If you spend enough time with American cinema

If you spend enough time with American cinema of the 1930s, you might get the impression that fully half of the movies turned out during the first half of the decade started off on the boardwalk or the carnival midway. And why shouldn’t they? The scene is picturesque, feeds into a still-novel culture of working-class leisure of which moviegoing was another important part, and it bristles with the possibility of adventure and the unknown.

These ‘30s movies would have been among the earliest moviegoing memories of director Curtis Harrington, born 1926, whose first fiction feature, Night Tide (1963), lays its scene in the precincts of the Santa Monica Pier and nearby Venice Beach, which had not so long ago doubled as a rundown border town in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958). By then, the bright lights of the Pier had also begun to fade. Opened to the public in 1909, the Pier was a kind of West Coast analog to Coney Island’s beachfront theme parks. Its heyday was in the 1920s, when it gained the hand-carved carousel hippodrome that features prominently in Harrington’s film.

In the ‘40s, the nearby La Monica Ballroom played host to massive concerts hosted by Western swing star Spade Cooley, but by the time Harrington had begun his shoot the music had stopped — Cooley went on trial for beating his second wife, Ella Mae Evans, to death in 1961, by which time attendance at the Pier had dropped precipitously. In the years since World War II, most middle-class Americans had gotten terribly sophisticated. They were going to psychoanalysis and buying Béla Bartók recordings and attending serious issue-driven movies, and they wouldn’t be caught dead getting roped in by the old step-right-up come-on or believing in carnie soothsayers or any sort of superstitious magical mumbo-jumbo.

The protagonist of Night Tide, Johnny Drake, is by contrast a rare breed of naif, spared the blessings of acculturation. First encountered wandering the Pier arcade alone in his sailor’s uniform, we learn in time that Johnny is a fresh recruit stationed down in San Pedro, a native of Denver, Colorado who signed up to see something of the world and sail the Seven Seas. Johnny is, in short, a rube — like Frank Sinatra’s green sailor boy who takes on New York with a hopelessly out-of-date guidebook in On the Town (1949) and wants to see the Hippodrome.

Friendless in a strange place, Johnny knows of no better destination on a night off than the slightly rundown Pier, so to the Pier he goes. He ducks into a nightclub to watch a jazz combo, awkwardly crossing the room to find a seat while trying to keep a handle on a beer bottle, mug, his cap, and a lit cigarette—the part is played with sweet sheepishness by a very young Dennis Hopper, who throughout touchingly exemplifies the heightened, awkward self-consciousness of a solitary young man. Johnny winds up maneuvering his way to sitting across from a high-cheekboned young woman, appearing terribly slender and fragile under her hunk of black hair, Mora (Linda Lawson), but his almost-apologetic attempts at small talk are forestalled by the appearance of a haughty, swan-necked woman in black who crosses the room to deliver a message to Mora in Greek, its cryptic contents causing her to bolt out of the club in a flustered panic.

We are well before the home video era here, so in the early 1960s only a few viewers of Night Tide might’ve found this scene a tad familiar—the source is Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 RKO production Cat People, in which Simone Simon’s Irina is intercepted at a romantic dinner by a strange woman (Elizabeth Russell, a regular in the films produced by Val Lewton’s horror unit) who addresses her in Serbian. The voice is a troubling echo from the Old Country, a reminder of the ingrained superstition that prevents Irina from engaging in adult sexual relationships—for Irina fears that she belongs to a race of sort-of werecats, and that if she ever surrenders herself to transports passion she will transform into a vicious panther and be the death of her partner.

A variation on Cat People’s premise provides the framework for Harrington’s picture—as, indeed, it would for George A. Romero’s Martin (1978) some years later, though in each case the filmmakers would make the material their own. Mora makes her living in a boardwalk tent posing under glass as a living mermaid, fish tail and all, and she is paralyzed by the prospect that she may really be half-siren—two previous boyfriends drowned under mysterious circumstances, and a fear that she may have been somehow responsible colors her budding relationship with Johnny, who courts her with a quiet, deferential ardor. This fear is encouraged by the fact Mora’s origins are shrouded in mystery—she was, it’s explained, found as a girl orphan on a remote Greek island by her adoptive father, the bibulous Captain Murdock (Gavin Muir), who today ekes out a living as the barker for their little concession

The horror films of the 1930s and 40s would be a recurring point of reference for Harrington. He was instrumental, for example, in preserving James Whale’s 1932 The Old Dark House in the late ‘60s, and he cast Lewton stock player Kent Smith in television movie How Awful About Allan (1970) and Games (1967), in which James Caan and Catherine Ross play a sociopathic art collector couple based loosely on Hopper and wife Brooke Hayward. Years earlier, as Harrington recalled in his posthumously-published memoir Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood, he would regularly see Cat People screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen at the weekly film society screenings hosted by Clara Grossman at her American Contemporary Gallery on Hollywood Boulevard. Here he made several lasting friendships: with Forrest J. Ackerman, later the editor of horror specialty publication Famous Monsters of Filmland, and with another young man who shared both Harrington’s desire to become a filmmaker and his attraction to members of the same sex, Kenneth Anger.

Harrington was the camera operator on Anger’s second film, Puce Moment (1949), and was himself part of the first generation of experimental filmmakers working out of Los Angeles. If Harrington’s filmmaking had begun and ended with the hypnagogic short works that he produced in the decade after his 1946 Fragment of Seeking he would still be a figure of historical significance for his contributions to the American avant-garde cinema—but his career still had a strange and, for the time, nearly unprecedented turn in store. Through the auspices of Albert Lewin, a Hollywood sophisticate who had an active curiosity about the experimental cinema — “Probably the only established producer in Hollywood who would have had that level of cultural interest,” per Harrington—and whose directorial credits included The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947) and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951), Harrington got his foot in the studio system’s door. This led to a gig working for the producer Jerry Wald and, now burrowed into the heart of the industry machine set about slowly preparing to launch himself as a genre film director. The peculiar logic of the dream would be as important to his first commercial film as it had been to his non-narrative shorts, though in this case the dream would involve a rubber octopus.

The chasm between experimental and industrial filmmaking

The chasm between experimental and industrial filmmaking may not have been so vast as it sometimes seems today at the time. Parker Tyler, the poet, American Surrealist, and critic who had written so perspicaciously about the ritual, incantatory qualities of the fantasy/ horror genre in his 1947 Magic and Myth of the Movies, was also an early, intelligent observer of the American avant-garde film—itself often at this time in deep dialogue with the occult. For example, the black-clad emissary who crossed the nightclub in Night Tide is none other than Marjorie Cameron, a follower of Aleister Crowley’s Thelema movement whose husband, rocket science pioneer and fellow Thelemite Jack Parsons, had blown himself up in his Pasadena home laboratory in 1952.

Soon after Cameron was making movies with magick initiates Anger (The Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, 1954) and Harrington (The Wormwood Star, 1956), and her presence in Night Tide serves as a kind of bridge between the two phases of Harrington’s life as a filmmaker. Around the time of The Wormwood Star’s completion he penned a statement, eventually published in the pages of Film Culture, which indicated his frustration with the experimental film, “too trifling, too in love with its petty effects, too introverted, too lazy,” and his acute interest in the possibilities of Hollywood. It concludes: “In the meanwhile, inspired by my admiration for those who have, even if only momentarily, crossed with success the commercial chasm, I am attempting to tread gingerly that hovering, swaying tightrope as well.”

There’s something distinctly old-fashioned about Night Tide, as old-fashioned as its courtly young hero—“A fair young man, innocent and searching” as he’s described by the fortune-teller (Marjorie Eaton) to whom he turns for guidance. While it concedes to emerging contemporary trends by shooting on-location, this seems as much a matter of budgetary necessity as directorial inclination, and through the coming upheaval wrought by New Hollywood, in which Hopper himself led the charge, Harrington remained firmly planted in the artificial, highly atmospheric worlds of Lewton, Whale, and Josef von Sternberg, about whose films he had written and published a slim catalogue study on in 1948.

Of a contemporary shooting his slice-of-life landmark Shadows on the other side of the country when Night Tide was underway, Harrington would later tell an interviewer: “Cassavetes’ work is almost the antithesis of mine.” Conversely, Harrington was vocal about his admiration for the dreamlike textures of Jean Cocteau’s cinema, then very far from au courant, and Barbette, a Texas-born cross-dressing trapeze artist who’d appeared in Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet (1932) can be briefly seen in Night Tide’s jazz club scene. In its fairy tale trappings, hypnotic pace, and fascination with the allure of the seedy sideshow, Harrington’s film is a still, eerie island unto itself, with no near relation in American movies until the appearance of James B. Harris’s 1973 Some Call It Loving.

After that initial Cat People meet-cute, Harrington’s doomed love story unfolds principally by the bright light of day, with breakfast on the balcony of Mora’s rented room improbably located above the carousel—a little touch that belongs not at all to the doctrines of realism that were already becoming the new dogma of the decade. As the film progresses, however, it does so against an increasingly nocturnal backdrop; the turning point is a bonfire beach party attended by Johnny and Nora, at the end of which she seems to be possessed by the pounding rhythm of the bongos. (Lawson, whose previous acting credits were mostly in television, was also a singer—her debut long-player was released in 1960.) Johnny has another, sunnier romantic possibility available to him in the person of Corman regular Luana Anders, here playing the chipper blonde daughter of the merry-go-round operator, a gee-whiz gal who exhibits an almost pathological obsession with fetching cups of coffee for menfolk, but inexorably he is sucked up in the undertow of the saturnine Nora, herself drawn fatally to the call of the sea.

Harrington’s movie itself faced a grim destiny. Completed in 1961, Night Tide had a wait ahead before eventually arriving in cinemas, the delay attributable to an unpaid bill on the Pathe Film Laboratory. When finally released under the auspices of Roger Corman’s The Film Group, it played a double-bill with The Raven, one of Corman’s cash cow adaptations from the bibliography of Edgar Allan Poe. In this there was something apt. Harrington’s first and final short films, made respectively at age fourteen and age seventy-two, were both adaptations of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and he had lifted the title for his first fiction feature from Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee”: “And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side/ Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride.”

Night Tide enters fully into the spirit of Poe’s wounded romanticism, only on occasion working in the register of wilful camp that marks much of Harrington’s later work—though there’s a liberal dosage here courtesy of Muir, who has a particularly ripe, knowing exchange with a masseur at the local bathhouse puffing a suggestive stogie. (“And how are you today, Bruno?” “’Lo, Captain. Ya want me ta pound ya later?” “Now am I likely to forego a pleasure like that?”) This is about as near as the film gets to the explicitly queer, though it does conclude with a mock happy ending that has Johnny reconciled to numb domestic normalcy after the exotic adventure proffered by Mora, victim of her obsessions. After sorting through the circumstances of Mora’s demise at the precinct house he meets Anders, the dull, dutiful fetcher of endless cups of coffee, who invites him to come by and visit the merry-go-round—a safe, predictable, cyclical attraction. Here one might be reminded of Marlene Dietrich’s aggrieved response to the handsome Prince in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946), crying “Where is my beautiful Beast?” Johnny’s adventure, it seems, is over; that of Curtis Harrington, commercial filmmaker, had only just begun.

Nick Pinkerton is a Cincinnati-born, New York City-based critic whose writing covers all manner of moving image-based art. His work appears regularly in Artforum, Film Comment, Sight & Sound, Frieze, and sundry other venues.

Art by Jason Ngai