Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Night Tide (1961)

And so, all the night tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling -- my darling -- my life and my bride
In her sepulchre there by the sea
In her tomb by the sounding sea

The above lines from Edgar Allen Poe's "Annabel Lee" are supposed to have provided the title and inspiration for this peculiar, low-key feature film debut from writer-director Curtis Harrington, previously associated with experimental film-makers like Kenneth Anger. In his first starring role Dennis Hopper plays Johnny Drake, a skinny, callow and na├»ve young sailor on shore leave in Santa Monica, trying to make time with any of the local ladies in a swinging jazz club. 24 or 25 when this was filmed, Hopper is reserved and awkward, a gawky pretty-boy in his skin-tight sailor suit -- a far cry from the 'mad man' roles he would later inhabit. He is immediately smitten with the exotic-looking Mora (Linda Lawson) who lives in an apartment over the ornate carousel on Venice Pier. She works as a 'mermaid' (the 'Lovely Siren of the Deep') at a local attraction, decked out in a fake fish tail and reclining in a water tank. However there is definitely something 'fishy' about her, if I may be allowed this cheap pun. She breakfasts on fresh fish and has a strong affinity with the sea.

Her erstwhile guardian, the attraction barker Gavin Muir, a collector of oddities including a severed hand in a glass jar, found her in Mykonos as a child and has looked after her ever since. He attempts to scare off Hopper by saying that she is dangerous to know -- a rumour reinforced by Luana Anders, grand-daughter of the carousel proprietor. It seems that two previous boyfriends have washed up on the shore with water in their drowned lungs. Hopper begins to believe that perhaps she really is a mermaid and has visions of her legs turning into a tail and dreams of being strangled by her octopus-tentacles. These visual fantasies are well-done but inconclusive. Less explainable is the mysterious woman who watches her from the shadows and who speaks to her in a strange tongue. Perhaps she really is one of the lost tribe of Sea People who are doomed to kill their mate at the full-moon, a siren luring each unsuspecting lover to his death.

Much against his better judgment the besotted Hopper agrees to go deep-sea diving with her, and yes she does try to tamper with his air tank. The gasping, bare-chested Hopper (an unlikely piece of cheesecake) manages to reach their dinghy, but there is no sign of mermaid Mora. When he returns to the sideshow some days later, her drowned corpse inhabits the tank. Muir reveals all to the police, confessing that he fed her fairy tales to keep her close to him and that he killed her previous boyfriends. However the viewer is left with too many unanswered questions and tantalizing possibilities. Never mind, young leading man Hopper will be OK -- he's about to taken on by the eager Anders.

Harrington went on to make a number of successful low-budget horror features like "Whoever Slew Auntie Roo" and "How Awful about Allen", but "Night Tide" deserves a wider audience for its poetic insolence. It is nearly on a par with Jacques Tourneur's classic "Cat People" in its suggestion of the everyday horrors lurking around us, but perhaps would have benefited from a few more jolts to the system.

I'm pretty sure I've viewed the above movie before, although I can not recall when, unlike "The Juggler" (1953) which also has been a long-standing inhabitant of my famous list. I finally managed to view that film yesterday, but was disappointed by Kirk Douglas's hammy overacting; if the truth be known I have always found him a little hard to take despite the fact that he has appeared in some very good films, a number of which I actually own. Here he plays a refugee of the camps who arrives in Israel in 1949, but who can not reconcile his treatment under the Nazis with the 'let's build a new tomorrow' approach of the Israelis. He attacks a policeman and is on the run, landing up in a kibbutz and the arms of Milly Vitale. I was tempted to extract a scene where he entertains the children in clown make-up, but I thought better of this, since even there he appeared to be emoting "look at me and see how manly and wonderful I am!" Where would I be without my deep-rooted film likes and dislikes?

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