Where Have All the Mermaids Gone?
A solo voyage to Venice Beach in search of the remnants of Night Tide
Par Gregg LaGambina
Reading time 15 Minutes
Dennis Hopper never had to do this
Dennis Hopper never had to do this.
The price to park at Paradise Cove Beach Café, nestled along the coast of the Pacific in Malibu, is $50. This, of course, is non-negotiable and entirely independent from whether or not you will ever see a mermaid’s tail emerge in a brief, foamy disturbance of the sea’s surface, only to disappear back down into a cave hidden by a kelp forest far below.
Down along the beach from the brunch crowd, what you will see is this: A woman, in a barely-there white swimsuit, pulling her blonde hair up from the roots like marionette strings, angling her exposed posterior to a man pointing a long camera lens at “it”. His aim is to capture her, the ocean, the sky, and the birds that dart in and out of the frame. As the sun begins its descent and his assistant bends and twists his circular reflector to aim the dwindling light at the model, now genuflecting sensually in the shallow sea, it becomes time to prepare my negotiation with the general manager of the brunch spot that abuts the lot where I’ve parked my car. You have to eat something. You have to get your ticket validated. You have to be hungry, for food, and I am not.
I am heading back at the sight of this sad, sexualised shoot and I am not paying such an enormous sum for this. I’m in no mood for an omelet, I am losing light, and there is still another stop in my search for the mermaid I’ll never find. I mention Dennis Hopper, a magazine, and suddenly $50 becomes $8.50 as I promise to say something nice about this place. (This place is nice.)
I came here because portions of Night Tide, written and directed by Curtis Harrington, starring the aforementioned Hopper, were filmed in this craggy cove sometime during 1960. In the commentary track, recorded for the film’s laserdisc release in 1998, Hopper describes how, for some of the evening scenes shot here, lit only by torches and campfires, locals merely drifted down from the houses and gladly became extras in a pivotal scene where Mora (Linda Lawson) collapses in bohemian thrall to a spirit dance. The idea that any “locals” would heed the call of bongos on the beach in the middle of night in search of a “happening” sounds quaint now, considering the fencing above the cliffs, the signs bolted into the rock prohibiting a variety of activities and, of course, the exorbitant price of parking.
It is in this cove where Mora, the maybe-a-mermaid who seduces the sailor-on-leave Johnny Drake (Hopper), spots the Woman in Black perched on a wave-battered boulder, her face covered by a veil, played by a real, local eccentric at the time, named Marjorie Cameron. A student of the Aleister Crowley school of the occult and magical arts, Cameron, once friends with the likes of Harrington and filmmaker Kenneth Anger, was cast to float through the film, appearing at opportune times to give ample warning to Drake that Mora might not just be a carnival mermaid after all, but the real-deal mythical creature in the flesh (and scales) too.
In search of answers, as much as I am in search of filming locations, a nicely paced noir style foot-chase finds Drake tailing the Woman in Black over footbridges and down dirt paths along the Venice Canals, about 20 miles south from here, along the Pacific Coast Highway, past Santa Monica Pier where most of the movie was made. In Night Tide, the Canals look desolate and dusty, a place more ready-made to stand in for a Mexican town in a low-budget western than a mermaid fantasia.
In his own short story, The Secrets of the Sea, from which Harrington based the film, he describes the area as a place “that was meant to have been a grand replica of the enchanting Italian city, a seaside resort of palaces rising out of glittering canals upon which imported gondolas would glide.”
These days, it’s more of a private enclave, not that easy to find, lined by expensive homes with only the footbridges left behind to remind anyone that this strange burg was once an engineered “idea.” Now, you might be able to buy a 1300-square-foot restored bungalow for just under $2 million and live near such second-generation bohemians as Dhani Harrison, son of the quiet Beatle, and inheritor of a fortune that would allow the purchase of an extra residence along this strange lane of water that looks nothing like its Italian forebear. (Even Hopper sounds taken aback in the commentary track at the sight of it, barely recognising anything, and wondering aloud if the large house in the film is even still there.)
Unlike Paradise Cove, nothing here “feels” much like Night Tide. Back at the Cove, the landscape benefited from the slow movement of geologic time, each outcropping of sea-slapped stone looking now every bit as it did back then. It would also be just as easy to lay out a blanket and picnic undisturbed, as Drake and Mora do in the film, with only sparse passerby walking off the calories from recently consumed French toast and bacon.
Leaving the Canals, doubling back through the hyper-gentrified streets of Venice, with buildings occupied now by the likes of Snap, Inc. and Google instead of surf shops, it’s about three miles north until you come upon Santa Monica Pier. Feeling as a perfumer might, capturing only hints of floral notes and not the entire flower, frustrated by the elusiveness of the trail upon which I’ve set out to find something undeniably straight out of Night Tide, I finally see the Merry-Go-Round.
It is here where nearly everything happens in Night Tide. The blue letters “Merry-Go-Round,” painted in the same font on the pale-peach building, look virtually the same now as they did in 1960. Any fan of Night Tide who arrives here might feel the same feather-light giddiness a Rebel Without a Cause fanatic might experience at the sight of the Griffith Park Observatory, back near where I live, in Los Feliz, nearly 25 miles inland from this very spot.
But as with most things, upon closer inspection, the scene is more corrupted than imagined from afar. Parked in a garage with a much more reasonable overhead than the brunch spot from earlier, probably to encourage visitors to spend their cash at the overabundance of retail options. Every major store you can name lines the Third Street Promenade, a strip of brick and concrete closed off from automobile traffic that acts as Santa Monica’s faux town square, replete with street performers, mimes, bronze fountains, and the homeless. The approach, by foot, toward the pier begins to strip away any sense of the small-town carny community that exists in Night Tide.
It is crowded, it is loud
It is crowded, it is loud. It is a reminder that nearly everyone feels some deep evolutionary tug to return to the sea, even if it’s just to throw a baseball at a target to win a Chinese-made stuffed emoji toy, to eat too-salty fried food at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., or to take a selfie with the setting sun as a backdrop. Who am I to say what is authentic and what is not, or that “now” is not as good as “then,” but the solitude of the sailor balancing along a handrail as if it were a tightrope in the opening scenes of Night Tide would surely alert the bicycle cops and a semi-stern warning, if not a ticket, today.
More importantly, no mermaid would swim near such chaotic human-made amusements, let alone live on this pier, as Mora does in the film. Mora herself represents an entirely different era of amusement, one more demanding of a participant’s imagination. A slight suspension of disbelief while peering into the saltwater tank in which she spends her days, eliciting dimes and nickels from sheepish boys who are less interested in the fishtail than the breasts barely concealed by her long dark hair moving in the water like seaweed.
I pull out my scribbled list of shop and restaurant names that appear in the scenes filmed here. There is the Playland Arcade. A quick walkthrough revealing a lot less Skee-Ball and more things that flash and blink and spit out tickets to be redeemed for cheap prizes – fake plastic flip phones, dolphin keychains and the like. Some of the rides recall the attractions of yore, but I can’t imagine much can be done to entirely reimagine a Ferris Wheel far beyond its original intention.
I suppose the spirit and purpose of the place still exists, just as it did in 1960 – to be near the sea and to be amused. But there are so many people. This is no place to brood, as Drake does at the film’s opening, flicking a cigarette butt into the sea, surrounded by no one.
Angling for a view from what would have been Mora’s apartment along the pier, admitted by Harrington that it was a classic movie trick, the balcony where she catches the seagull in her hand while serving breakfast to her newfound sailor is a structural impossibility. So, it was built for the film down along the pier, while the interior of her apartment was filmed on a sound stage. From the perspective of that false balcony, I see a lone Harbor Patrol boat bobbing in the water and the bright neon kaleidoscope of the Pacific Park wheel in the distance, while behind me a thick assortment of tourists angles for their own photographs, mostly of themselves being happy.
As for the Merry-Go-Round, it is nearly empty inside. A few children are cajoled by nostalgic parents to ride one of the wooden horses in a slow circle. The lunch counter looks unchanged except for the price of hamburgers and shakes. It’s cozy and welcoming inside, much as it was for the sailor Johnny Drake. This is where he first finds company on shore, among the staff who offer him tea and where he first hears tales of disappeared lovers once seduced by Mora.
When I emerge again, to walk the perimeter of the building, I overhear a couple, a young man saying to his sister or girlfriend, “I can’t believe you’ve never seen the Merry-Go-Round!” They peer in the windows, but do not enter. Instead, they drift off toward the brighter amusements and the sounds of children screaming.
Again, in the film’s commentary, Hopper mentions that the Merry-Go-Round is “still there” and that he sometimes brings his young boy to ride the horses. It’s not hard to imagine, considering the entire time I am lingering and watching the children spin in slow revolutions, no one ever approaches me, asks me for anything, or inquires why I am just sitting there. It’s a place already in the past, somewhere a celebrity such as Dennis Hopper, a longtime resident of Venice up until his death in 2010, could be invisible with his boy doing something it seems no one else is much interested in doing anymore.
The only thing left for me to do is to find the spot beneath the pier where Johnny Drake shouts out to the sea, “Mora! Mora!” when he awakes one morning and finds her gone from their shared bed in the apartment that isn’t actually above the Merry-Go-Round.
I roam past a makeshift false graveyard that a local eccentric is dismantling for the day, marking some ongoing tally of the dead in faraway wars. Passing the white crosses dug into the sand, I see yet another man with a camera pointed at a woman in skintight yoga gear. She is bending in impossible and suggestive poses as the photographer shouts clichés, “Yeah, just like that. You’re fierce. Amazing. Love it.” I can’t get away quickly enough until I find myself directly beneath the pier in the company of only the sea, the gulls, and the wooden columns that prop up the entire spectacle above me.
Waves hit the stained and barnacled wood in bursts of white noise, drowning out the sounds of the crowd above. Standing here, recalling the climactic scenes of Night Tide, I recognise that for the very first time of this long day chasing his shadow, that yes, Dennis Hopper did this too and neither of us could summon a mermaid no matter how loudly we could shout.
After a few more meditative moments considering what this all might mean, I remember if I get back to the garage in time, the parking will be free. And when I get home, I will watch Night Tide again and remember exactly why everyone loves movies. They’re what Alfred Hitchcock famously said, except today, it’s not that it’s life with the boring bits cut out, it’s just better, less crowded, and the possibility of loving a mermaid is still alive, in my living room. And as the film plays, the day’s noise is still with me, as if I were holding a seashell up to my ear, listening to a better ocean, one that is mine, alone.
Gregg LaGambina is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles.