The Past Becomes Past

Jacques Tourneur's memory of the thought of a western
by Chris Fujiwara  posted September 15, 2008
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A modestly budgeted western made by Leonard Goldstein Productions in 1954 (for a 1955 release by United Artists), Stranger on Horseback came in the middle of Jacques Tourneur's most neglected and perhaps most beautiful period: the years of declining prestige that followed the personal triumph of his favorite among his films, the elegiac and humane Stars in My Crown (1950). Languishing in the ostensible insignificance of escapist genres, Tourneur redeemed them by subverting premises, slowing movements, turning away from the dramatic and the expressive, deemphasizing spectacle. Action is a betrayal or a compromise in Anne of the Indies (1951), Way of a Gaucho (1952), and Great Day in the Morning (1956), tragic films about unlivable contradictions. Wichita (1955) is a crisp, relentless parable; Appointment in Honduras (1953) is somber, repetitive, exhausted, and elegant—qualities it shares with the less sustained but still worthy Timbuktu (1959) and La Battaglia di Maratona (1959).

When I was working on my book Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, the only way I could see Stranger on Horseback, which Tourneur shot in Ansco Color, was on a VHS tape of a decrepit black-and-white 16mm dupe. I could write about the plot and not much else. Only after finishing the book did I get the chance to see Stranger on Horseback in 35mm and color, at the 2002 Tourneur retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. The same print (held by the BFI) that was shown then was the source for VCI Entertainment's new DVD release of what proves to be an extraordinary film, one of Tourneur's best.

Stranger on Horseback repeats the central situation of Stars in My Crown: a mild-mannered authority figure played by Joel McCrea (Parson Gray in the first film, Judge Thorne in the second) brings moral reason and justice to a small town. Though both heroes' power is backed up, in extremis, by physical force, it relies mainly on a text: in Stars in My Crown, the Bible (or “the will of God,” as the parson calls the blank pages of the improvised will he reads to a lynch mob); in Stranger on Horseback, a law book (identified in the final image as Blackstone's Commentaries). The process by which each McCrea character (including a third one, Wyatt Earp in the splendid Wichita) triumphs over his adversaries, even converting some of them to his side, is irrational and unpredictable. Fascinated by these turns, Tourneur meets them with his most inspired direction.

Ansco Color enhances the surprising austerity of Stranger on Horseback. Too detached from the forms they decorate to be consoling, the colors wash gently over the hard-built images. Tourneur, whose previous color films had been in Technicolor, disliked the Ansco Color process, which he complained gave Stranger on Horseback the bloodless look of a “grisaille.” Still, such color suits a film that is like the memory or the thought of a western, an experience reconstructed from fragments, a conception all but fully abstract that only a fraying memory of life keeps tied to the concrete.

This memory can be located: it's encapsulated in the performances of Joel McCrea, Emile Meyer, and John Carradine. These actors embody people—a dedicated frontier circuit judge, a capable but cynical small-town marshal, an orotund and corrupt lawyer—who are not one thing or another, who waver and float across the film (to the viewer's surprise and delight). They are not their own descriptions; they are not making points, nor are they the points being made. Their acting is like the stirring of something on the border between the kind of acting that is always done and known to be acceptable and a more experimental acting for which there is neither demand nor recognition.

Much of the calm and furtive quality of this acting comes from the way Tourneur photographs people—as if catching them in the act of becoming. Everything is in movement in Tourneur's films: there are no states, only transitions, their abruptness sometimes enhanced by the lighting, as in the moment in Stranger on Horseback when several riders emerge suddenly from the blackness of the background into the pool of light that defines the main street of the town.

This movement between visibility and concealment defines the writing of Tourneur. What's great about the final scene (I should insert the words “spoiler alert,” though I think Tourneur's films are improved, not spoiled, by foreknowledge of their endings—and in the case of Stranger on Horseback the end can hardly come as a surprise) is the sudden uncanny sensation, as the camera offhandedly and a little unsteadily pans to peer from afar at the opening of a trial, of being a mile and many years away from everything we've been involved with for the previous 64 minutes. We become aware that the two main figures, Judge Thorne and the rich, depraved defendant, Tom Bannerman (Kevin McCarthy), are finally accessible to our view and knowledge only as they will become known through the record of this trial, and that therefore the whole film has been that transition by which the past becomes past.
This is what it means to end a film, Tourneur says constantly: to take a story away, to take a life away, as at the end of Out of the Past, Bailey's life is lost even to narrative (his girlfriend asks, “Was he going away with her?” and the mute Kid, after a pause, nods his head), and at the end of Cat People, Irena's life is lost to the banality of speech (“She never lied to us,” her husband concludes). At the end of Stars in My Crown, the camera pulls back from the church, within which the characters, with their stories, remain never to be seen again. The end of Night of the Demon says it quite well: “Maybe it's better not to know.” Which means, let's consent to this occultation that is the end of a film, since what we have to learn from all endings, if we want to, is that seeing is conditioned by invisibility, and presence is the first stage of departure. Which we could have learned from the forward tracking shot of the funeral that Thorne encounters on his way to the town at the beginning of Stranger on Horseback.

Tourneur's most fleeting film (“Nothing is more evanescent than celluloid,” he said to Jacques Manlay), Stranger on Horseback is never less than very good, but the best things in it are things that can scarcely be talked about. Such as the fading presence of the mild-mannered gunsmith Webb (Walter Baldwin), isolated in his own house by a mise-en-scène that keeps him separate from the other characters, turning his head slightly in the momentary hesitation before he agrees to risk everything and testify against Tom—a silent confirmation that (like the Kid's nod in Out of the Past) resembles an erasure. Or the staging of Thorne's impossible triumph over his enemies on an open plain, Tourneur laying it all out in full view, the magic trick and how it was done. In such moments (and I could mention many others), Tourneur achieves a power of invention that is miraculous in its suave undemonstrativeness. 


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Courtesy and Kit Parker Films
Lobby card for Jacques Tourneur's Stranger on Horseback
Photo Gallery: The Past Becomes Past


Chris Fujiwara's latest book, Jerry Lewis, is published by University of Illinois Press.

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