I certainly knew nothing about the director or his films until I accidentally caught a screening of his 1915 production of Trilby in a pristine, tinted 35mm copy from George Eastman House. Trilby features many striking scenes and staging effects, not least one long take in the first or second reel that includes (if I recall correctly) a topless Trilby in the foreground posing for a cadre of artists dotting the background while other bohemians frolic in the hallway at the right of the frame—everything in crisp, deep focus and rather delicately staged.
Giddy with a false sense of discovery, I lobbied to mount a Tourneur retrospective at my film society. The Library of Congress, for those interested, holds archival prints of The Wishing Ring (1914), Alias Jimmy Valentine (1915), A Girl’s Folly (1916), The Pride of the Clan (1917), The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), The County Fair (1920), Das Schiff der verlorenen Menschen (1929). These titles, along with his Volpone (1939), comprised the retrospective that ended last week.
At the height of his career, Maurice Tourneur enjoyed a reputation on par with his great contemporary and rival, D. W. Griffith. While Griffith’s editing evinced a purely cinematic mastery, Tourneur’s style both avowed and transcended its debt to painting and theater. An exponent of studio sets and other artificial handicraft, Tourneur favored tableaux shots with achingly precise staging and a full spectrum of lighting tones. More than thirty years before Citizen Kane Tourneur perfected a complex deep-focus style wherein his actors moved freely between lavishly decorated foregrounds and backgrounds. His long shots were often awash in shimmering Pictorialist touches, compelling critics of the time to recognize his artistic temperament.Having now seen all of the films mentioned above, this appreciation applies best to Trilby and less well to the others. It’s still broadly accurate, but more importantly seeing the other films helps to clarify the style of Trilby. Its takes are atypically long and rich, almost amplifying the style of the major films that surround it with a near-parodistic intensity. Trilby remains—along with Ford’s The Long Voyage Home, Mizoguchi’s The Loyal 47 Ronin, Murnau’s Faust, and Sokurov’s Russian Ark—one of those anomalies of film history, a feature-length exercise in mise en scene seemingly constructed for the delight of game cinephiles.
The claim about Tourneur’s relation to Griffith still sounds credible to me. Tourneur’s major films emerge in that great anarchic period of the mid-teens before the complete codification of Griffith’s continuity system. Not so much a superior system as a fascinating road less traveled, Tourneur’s style demonstrates the sophistication of early film staging that seems doubly compelling today because his particular innovations have not been diluted by narrative filmmakers laudable and talentless over the past ninety years. (If anything, a familiarity with Tourneur’s films, as well as the contemporaneous productions of Cecil B. DeMille, actually gives us a richer sense of Griffith’s art by recovering the aesthetic singularity of his style; rather than a fait accompli of narrative cinema, The Birth of a Nation, viewed alongside Trilby and The Cheat, becomes a great gamble of causal conceit and emotional effect—but one of several stylistic possibilities for cinematic expression that unluckily became the dominant one as the industry solidified.)
On to the films themselves: along with Trilby, Alias Jimmy Valentine is the greatest tour de force, featuring one startling sequence after another: an introduction wherein Jimmy’s clothes change from debonair to felonious with an early jump cut; a robbery staged in a single take, shot on a large stage from a very high angle that takes in a dozen interconnected rooms; a train caboose brawl that anticipates the delicate interplay of lighting and motion found in the streetcar sequence of Murnau’s Sunrise. The finale is a highly tactile test of will through which Tourneur proves a master of detail.
Most of the other films are more overtly charming, though hardly slight. The Wishing Ring and A Girl’s Folly stage highly charged meetings across multiple planes in pastoral utopias. With Tourneur, it’s always necessary to watch a middle ground conversation without losing sight of the waifs and nymphs fluttering across the edge of the frame, a decorous and decorative detail, but also perhaps the filmmaker’s most distinctive. (His silent chorus line of nymphs has something of an afterlife, oddly enough, in the comedy relief ballerinas of the Lon Chaney version of The Phantom of the Opera.) In any case, the early features possess a critical economy of expression—rather than representing another strain of the much-ridiculed theatrical timidity of early ‘quality’ productions, these films betray a highly cinematic understanding of deep staging where cuts come into play only when the visual rhetoric of the blocking has been exhausted.
As history progresses and the ‘Classical Hollywood Style’ asserts its gathering hegemony, Tourneur’s film lose a slight degree of their uniqueness. In fact, the pivotal stylistic changes dated to 1917 by David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, and Janet Staiger receive their most forceful demonstration with a single viewing of Tourneur’s Pickford pair of that year. Here the staging matters less (and the cutting consequently more) than in the previously films, though the deep focus composition is still preferred to the close-up. Though editing was evidently not Tourneur’s forte, his early attempts are quite revealing: the abrupt proto-montage of Pickford, the villagers, the homes, and the sea in The Pride of the Clan trigger a reaction analogous to the flow of images of countryside and chateau constructed by Epstein eleven years later in his Fall of the House of Usher.
The films made after 1917 are less interesting, though his charming version of The Blue Bird should clearly be counted among his finest efforts—a series of tableaux, yes, but the most carefully lit and attired ones imaginable, surpassing even Méliès. Last of the Mohicans, largely shot by Clarence Brown following a detailed plan from Tourneur, suffers from Tourneur’s indifference to locating shooting, but still largely succeeds on its own melodramatic terms. The less said about The County Fair the better; not even rigorous mise en scene can redeem this impossibly retrograde, gussied-up junior high school play. Tourneur milks the reactionary quaintness for all its worth and acquits himself about as well as the material allows.
Das Schiff der verlorenen Menschen is six reels; it could stand to be five or even four and a half, but it is not without its highlights, not least a backwards tracking shot that reveals every crusty crevice of the eponymous schiff. This German effort and Volpone feature a much more active camera than the features of the teens; part of this is surely due to the prevailing fashion (with Murnau, Vidor, and L’Herbier at the height of their powers), but a good deal also seems to me like an aesthetic translation in the best sense. Though not as rich as the tableaux shots of old, the complex tracking shots in late Tourneur convey a similar hunger for detail and texture packed to the very edges of the frame.
For those interested in Tourneur, film literature provides few references: an anecdote here or there in Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By… and Edward Wagenknecht’s Movies in the Age of Innocence but little more. There’s also a monograph by Henry Waldman (in-print from McFarland) that seems largely constructed from trade reviews rather viewing of actual prints. For my money, the best introduction remains Richard Koszarski’s ‘Maurice Tourneur: The First of the Visual Stylists’ from the March 1973 issue of Film Comment. The other extant films of great interest appear to be Prunella, Lorna Doone, Woman (Tourneur’s waifs-through-the-ages homage to Intolerance), Mysterious Island (his last Hollywood film, which survives only in a black and white rendition of the original two-color Technicolor photography), and, from the French period, Justin de Marsaille.