s a handsome looking movie, nicely shot in Technicolor and SuperScope by William Snyder (13 Westerns including some visually fines ones) but the picture didn’t get rave reviews, and it didn’t wow the box-office either. The New York Times at the time called it “standard six-gun fare” and later on (the 1980s) Brian Garfield, in his fine guide Western Films, said it was “talky, overwrought and soporific”. Tourneur himself, in 1966, said of it, "Je l'ai complètement oublié celui-là. Ce n'était pas très réussi. L'histoire était trop morcelée, trop décousue”, my translation being I’ve completely forgotten that one. It wasn’t a great success. The story was too fragmented, too rambling. Dennis Schwartz has been a little more complimentary, calling Great Day “a superior Western” and saying it was “directed with skill and a good eye for detail”, and it is certainly not bad, Garfield (not for the first time) being maybe a tad harsh.
But the studios had fallen out of love with Jacques Tourneur. He found it harder and harder to get work. Accepting a minimal salary didn’t help. No studio took him seriously anymore and he was left to direct marginal films and television shows for the rest of his life. From a Western point of view he got quite regular gigs on NBC’s The Californians between 1957 and ’59, and he helmed an episode of Bonanza in 1960. That year too there was a theatrical release, Mission of Danger, but it was a digest of three 30-minute Northwest Passage TV episodes: two by director George Waggner, and the central episode, The Break-Out (first aired October 19, 1958), by Tourneur.
It was tragic, really, that such a talented film director should be consigned to pretty ordinary low-grade TV work, and not even much of that. He himself said, “Largely, I hate doing television; it's horrible. It's against everything I believe in; if you don't bring some of your individuality and some of your experience and sensitivity to bear on a subject, you don't get more than a mechanical result.”
In the mid-60s Tourneur retired and moved back to France, where he died in 1977.
But Westernistas will remember him fondly, especially for Canyon Passage and Wichita. Scorsese, McCrea, John Carpenter, all great admirers, knew a good Western director when they saw one.