Camp David

CAMP DAVID JULY 2011: SEX AND DEATH IN A KINGDOM BY THE SEA

By • Jul 5th, 2011 •

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Curtis Harrington’s NIGHT TIDE, which opened the Venice International Film Festival in 1961, secured the director a reputation (already known, like his colleague Kenneth Anger, for an avant-garde style of film-making) as an auteur in the horror genre at a time when very little had been written about such films. Curtis himself was a pioneer in the field of film scholarship having written extensively on the subject as early as 1952. There were two directors that became influences on Curtis’s work, the most important being Joseph Von Sternberg, to whom Curtis would devote an entire monograph for the Museum of Modern Art. The second would be Val Lewton, whose work at RKO on a string of B-horror films served as a blueprint for much of what we admire in NIGHT TIDE today.

There is an irony in having NIGHT TIDE open a festival in Venice, Italy, when the film itself represents a time capsule of a now-vanished era that was Venice, California, circa 1960.

At that time the California version of Venice (complete with faux canals, used to great effect a couple of years before by Orson Welles in TOUCH OF EVIL) was inhabited by a sub-culture of coffee house beatniks, free-thinking bohemians adrift in a sea of jazz and cigarette smoke. Curtis opens NIGHT TIDE in just such an atmosphere, staging Dennis Hopper’s first encounter with Mora (a suspected sea siren played by Linda Lawson) in a smoky jazz club called the “Blue Grotto.”

This introduction differs considerably from, say, Simone Simon’s introduction in Val Lewton’s CAT PEOPLE, which takes place at the zoo where she charms Kent Smith. Yet the connection is the same, for both these women share a repressed dread of their inner selves; both are morbidly drawn to folklore regarding their backgrounds, and neither can escape the past. This theme is also found in Lewton’s other films, especially THE SEVENTH VICTIM, which was one of Harrington’s personal favorites.

The psychosexual tension between Mora and her admirer, played rather timidly by Dennis Hopper (of all people) at a stage in his career where he was still untouched by what was to come so he was still able to convey innocence. Hopper is dressed in what has been described as a “Homoerotic sailor suit” by some in Harrington’s inner circle since Curtis always told the story of how he went to a tailor and had a specially-designed costume for Dennis that was very tight and revealing in a way the Navy would never have sanctioned. The outfit was then re-dyed to an off-white so it would not photograph so bright; the result nearly got Hopper thrown in the brig since he was stopped one night after filming by the Navy patrol for being out in a dirty uniform. Curtis was very amused by Dennis telling him that he was propositioned by men several times during the filming–but only when he was wearing his sailor suit. Curtis would always end the anecdote by saying, “Well, I never really knew if Dennis ever took any of them up on it.”

For the record, Dennis Hopper has gone on record saying that at this early stage in his career he did “flirt with homosexuality as just another life experience.” Otherwise I do not share the theory held by some critics that NIGHT TIDE has a “homosexual agenda,” just because of the director’s orientation. Curtis brought this up with me once when I was interviewing him about another director–James Whale. He reminded me that in the 30′ and 40’s these kind of questions were never asked and as far as any of Whale’s films having a “gay agenda,” he replied, “Bullshit.

Jimmy just made damn good movies, the only thing that might hold water in that regard was his camp sense of humor, which I share as well.. In fact Harrington cast his films in much the same manner as Whale. In NIGHT TIDE for example we have the actress Marjorie Eaton as the fortune-telling Madame Romanovitch, very camp, dressed in such a way that she looks a bit like Dr Pretorius in Whale’s BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN; in fact in close-up she almost looks like him in drag.

Curtis explained to me the genesis for the film during one of our interviews done over the nearly three decades we knew one another. “As a boy growing up in Beaumont, California, there was nothing much to do except go to the library and it was there in the stacks that I discovered Edgar Allan Poe. After that I was hooked on the macabre for the rest of my life. I found more to read at the local drugstore that stocked all the pulp magazines of the day including WEIRD TALES and another one called BLACK CAT. They introduced me to H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch and William Hope Hodgson. It was Hodgson’s HOUSE ON THE BORDERLAND that led to me trying my hand at writing. One of my first efforts was under his influence, THE SECRET OF THE SEA, since much of his weird fiction involved the sea. I was always drawn to the ocean and of course reading Lovecraft at the same time gave me a sense of dread and horror about the sea since he used it as a metaphor for all manner of horrors. In any case this bit of writing paved the way for my first real screenplay, NIGHT TIDE.”

Curtis had acquired some distribution grants through Roger Corman’s Filmgroup. With that in hand he then found a partner in a young Armenian named Aram Kantarian. Soon the two of them managed to raise money (the total budget for NIGHT TIDE was about $75,000). Now they were ready to cast the film and Curtis remembered meeting a rising young talent at one of the local coffee house screenings for his experimental films; that talent was of course Dennis Hopper.

Hopper had scored some attention in small roles for director’s George Stevens and Nick Ray and was now ready (at least in Harrington’s eyes) to play a lead. As Curtis recalled, “Dennis was a bit of a firebrand by then, inventive, energetic, emotional and sensitive, all the qualities I needed for Johnny to be.” The only person on set not to respond to these charms was Hopper’s leading lady, Linda Lawson. Long before I thought about writing about this film I discovered that Linda lived about six blocks from me, having run into her at the local post office. I was invited over for a drink one evening and she had this to say about her co-star: “Dennis Hopper had a lot of issues both professionally and personally. I thought he was attractive enough yet there was something in those eyes of his that warned me off on some level. He was fine for the first couple of days and then out of the blue he shows up at my apartment saying to me, ‘We need to relate better if we are going to work together, okay?’ So he come into my apartment and immediately goes into my kitchen and crawls under the table. I mean, it frightened me! He rolled up into a ball and refused to come out, acting like a lunatic. When I finally got him to get up and talk to me it was obvious he was on something. I knew very little about drugs then and now, so I was not prepared at all to deal with somebody who was. The next day I confronted him on the set away from Curtis and told Dennis if this or anything like it ever happened again I would walk off the picture for good. From that point on we were clear with each other but my coldness towards him affected my relationship with Curtis, who began to dislike me and to this day he never attempted get in touch for screenings or anything. As far as the film goes I still receive fan mail about it… If I am remembered for anything it will be for playing the mermaid Mora in NIGHT TIDE.”

Perhaps the most fascinating character in NIGHT TIDE is that of Marjorie Cameron, the mysterious woman in black who speaks to Mora in the Blue Grotto. This is the famous connection between this film and Lewton’s CAT PEOPLE. In Lewton’s film Elizabeth Russell, made-up to resemble a cat-woman, speaks to Simone Simon in a strange language referring to her as “my sister.” Harrington pays homage to this moment by having Cameron do much the same thing, speaking to Linda Lawson in phonetic Greek, a task Cameron achieved by memorizing each word at Curtis’s request.

Since nearly every review regarding NIGHT TIDE considers it a kind of remake of the 1942 CAT PEOPLE, I think it is important to comment here that without the presence of Cameron as the “sea witch” the comparison simply does not hold water because CAT PEOPLE is a legitimate horror film with a supernatural shape-shifter whereas NIGHT TIDE explains the supernatural away in the final reel as a ruse concocted by Gavin Muir’s sea captain as a means to eliminate all of Mora’s suitors. The wonderful thing about NIGHT TIDE is how Harrington creates a void for speculation since even the sea captain has no knowledge of the lady in black whatsoever. Cameron appears at key moments in Mora’s courtship with Johnny. She appears to great effect during Mora’s fever dance on the beach which ends with her collapse. More importantly in a sequence Curtis considered the best in the film: Johnny follows the lady in black across the seedy landscape of Venice until she leads him magically to the captain’s front door (a location which turned out to be silent screen actress Mae Murray’s old villa) and then disappears once again. Cameron even figures in Johnny’s dream of Mora reclining on a rock with her mermaid tail; as Johnny reaches for her she dissolves into Cameron. Elizabeth Russell, the counterpart in Lewton’s version, only appears at the wedding table to utter the famous “My sister” line. There is no need to see her again because the audience has enough visual proof that Simone does indeed belong to a race of cat women. Only in Johnny’s dream while Mora is taking a shower do we get any sense that if Mora was to have sex with him she would then morph slowly from a mermaid into an octopus, strangling him to death. Every supernatural event can be accounted for in Harrington’s film except the lady in black–the elusive Cameron.

Marjorie Cameron was so much more than just a cameo in the lives of those who knew her. A woman of vast intellect and abilities, she moved in both artistic and occult circles in Los Angeles and anywhere else she traveled during her lifetime. She appeared in films for both Curtis Harrington and Kenneth Anger, influencing both men for the rest of their lives. Cameron’s appearance in Anger’s INAGURATION OF THE PLEASURE DOME was a mind-bending experience for Kenneth as he saw in her the Scarlet Woman as described by Aleister Crowley. Cameron was accustomed to this title, having received it originally from her late husband Jack Parsons, who recognized her power early on. With red flaming hair and piercing green eyes she dominated all in her circle, so much so that she eclipsed the great Anais Nin as the dominant figure in Anger’s film. In fact the two occultists would move in together after the film was done. Curtis devoted one of his short films to her, THE WORMWOOD STAR. The title alone is important as it represents a magical child created by ritual. Cameron and her late husband devoted much of their time to performing this dangerous ritual known as “The Babylon Working.” Cameron is such an important figure in her own right that rather than try inadequately to explain it all here I suggest you read the new book regarding her life, also entitled THE WORMWOOD STAR. Curtis’s film documents her paintings for posterity since she burned them all after the film was completed as per the instructions laid down in the aforementioned experiment.

NIGHT TIDE is paced like a fever dream populated with eccentric well-meaning characters who attempt to save the young man from himself as the object of his affections moves closer and closer to her pre-determined end. This was a staple in Lewton’s universe and it applies here as well. It would take Curtis a few more years to develop his style more along the lines of his idol Von Sternberg, which would culminate with the making of GAMES and later WHATS THE MATTER WITH HELEN. For the time being Harrington’s obsession with film history would take the place of his later obsession with decor and the grandstanding of diva-like personalities such as Shelley Winters and Simone Signoret.

The other personality to emerge from this film was actress Luana Anders, whose grace and beauty made her a natural for the kind of films about to be made as the 60’s came into their own. Dennis Hopper was taken with her straight away, using her much later in his own film EASY RIDER. Curtis would also work with her again in his THE KILLING KIND.

Luana recalled her time with Harrington with great joy, as she sensed his abilities as a director from this first encounter. “Curtis knew his business and how to handle his actors. His knowledge was encyclopedic when it came to film history and more to the point he knew exactly what he wanted in each shot. We had a great cameraman in Vilis Lapenieks; he did all of the exteriors on our film with Floyd Crosby, then working with us on the interiors. I would work with Floyd again with Roger Corman soon after this.” Luana would also attract the attention of Jack Nicholson who would employ her whenever he could.

Curtis would most likely not have shared Luana’s view of his directing skill with actors at the time of shooting NIGHT TIDE as he admitted to me on several occasions he shared the same plight as Roger Corman did in his early days of directing films, which is a total lack of understanding of the acting process. Both Dennis Hopper, and then later on Shelley Winters, were versed in the Actors Studio and the process known as ‘sense memory.’ Both Corman and Harrington would go to acting workshops like Jeff Corey’s to learn more about how to handle their actors. The result of course gave them both insight, although Roger would later rely on hiring actors that already knew their business (like Vincent Price), allowing him to do what he did best which was to produce. Curtis Harrington was never a producer but learned to guide his actors, pro and novice, into doing their best work for him in his later films. Dennis Hopper was only 24 years old when they did NIGHT TIDE and yet he trusted Curtis to present him for perhaps the only time in his career as the embodiment of youthful energy and optimism.

One of the great assets in NIGHT TIDE is the score by David Raksin, who came onboard as a personal favor to Curtis. The result is a musical evocation of the Venice beach culture with its coffee house poetry and jazz underscoring, and when necessary the danger that shadows Johnny as he pursues his siren into the depths of the ocean to the seedy underbelly of Venice itself. Raksin was known for his score of the classic Film Noir LAURA, a film which is referenced here by Curtis’s casting of Gavin Muir as the old sea captain who may have discovered a lost race of Sea people” of which Mora is a direct descendant. As played by Muir, he resembles Clifton Webb’s Waldo Lydecker from LAURA more than the father figure he is meant to portray. Curtis had wanted to cast Peter Lorre in the role, which would have brought him closer to working with another of Von Sternberg’s stars since Lorre had made CRIME AND PUNISHMENT with the great director in 1935. Lorre would have brought a real manic obsessive character to the table, rather than the decadent, effete personality as played by Muir.

Curtis once told me a story of running into his idol Von Sternberg at a screening of THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN at the County Museum where the great director asked him why he kept coming back time and again to see a film he already knew by heart. Curtis replied, “Well, Joe, why do you listen to great music over and over again? The answer is because it gives me pleasure,” and this is how I feel about the films of Curtis Harrington. I have seen NIGHT TIDE many times and each and every screening allows me back into the sinister chiaroscuro landscape of his films. He always tried to broaden the poetic meaning of all his films no matter how absurd the premise might be. Curtis always lived a supernatural aesthetic. One visit to his home spoke volumes about his personality and his art. The Trompe L’oeil moulding that laced the ceilings of every room in his Art Nouveau retreat, props from his films, an evening slipper worn by Dietrich, and framed prints of Vampire bats (of which I now have two–a gift from George Edwards, Harrington’s oft-time producer). You literally stepped into the house of Poe, or better still, the house of Harrington.

NIGHT TIDE is probably one of the most evocative representations of Edgar Allan Poe in a film to date even though it is not formally based on any one literary work of the divine Edgar. The atmosphere and tone are Poe’s, as is the fatal woman our sailor lad Dennis Hopper pines to be with. Whether she is called Morella, Lenore, Annabel Lee or even Mora she is still the radiant maiden whom the angels called by name.

Curtis Harrington might have been marginalized in his lifetime, however his legacy as an avant-garde, esoteric, occultist film director can no longer be ignored. To the end he dedicated his life to self-expression of the highest order and I for one will remain in his debt for the remarkable body of work he leaves behind forever more in this kingdom by the sea.

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3 Responses »

  1. Thank you David for a marvelous recollection of Night Tide, one of my favorites, made even more wonderful by having met Curtis Harrington on more than one occasion – thanks to you of course. I still remember – and replay – that Autumn afternoon we sat and had tea and cake while Curtis regaled us of stories of old Hollywood. He even let me hold Dietrich’s slipper. What a treat! I remember Barbara Steele introducing me to him at your gallery opening in Glendale – Nevermore – and I mentioned that we had already met and I told him about the slipper. His response – “And you know what darling, it still doesn’t fit!” He will be missed for a very long time. There is only one Curtis Harrington. I consider it an honor to have met him.

  2. Awesome piece on an awesome film, well maybe not that awesome a film, but it has a great mix of Lewton low keyness and Roger Corman beatnik barrishness that the Del Valle net snares in full and lifts from the coffee house shadows up unto greatness. It makes a great double bill with Bert I. Gordon’s Tormented, which is also a bit Lewtonesque with its young girl protagonist by the sea oh by the sea, crimson sometimes like fire but always like a jam jar glass full of Skid Row burgundy and a 50 cent pack of smokes.

  3. Eric
    thanks so much for your insightful comments here regarding NIGHT TIDE….for my regular readers of CAMP DAVID …it is my pleasure to introduce Eric Kuersten one of the finest film journalist’s in the business… whose own site THE ACIDEMIC FILM JOURNAL is a must for anyone who loves cinema..the site can be found at acidemic.com ..Eric also contributes to BRIGHT LIGHTS FILM JOURNAL as well.

    I have in the past contributed nearly half a dozen pieces to his site…..the newest being APPETISING YOUNG THOR FOR SALE….for his examination of Nordic’s in film…..please discover his site for yourself…..it’s a trip worth taking…

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