Who the hell is Curtis Harrington?
A curious introduction to one of America's great lost directing talents.
Par Trevor Johnston
Reading time 17 Minutes
If you view the cinema as an eternal struggle
If you view the cinema as an eternal struggle between the possibility of personal expression and the commercial reality of the industry machine, few film-makers fought that battle as valiantly as Curtis Harrington. A decade after his death at the age of 80, this pioneering American independent remains significantly undervalued, yet the journey his career took him on, from the hand-crafted avant-garde to the glittery trash of TV’s Dynasty, is something truly unique to him. And the movies he made – with varying degrees of compromise – simply couldn’t have been by anyone else.
When he finished Night Tide in 1961, there had never been anything like it. There wasn’t much in the way of sex or even horror so it could be classed as an exploitation pic. And how could this story of a young sailor enraptured by a mermaid living in a seaside merry-go-round possibly be considered art? Art movies, in those days, were serious. They had subtitles. They addressed important social themes. So what the hell was Night Tide?
From today’s vantage point, it looks like the absolute root stock of American independent cinema, from which has flourished the likes of David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch and Harmony Korine. Yet this lovingly-made curio, shot more or less guerrilla-style in and around the Santa Monica seafront, didn’t come into being because Harrington wanted to inspire others: it’s clearly driven by a very personal mythology. As a child growing up in small-town California, library regular Harrington fell under the spell of Edgar Allan Poe’s doom-laden writings, whose full-on Gothic allure often sees earthly romance clasped by the spectral hand of the beyond. Later, as he became a regular teenage moviegoer, there began a lifelong obsession with Marlene Dietrich’s films for maverick auteur Josef Von Sternberg – a cinema of shadow and chiaroscuro, where Dietrich’s exquisitely-lit diva lured men to their destruction. Hence, Von Sternberg’s signature notion of dangerous attraction, and indeed Poe’s underlying sensitivity to mysterious realms beyond everyday experience, absolutely animate Night Tide’s distinctive story world. Here, youthful sailor Dennis Hopper can’t quite believe his new main squeeze Linda Lawson, currently turning a buck as a fake mermaid in a seaside attraction, is actually a real-life siren who could lure him to a watery demise before returning to her own mer-folk in the distant deep.
What’s startling is that Harrington’s evident investment in these poetic imperatives truly sustains the movie, giving it an ambition and scale reaching far beyond its own micro-budget footprint. Where previous independently shot US features dealt in the Coney Island neo-realism of Morris Engel’s Little Fugitive or the tortured method-driven chamber drama of Cassavetes’ Shadows, Harrington is clearly operating in another creative universe. One which obviously inspired the 26-year-old Hopper, whose captivating boy-ish sincerity here will come as a revelation to those who only know the latter New Hollywood wild man, or the mania-for-hire of his post-Blue Velvet screen revival. Since he wasn’t quite enough of a name to open the picture at the time however, Night Tide spent two years on the shelf before eventually making it to a very few US cinemas on the bottom half of a double-bill with Roger Corman’s Poe-inspired The Raven. Indeed, the Corman connection fortuitously opened up the next unexpected chapter in Harrington’s wayward Hollywood progress, which, bizarrely, involved creating new footage so the special effects sequences from a bought-in Soviet sci-fi pic could be repurposed as American product for the youth audience.
In some ways though, Night Tide also represented a culmination of what might be termed the artisanal Harrington, where he and his good pal Kenneth Anger marked a second-wind for American avant-garde film, in the wake of the fiercely original Maya Deren. Her gauzy 1944 reverie Meshes of the Afternoon now appears rather more conventional than it did in its day, yet its non-narrative flow and highly personal strain of melancholia, certainly proved an inspiration for the young Curtis Harrington. He shot and starred in his own version of Poe’s essential tale of dynastic putrefaction The Fall of the House of Usher while still at school, and his first offering to be shown to the public, 1946’s Fragment of Seeking, evidently foreshadows what was to come in Night Tide, with a baby-faced Harrington only just out of his teens playing a trench-coated seeker after love and truth. He kisses the girl only to find she’s a skeleton in a blonde wig – a deathly siren from whom he recoils in horror. Suggestively, another golden-tressed object of his affection turns out to be Harrington himself in a wig, perhaps hinting at the femininity within his own emerging homosexuality.
Reading Harrington’s delightfully gossipy posthumously-published autobiography Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood – pointedly subtitled The Adventure of an Aesthete in the Movie Business – there’s a lingering sadness that he never really found a life partner, or indeed ever matched the erotic intensity of his first few adolescent assignations. What he did find in the 1950s was a creative kindred spirit in Kenneth Anger, perhaps best-known for Hollywood Babylon his milestone book-length survey of the sleaze behind Hollywood’s glittering facade, but an abiding inside-influence on subsequent generations through his esteemed body of shorts. The two helped crew each other’s films, and Harrington relished the opportunity to channel the spirit of German expressionist silent classic Cabinet of Dr Caligari by playing a sinister sleepwalker in the ritualistic pageant of Anger’s 1954 breakthrough Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. Indeed, the Anger influence where props and costumes take on a talismanic influence, and occult lore is to the fore, shows strongly in Harrington’s own 1956 short The Wormwood Star, a decorous tribute to artist and occultist Marjorie Cameron, who appears on-screen and provides the heavily-featured watercolours and line drawings of disturbing other-worldly beings. Beatnik scenester and adherent of Aleister Crowley’s so-called sex magick rituals, Cameron, as she preferred to be known, also makes a striking appearance in Night Tide as the enigmatic grande dame presenting the ominous call of the mer-folk, adding to the film’s near-magical aura which has long cast its spell over admirers including Nicolas Winding Refn, who now owns the original negative and cites its strong influence on his portrait of Los Angeles in The Neon Demon.
It’s so typical of Harrington’s mazy career path
It’s so typical of Harrington’s mazy career path that he went from this most esoteric of his shorts, to a job working for top Hollywood producer Jerry Wald, an industry veteran who’d been behind Joan Crawford’s great run of 1940s melodramas, including the legendary Mildred Pierce. Having previously wangled his way into working as a messenger boy for the Paramount publicity department, working as a production associate, was a step up for Harrington who, amongst other duties, helped shape the screenplay for that most scandalous of Hollywood sudsers Peyton Place, and even worked with Elvis Presley (no less!) on Don Siegel’s backwoods drama Hound Dog. His years as a small cog in the Hollywood dream factory fulfilled many a boyhood ambition, enabling him to meet stars like Dietrich and Cary Grant he’d adored on-screen in his youth, and his future directorial career was to be noted for coaxing vital performances out of old-school leading ladies in their twilight years – including the indefatigable Barbara Stanwyck, who wheeled a portable respirator around the set of Dynasty but never showed it on-camera.
Quite how Harrington managed to shoot Night Tide while still working for Jerry Wald – an always-on go-getter felled by a fatal heart attack at 50 – represents a remarkable act of scheduling, but Wald’s demise and the lengthy delays in finding any sort of audience for Night Tide left Harrington in need of work. Indeed, the one constant for the rest of his life was the need to land another gig, another payday – always swimming against the current to give something of himself where and when he could. “I was never able to think of a film as a purely commercial product,” says Harrington in his autobiography, and sure enough his discerning influence is certainly apparent on the best of his subsequent projects.
Unlikely as it sounds, but 1965’s cheapo sci-fi offering Queen of Blood, where Harrington created new scenes to work around the effects sequences from a Russian movie the US producers had bought in, is quintessential Harrington. The sets look like they might fall down at any minute, and the cast perform as if the best way to stretch the thing to feature-length is to do everything s-l-o-w-l-y, yet the undertow of dread in Night Tide is also palpable here. As a space crew pick up a deadly cargo from a distant planet, Florence Marly’s green-skinned, ruby-lipped extraterrestrial is another siren to lure male crew members (including an awfully sweet Dennis Hopper once more) to a decidedly grisly fate. Is this, like Night Tide, a metaphorical expression of Harrington’s troubled sexuality, with the gender roles changed to keep the gay subtext under wraps? Who knows. Did the writers of Alien ever see this? You’d be inclined to think so.
Furthermore, you’d also hope that renewed exposure for Night Tide might stimulate interest in the rest of the Harrington filmography. His first studio picture, 1967’s Games, for instance, plunges hipster couple James Caan and Katherine Ross (who got cast in The Graduate on the strength of this) into a dangerous entanglement with Simone Signoret’s seductively Gallic confidence trickster, unfolding a supernatural yarn where a party trick goes fatally wrong and a corpse just won’t stay put. It seems to exist in limbo between vintage Hollywood storytelling and more modern shock images, but still plays pretty well. Harrington’s two following features in a similar register do hit even harder however.
What’s The Matter With Helen?, his own personal favourite, is set in 1930s Hollywood where new arrivals Shelley Winters and Debbie Reynolds set up a dance-school for eager kids seeking movie parts, though their real agenda is to escape from the stigma of both their sons being notorious convicted killers. Winters, alas, doesn’t find it so easy to shake off the past, and her crumbling psyche plays against Reynolds’ aggressively smiley dance coach who likes nothing better than to upstage her junior charges. With musical numbers, romance, death and madness, it’s all rather hard to categorise, yet put together with obvious care and affection. And much the same could be said of the British-shot Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?, where Winters again is on sterling form as an ex-showgirl, whose rich husband has left her an English country house from which their daughter disappeared in mysterious circumstances decades previously. With fake spiritualist Ralph Richardson conning her into nightly seances to contact the girl, Winters also puts on an annual Christmas sleep-over for the unfortunates at the nearby orphan (child star Mark Lester among them). So there’s Yuletide cheer and a fairytale feel to an unheralded movie that’s perfect for alternative seasonal viewing, since Harrington, as ever, resists anything resembling sentiment while its bracingly harsh reversals play out.
1971, when those last two titles were both released, should have been a banner year for Harrington, yet neither film found much purchase at the box-office and Harrington’s association with Hollywood’s glories gone-by did him few favours as the film business desperately sought new audiences. So, he went to where the work was, which was in television, at first with a decent run of TV Movies and eventually in episodic dramas. Not all of the work was completely negligible, with highlights including Gloria Swanson, the great silent star and eternal icon from Billy Wilder’s Sunset BLVD making a rare latterday appearance in 1974’s eco-shocker Killer Bees, and Anthony Perkins as a partially-sighted gentle soul in How Awful About Allan, where shadowy POV shots reveal the vulnerable protagonist’s fears of a ghostly intruder. Still, what followed was what Harrington himself dubbed ‘the slippery slope’, as he professionally ground his way through episodes of Charlie’s Angels, Wonder Woman, Dynasty, The Colbys and many more. His autobiography, which recalls friendships with Kubrick and Welles, his warm response at European film festivals, and encounters with Jean Cocteau and Robert Bresson, reserves its utmost scorn for the talent he had to work with during this fallow period, noting his longstanding dislike of Joan Collins and suggesting Farrah Fawcett’s main acting concern was ensuring her hair was fluffed-up...
There is something especially sad that the young man who first made his mark in cutting-edge indie shorts, and brought so much of himself to his best commercial output, should end up in such circumstances, yet Harrington did in the end carve out for himself a happy ending of sorts. Financed, by all accounts, via his sale of a rare tome by Aleister Crowley, Harrington brought his filmography full-circle in 2000 by having another go at Poe in a new short titled Usher, filmed at Harrington’s characterfully decorated home in the Hollywood hills. He took the title role as a death-obsessed poet, performing alongside noted occultists Nikolas and Zeena Schreck (of the Church of Satan!), and in his mid-seventies, he was still well enough to travel with the film at home and abroad, prompting a resurgence of interest which ultimately led to Flicker Alley’s handsomely curated and much-needed US blu-ray release The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection.
Tellingly, Harrington ends his autobiography on a ruminative note, noting that film ‘becomes more permanent as it becomes more evanescent’. While he was alive his movies came and went in and out of circulation, militating against much in the way of serious recognition. Now though, on disc and online, it’s possible to put together a fuller picture of Harrington’s unique oeuvre, incredible in its span from the bohemian avant-garde via Hollywood to the trashiest of US TV, and at its best representing a very particular sensibility in deeply-felt thrall to Poe, Von Sternberg, and Maya Deren. With so much of the filmic past now at our beck and call at the click of a mouse, there’s a tendency to think that all the discoveries have been made. It’s fair to say though, that you’ll be missing out on a quintessential American film artist if you don’t know Curtis Harrington.
Trevor Johnston writes on film for Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, Time Out and Radio Times. He is a graduate in screenplay development from the National Film & Television School.
Art by Jason Ngai