Combustible Celluloid
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With: Dennis Hopper, Linda Lawson, Gavin Muir, Luana Anders, Marjorie Eaton, Tom Dillon, H.E. West, Marjorie Cameron
Written by: Curtis Harrington
Directed by: Curtis Harrington
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 85
Date: 10/15/2013

Night Tide (1961)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Next of Fin

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Curtis Harrington was one of the pioneers of the New Queer Cinema, though he was also a horror monger; he was even a friend of James Whale's (another famous gay maker of horror films). His first student film was an adaptation of Poe, and he then made a series of experimental shorts. The moody chiller Night Tide was the first of his feature films.

It starred a quiet, polite Dennis Hopper as a sailor on leave in a small seaside town. Hopper had appeared opposite James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, and had been on several TV shows, but he had yet to become the great mad dog character actor he would be known for. To the best of my knowledge, this was his first starring role.

He plays Johnny Drake, who tries to kill some time by going to a jazz club. (It's not clear how long he's on leave or where his other crew members are, but he appears to be alone with all the time in the world on his hands.) Patrons bob their heads to the music and Johnny tries to do the same, but his attention is caught by a brunette goddess, Mora (Linda Lawson). He successfully speaks to her and walks her home. She agrees to meet him for breakfast the following morning.

Mora reveals that she works as a "mermaid" in the local carnival. (It costs 25 cents to enter the tent to see her.) While Johnny continues to hang around, he meets several other locals, and they all warn him away from Mora. Apparently she had two prior boyfriends that wound up dead. He even begins to get some hints that something supernatural is going on, and that, in fact, her mermaid act may not be so fake.

Harrington doesn't seem interested in big payoffs, though he does put Johnny through a scary dream sequence. He's mostly interested in establishing atmosphere, using the deserted daytime carnival, the ocean sounds, and the oddball behavior of the locals. One character drinks while he talks to Johnny and then passes out cold just before answering Johnny's last question.

It's overall a low-key, but entertaining movie that eventually washes over you and casts a bit of a spell. It reminded me of Carnival of Souls, made the next year, but more literal and less dreamy. It's perhaps most interesting for Hopper's restrained performance; his fans will have never seen anything quite like it.

The movie is in the public domain, but Kino Lorber has released a very good Blu-ray edition for those wishing to see the movie in high quality. It comes with a commentary track recorded by Harrington and Hopper at the same time, though I'm not sure when. Harrington died in 2007 and Hopper died in 2010. It's too bad the track isn't more interesting: Hopper can't seem to remember much and the topic of conversation mostly seems to be where they shot certain scenes. The disc also comes with a 1987 interview with Harrington and a trailer.

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