I’ve enjoyed Jacques Tourneur’s SHOCKtober-worthy Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, so I planned on watching Night of the Demon and The Leopard Man this year. But wait – just discovered that his father Maurice was also a filmmaker, also made horror movies, and their careers overlapped. So I watched movies by father and son from 1943, along with an early silent short.
The Devil’s Hand (1943, Maurice Tourneur)
“An avalanche, a madman, and prunes! The evening is completely spoiled.”
High-quality studio picture that plays like an expensive Twilight Zone episode until it gets bonkers towards the end. Very nice light and shadows, some Cocteauian fast-motion and reverse photography providing subtly supernatural effects.
Failed painter Roland (Pierre Fresnay of Le Corbeau and Grand Illusion) buys the titular hand from a great chef (who immediately loses his own right hand and his kitchen skills – this doesn’t seem to faze Roland) despite warnings from the chef’s assistant Ange (heh) and then sees his painterly fortunes soar. But he begins to be stalked by a short, cheerful man in a bowler hat claiming to be the devil and taunting Roland – offering to take back the hand in exchange for tons of cash.
The fatal purchase:
Jolly old devil:
His girl Irene (Josseline Gael of Raymond Bernard’s Les Miserables, whose career ended the following year, imprisoned for sleeping with the Gestapo) was the impetus for Roland’s devil-hand purchase, dumping him at dinner in front of the chef, calling his artworks trash. After his success, they’re married and the devil tries to trade her soul for Roland’s, calling her “a beautiful sinner.” Later she phones Roland from the hotel where she used to live offering him enough money to unload the hand, but when he arrives she has been murdered. I’m missing something – why her old hotel? How’d she get the money? By doing something immoral, no doubt, but she made more money in two days than the most celebrated painter in town could dig up?
Irene with Orpheus lighting, worn out from making all that money:
Anyway, after losing everything at a casino, Roland stumbles into the best part of the movie, a dining hall full of ghosts of the men who formerly possessed the hand, telling their stories via shadow-plays, culminating in the appearance of Maximus Leo, whose hand they’ve all been fooling with. So Roland goes off to the mountains trying to locate Leo’s grave so he can return the hand and break the curse.
Framing device: he’s been narrating all this to the patrons of a snowed-in lodge (who provide most of the film’s sense of humor), despondent because the devil just staged a power outage and nabbed the hand. The devil seems alternately powerful and feeble, serious and pranksterish in this movie. Suddenly Roland runs outside, chases down the devil and wrestles free the hand before falling to his death – upon Leo’s grave. So the curse is broken, I guess. Anyway, the movie is very enjoyable despite my story confusions. Based on an 1832 short story, no relation to The Hands of Orlac or The Monkey’s Paw.
Even if some sequences make use of expressionistic lighting, Tourneur manages to instill a sense of fear by emphasising the concrete consequences of the Faustian pact rather than the supernatural powers of the Devil … Above all, the pact functions as a commercial transaction … As with other films made during World War II, there are no direct references to the military and political context of the time. But Roland’s wild-eyed looks upon entering the inn at the outset of the film express a feeling of pervading paranoia that one can fully comprehend only by taking into account the extra-diegetic reality. The horror elements of Tourneur’s La Main du diable may well express an anxiety experienced by every Frenchman opposed to the German invasion, in their souls if not through action.
The Leopard Man (1943, Jacques Tourneur)
Another in the Val Lewton series that also produced I Walked With a Zombie, The Seventh Victim and The Ghost Ship – all in the same year! This one seemed more slight than the others I’ve seen (Curse of the Cat People excepted). A leopard gets loose in New Mexico after a publicity stunt goes wrong, kills a bunch of young women, and the singer and publicity man responsible for its escape try to help out (though they’re low-key about it, because it’s not cool to act responsible for terrorizing a town).
Kiki (serial player Jean Brooks, with a nice Myrna Loy-like voice) is the singer and Manning (Dennis O’Keefe, in Hangmen Also Die the same year, also star of the original Brewster’s Millions and Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal and T-Men) the publicity man – and the guy who lent them his leopard is named Charlie How-Come, a good-natured guy, but he’d like his leopard back, please, or the $225 it’ll cost to get a new one. I don’t remember if Charlie ever gets paid.
Young Teresa is the first and saddest victim, having to cross town at night to buy cornmeal, then pounding at her door to be let in as the leopard approached. Next up is Consuelo (a Finnish actress playing Mexican – hey, any foreigner will do), accidentally locked into a cemetery while awaiting her boyfriend. And finally Clo-Clo the maraca girl (“Margo” of Lost Horizon – too bad they couldn’t get The Panther Woman from Island of Lost Souls) who kinda had it coming, since she purposely frightened the leopard at the beginning, leading to its escape.
One victim – Teresa, I think – and her finches:
Turns out a local professor (James Bell, who also played the doctor in I Walked with a Zombie) found the dead leopard (or did he kill it?) and has used the leopard-on-the-loose headline as license to kill girls himself, leaving leopard-like evidence at the scenes. What a weirdo. I like how first he tries to convince Charlie How-Come (the “leopard man”) that Charlie is becoming a leopard while drunk, so that Charlie asks to be locked up, werewolf-style.
The Man With Wax Faces (1914, Maurice Tourneur)
A silent trifle with a good ending. The classic plot, which may not have been so classic at the time, of a man who bets he can spend the night in a spooky place (wax museum) in order to prove his bravery. But he’s not brave at all – the wind and shadows scare the hell out of him, and when his prankster friend sneaks in, he gets stabbed to death by his crazed buddy.
Adding to the sense of strangeness is some wicked, Decasia-worthy film damage, coincidentally appearing right after the title “Deeper into the night, the wax figures become more terrifying.” If you saw your world melting and tearing apart like this, you’d go mad, too.
Battle of the Tourneurs – advantage: Maurice