Film Review: Night Tide

Film Review Series by Lance Sinclair

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This week State Library of Queensland’s cinephile, Lance Sinclair, reviews Night Tide, directed by Curtis Harrington and starring Linda Lawson, Dennis Hopper and Gavin Muir.

Image taken from film Night Tide, directed by Curtis Harrington, produced by Kino Lorber, streamed on Kanopy database.

NIGHT TIDE

On weekend shore leave from his new life in the US Navy, fledgling young sailor Johnny Drake finds himself wandering the Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles. Beguiled by the lights and sounds he drifts into an underground Jazz club, where he meets Mora – a statuesque beauty who works at the sideshow as a “mermaid”, immersed in water and sporting a fake fish tail for the amusement of tourists. As the bond between them strengthens and Johnny spends every spare moment immersed in the new and magical life of those who run the beachside attractions, he begins to discover potentially dark secrets hiding below the surface of their relationship. How is it that Mora’s previous two boyfriends have died in suspicious circumstances? What is the coded meaning of the warnings he receives from Mora’s manager and adoptive father, the enigmatic retired seaman Captain Sam Murdock? Is Mora an actual siren from the sea – transfixing Johnny and pulling him to an inevitable doom? 

The love of cinema as an elevated dream state is apparent from the beginning of this beautiful, strange film. Director Curtis Harrington’s debut film shows a director fully confident of his ability to bleed a sense of the uncanny into even the most innocuous scenes here.  The Santa Monica Pier, with its spinning rides and garish décor, still manages to feel like a haunted wasteland for long stretches of Night Tide, a closed off ecosystem that, once inside, feels as though it stretches into endless horizons of teetering pillars and calm, hungry ocean.  While superficially a tale of the supernatural, the sense of longing, of new love and the dangers of immersing oneself into a new kind of life are the real, profound senses that linger when Night Tide is done.

Dennis Hopper (in a fitting debut performance) is the dim, aimless Johnny Drake. Walking through life as though in a trance. “A fair young man- innocent and searching” as described by resident Chiromancer (don’t call her a fortune-teller) Madame Romanovich.  His naval uniform, which he wears throughout the first two acts of the movie, codes him and his naiveté so that we never forget his place in this story. He’s a boy flirting with the eternal sea, while Mora is the sea, or an aspect of it. It’s only when Johnny starts to become an active participant in the strange world he has entered that he sheds his regalia and becomes some version of himself. As the film reaches its end, we’re left with an evolution of Dennis Hopper as a figure closer to what we would recognise him as – haunted, skittish and perhaps a little stranger than he began.

Linda Lawson, as Mora, owns the movie however- her magical presence is felt even in her absence, as though the air has been sucked out of the room when she’s not on screen. Her performance as a young woman reckoning with the idea that she may not belong in this world, but amongst the submerged wonders that call to her on the tides, is gripping, the stuff that movie stars are made of.

There are elements here that fans of the 1942 film Cat People will recognise – as shadowy suggested menace, physical transformation and a slow surrealism begin creeping into the movie, and it does crib the exposition trick from Psycho (released one year prior) in which previously unseen authority figures attempt to explain everything we have just been through. But Night Tide utilises it to make the preceding story even more surreal than we had suspected and sends us out blinking into a new day even less sure of what we’ve experienced.

As a frozen amber snapshot of a time and place, the film succeeds in spectacular fashion – populating itself with an assortment of supporting characters that feel more fleshed out and alive than they need to be, and lingering fondly on the vanished glory of a microcosm of carousels, faded magic and the sense that anything could wait beneath the groaning boards of a weathered promenade.

Further reading

  • Danse Macabre / Stephens, Chuck. Film Comment; New York Vol. 43, Iss. 4,  (Jul/Aug 2007): 22-23 (article)
  • ‘NIGHT TIDE' Resurfaces / Kelley, Bill. Sarasota Herald Tribune; Sarasota, Fla. 16 Oct 1998: 19 (article)
  • Night Tide Curtis Harrington Aram Kantarian / Hill, Steven P. ; Film Quarterly, 07/1964, Vol.17(4), pp.54-55 (article)
  • CURTIS HARRINGTON ; Director of sci-fi and horror films /Perrone, Pierre. The Independent; London (UK), 11 May 2007: 1 (article)
  • Obituaries: Harrington Had Eclectic Career / Variety; New York, Vol. 406, Iss. 13,  (May 14, 2007-May 20, 2007): 65 (article)
  • Personal Chronicle: The Making of an Experimental Film / Harrington, Curtis ; Hollywood Quarterly, 1 October 1949, Vol.4(1), pp.42-50 (article)
  • Underground U.S.A. : filmmaking beyond the Hollywood canon / Mendik, Xavier and Schneider, Steven Jay (eds) ; New York : Columbia University Press ; 2002 (ebook)
  • Visionary film the American avant-garde, 1943-2000 / P. Adams. Sitney ; Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press ; 2002 (ebook)
  • Alternative projections : experimental film in Los Angeles 1945-1980 / James, David E. and Hyman, Adam (eds) ; New Barnet, Herts, England : John Libbey Publishing ; 2015 (ebook)
  • The Curtis Harrington short film collection/ Curtis Harrington film director. ; Kanopy (Firm) ; San Francisco, California, USA : Kanopy Streaming ; 2014 (online access)
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