He grew up in France and the United States. Tourneur could be considered a director from both countries but he is without a doubt one of the so-called Authentic American Primitives.
His career took full speed when he teamed up with producer Val Lewton and made some of the greatest horror films in cinema history. These B-pictures used their lack of means to advantage and instead of attempting grand special effects they relied upon the basic elements of light and shadow to cast fear into audiences. I Walked With a Zombie is one of those pictures.
I Walked With a Zombie
A sort of horror-Caribbean translation of Jane Eyre, the picture follows a nurse, played by Frances Dee, as she travels down to a tropical island to take care of Jessica Holland, our title zombie. The wife of plantation manager Paul Holland, played by Tom Conway, she succumbed to this vegetable state, with the ability to walk around in trances, after a dramatic conflict between he and another for her love and beauty.
Dee’s nurse gets mixed up heavy in the situation when she falls for Paul Holland and wants to revive his wife in an attempt to show her love. Here is where the Caribbean voodoo comes into play. One night she takes the zombie woman to a local voodoo meeting to see what they can do. This is the essential scene of the picture.
What Jacques Tourner does here is true horror. As the nurse and her patient travel through the eerie fields towards the meeting, he does not pollute the scene with exaggerated music. Instead, he keeps it quiet and lets the images speak for themselves and, boy, are the images powerful. Take the one above, where we see some animal, maybe a dog, hanging from a tree. Tourneur creates a cinematic nightmare with these kinds of shots and he does not employ any of the usual tricks. He knows he can scare and he is confident enough to do it his way.
That is the real wonder of I Walked With a Zombie. It brings us back to the essence of fear, not a feeling that comes from loud noises or carnage, but creeping shadows and the bizarre actions and reactions of the mind. At the end of the picture, the simple sight of the tall Caribbean figure you see in the shadow above is enough to destroy and it does.
Apparently, Jacques Tourneur was pushed towards television work at the end of his career, after he agreed to take a very low salary to make a project he loved, Stars in my Crown. This is a typical Hollywood ending: the director who succeeded so well forgets to play by the studio’s games of money and power, loses their respect, and finishes out with minor projects. So many others have come to the same end as Tourneur, an early retirement when they might have continued to make pictures for years. Some of these are Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder. Perhaps if we considered directors like Tourneur as important as the French had to our own culture, they would not be allowed to fade away.