Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
UCLA film school in the early 1970's was a very politicized place. The denizens of Melnitz
hall were divided pretty evenly between those who would change the world with agit-prop, and
those driven to produce the next champion of abstract cinema art. The commercially-oriented
filmmakers were a discouraged minority, but they were there, craftily producing
short feature films for profit while pretending to be making curriculum short subjects!
I later learned we had a UCLA tradition which was pretty much ignored. We saw little from the success stories of
the 1960s like Francis Ford Coppola. We had a Jim Morrison scholarship we were a lot more aware
of.I understand the department is a much better-wired, purposeful place now than it was then.
At that time, Curtis Harrington was a filmmaker on a roll, doing television films and the occasional
(What's the Matter With Helen?). His
one big studio attempt, Games, was a
critical success but not much more than that. But we should have been aware of him at UCLA
because he embodied the traditions we were taught (and believed) were central to 'Film'. In the
1940s he was a top experimental filmmaker, ranking with the legendary Maya Deren. And in the
early 60s he attempted to make quality lowbudget exploitation films, right there in Los Angeles
where our we with our student films ten years later thought we were inventing a milieu. Watching
the flawless Image DVD of Night Tide is not only like taking a time machine back to roots
you didn't know you had, it is also a sweet confirmation that the 'Roger Corman' school of
independent 50's filmmaking spawned more than just people trying to make a fast buck.
Night Tide is a modest, moody psychological thriller that almost but not quite becomes a
horror film. Harrington was a devotee of horror long before they were discussed in print
anywhere (his 1952 essays seem to be the first American critical work on Horror) and his interest
in Val Lewton is obvious here. With their down-to-earth pitch and
willingess to embrace morbidity and despair, the Lewton films were probably favorites of the
Deren / Harrington crowd of late 40s cinema aesthetes. Night Tide is clearly a
reworking of the Lewton/Tourneur Cat People, made by people who want to make a movie
that is equally commercial and artistic.
Johnny (an incredibly young and freshly-scrubbed Dennis Hopper) is a sailor on leave in
Santa Monica who meets and courts the beautiful but refreshingly earthy young Mora (Linda Lawson) he meets in
a jazz club. He walks to her home above the carousel on the Santa Monica
pier. At breakfast the next morning, Mora says she was found orphaned on an island by a sea
captain, who is now a sideshow proprietor on the pier. Her job: professional mermaid. For a few
coins, the curious can look into a tank of water, where she lies fish-costumed and submerged,
idly combing her hair.
A low-key romance ensues that quickly picks up a few rough edges. Other denizens of the pier,
including the friendly daughter (Luana Anders) of the carousel operator, warn Johnny that several of Mora's
previous boyfriends have drowned under mysterious circumstances. An equally mysterious Woman in
Black interrupts Mora's dance on the beach, her presence causing the sensitive girl to faint.
When Johnny tracks the woman through the canals of Venice (California), she unaccountably
disappears. Mora's guardian turns out to be an alcoholic; both he and a Tarot card-reading
spiritualist (Marjorie Eaton) take an interest in Johnny's well-being and warn him away from
his new love interest.
Naturally, Johnny pays no heed, even after an hallucination in which Mora transforms
into a murderous sea-creature. And then she insists on going scuba-diving, just as he's
beginning to take the warnings seriously...
Night Tide is fairly unique in its low-key mood and underplaying. Harrington definitely went
for the naturalistic feel of a Lewton film. The Lewton working-world ethic
is followed in that everyone onscreen has an occupation and is seen doing it. There is also a
general same 'niceness' to all of the films' characters, a Lewton trademark. The story isn't conflict-driven
in that there are almost not interpersonal fireworks, threats, big 'dramatic' scenes etc. Therefore the
movie gains a nice unforced quality, not unlike the later pictures of Bob Rafaelson. Without these stock tricks, Harrington creates character moments that stand by themselves. When Hopper happily jumps onto a railing and balances for a few steps, it's a genuinely
felt moment of joy.
From Harrington's experimental period come the moodiness, a few cryptic references, and the nightmare
sequence, which is surprisingly effective, considering Dennis Hopper is simply shown wrestling a prop rubber
octopus. Hopper chasing his deliriously confused mermaid girlfriend into the surf under the
pier is reminiscent of Vertigo. Harrington's seriousness attracted some good associates, especially famed
composer David Raksin, who gives this minor production a quality score.
Night Tide captures an intangible quality of what Santa Monica was like in the early '60s. Quite apart from Los Angeles, it was a quiet residential community.
The funfair pier has just the right air of seedy despair about it. Everyone seems
to be living 'just off' the mainstream. The pier is still
there and the carousel (best known for The Sting) still functions. During the
breakfast scene, you can see the now extinct Pacific Ocean Park a mile or so down the coastline in Venice. When I
came to LA in the late sixties, P.O.P. was already a memory, existing only as a few residual pilings.
Watching Night Tide and listening to its entertaining commentary track with Harrington and Hopper,
it becomes painfully clear why the film hadn't a chance in hell of being a success in the early
1960s. Lowbudget horror films weren't supposed to be moody and psychological - where were the
monsters and the blood? Or Vincent Price? Yet Night Tide got a reputation, mostly from
television screenings (although I remember it on a double bill as late as 1967). Curtis Harrington
went on to do a couple of extremely lowbudget films for A.I.P, including Queen of Blood,
a clever patchwork of a Russian space movie and new scenes, once again
featuring Dennis Hopper.
Not everyone associated with the Roger Corman / A.I.P. school of exploitation filmmaking fared
as well as Francis Coppola or Peter Bogdanovich. Curtis Harrington and his equally expressive
contemporary Monte Hellman (Two Lane Blacktop) have had spotty careers spent mostly in
search of the next moviemaking opportunity. They get written up and thrown plenty of critical
bouquets, but few films to
direct. There's something depressing about Harrington and Hopper meeting at a European film
festival, both floating about the fringes of success in Hollywood. Hopper eventually started
and stopped a couple of different career directions, one after Easy Rider and another in
the middle 80s after his Colors. He's still far better known as an actor.
Some reviews of this disc Savant has read stress its 'gay undercurrent', which the
film itself doesn't support. Yeah, Dennis Hopper is probably pretty good-looking to that crowd,
but so are most young leading men. I see no 'gay tension' in Hopper's character, and neither did
the gay friends I asked to check it out. Harrington made his underground reputation with
sexually ambiguous experimental movies (very good ones) but it's insulting to pidgeonhole him
as a 'gay' filmmaker. He's just a good director period.
Image Entertainment's disc of Night Tide is a very handsome affair. The B&W picture is
from an original element and probably looks better than did the original prints. The
commentary is especially amusing because Harrington and Hopper don't seem to have been in
contact much since this was shot (40 years ago!) and as fellow directors they amiably compare notes and
remember things together as they watch. It's a very enjoyable track. The trailer is not bad,
but its attempt to make the victimized Mermaid Mora seem threatening doesn't succeed.
How do you make a trailer for a thriller whose menace is all 'between the lines?'
Night Tide is a satisfying release of a serious, artistic independent thriller that has stayed
interesting long after the monster films made around it became camp jokes. Seeing Dennis Hopper play
a 'nice guy' is a revelation, after all his psycho roles. And his commentary with director Curtis
Harrington is an object lesson in the loneliness of serious filmmaking, circa 1960.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Night Tide rates:
Supplements: trailer, commentary track with Curtis Harrington and Dennis Hopper
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: May 22, 2000
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson