Night Tide (1961)
Part of the Weird Cinema DVD Box Set.
There’s a mood that can only be found in one place. A beach town. Particularly off-season, when the beaches are deserted and the few permanent denizens wander along the boardwalk. There’s a mysterious quality to the ocean and what lies beneath the surface. This feeling permeates throughout small communities. Maybe it’s my upbringing, but I equate beaches with summer. This isn’t even accurate anymore since I prefer to go in late spring or early fall, when the crowds are smaller. Still, songs with obvious titles like Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer” and Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer” somehow have the power to transport me back to the soft sand beneath my feet and the salty wind in my hair. These songs have a certain ‘longing’ quality that I associate with the way a beach affects me. It’s this oddly romantic quality which drew me in to the story of Curtis Harrington’s 1961 doomed love story Night Tide.
The movie hasn’t been forgotten by time due to the meteoric rise of its star: the legendary, Oscar-nominated, and all-around madman Dennis Hopper. As a fan of David Lynch, Hopper, for me, will always be one of the greatest bad guys of cinema, Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. I would be remiss in not mentioning the myriad other roles he’s played in films like Apocalypse Now, Paris Trout, Red Rock West, Hoosiers, his fun villain turns in Speed and Waterworld, and then his small but impressive work as a director with the career-making Easy Rider, the exciting Colors, and the devastating Out of the Blue. Even The Last Movie, a career-killer if there ever was one, has its defenders.
Here, he plays Johnny Drake, a lonely sailor on shore leave wandering the dimly-lit boardwalk. He’s looking for something, though he doesn’t know what. Coming upon a jazz club filled with beatniks, he grabs a drink and sits down by the band. The camera pans across the various patrons before stopping on a young woman sitting alone. She’s beautiful and intriguing, perhaps even lost like him. He’s somehow drawn to her. The Navy seems to have given him the confidence to talk a girl up. I’ve had friends in the army and navy so I can say from experience that some, not all, but some of them have a stereotypical ‘gung ho’ attitude and intensity which makes them impervious to the crushing force of rejection. A strange older woman played by Marjorie Cameron (here credited only as CAMERON) approaches the table, speaks Greek to her, and the young lady rushes out. Johnny is confused and chases after her. He’s a bit pushy, but he convinces her to let him walk her home.
Since Hopper had such a long and prolific career, his very early work tends to be forgotten. He was a good friend of James Dean and appeared in the late actor’s Rebel Without A Cause and Giant before Dean’s untimely death. Dean’s influence is apparent with Hopper employing a range of mannerisms and character tics that provide an oddly naturalistic performance that still feels a bit off. He’s very good here, but this is still the transition period between the mannered acting of the 40’s and 50’s and the method approach popularized by Dean, Brando, and Clift. Despite his future villain roles, he could look innocent when he wanted to.
They arrive at her apartment, which sits atop a merry-go-round. He tries to invite himself up; wow, he’s bold, but she instead offers to cook him breakfast the next morning. At eleven. Eleven? I’m an early-riser, but still, that may as well be lunchtime. He takes off, learning her name is Mora (Linda Lawson, Ben Casey) and giddily hops up on a fence, a similar act I did after a date with my future wife. The next morning, Johnny meets the proprietor of the merry-go-round (Tom Dillon, Whistling in Brooklyn) and his granddaughter Ellen (the great Luana Anders). They seem nervous about his meeting with Mora, but mind their own business. The ‘brunch’ goes well as they eat fish (of course) and she tells him she works as a mermaid for a seaside attraction nearby. She feels a kinship with the ocean and even tames a hungry seagull, stroking it like a pet. In reality, the birds’ beak was wired shut so it wouldn’t bite since seagulls are assholes.
The proprietor of the sideshow-style attraction is Captain Samuel Murdock (Gavin Muir, Johnny Trouble), whose impeccable English accent belies his Chicago roots. He’s got a florid way of speaking and adds to the mystique of Mora’s background. Johnny and Mora get to know each other and their scenes are very sweet. They drink coffee on the beach and she expresses her fear and love for the sea, which could also be code for their relationship. Hopper replies, “We’re all a little afraid of what we love.” Later that night, Mora is convinced to dance while Chaino, the head bongo player, drums out his beats. Her dance is odd and stiff. The crowd eats it up, but the mysterious woman who spoke Greek appears and Mora faints.
Another day goes by and Johnny pops over to see Mora, but he's finally clued-in to the real reason the merry-go-round folk are nervous for him. She’s had two previous boyfriends who both turned up dead, washing up on the shore. Also sitting in to give her two cents is Madame Romanovitch (Marjorie Eaton), in a grand and broad performance as a clairvoyant (or, in her faux-British accent, clairvoy-aunt). Marjorie Eaton could easily be mistaken for Margaret Hamilton’s sister and often played old-money types, like Miss Persimmon in Mary Poppins (1964). Johnny receives a phone call with no one on the other end, but he catches a glimpse of the mysterious woman again, whom he follows. She disappears around a corner as if into thin air and he finds himself at the home of Captain Murdock.
Murdock invites him in and they sit down for drinks. The captain has been all over the world and even keeps the hand of a thief in his liquor cabinet. The drunker he gets, the looser his tongue. He adopted Mora when she was a child living on the streets of Greece and he’s convinced that she’s part of an ancient race. She is, according to him, a mermaid. He also refers to her as a siren, a monstrous being who would lure sailors to their deaths. Murdock is very big in this scene but Hopper compliments his scene partner by underplaying and simply reacting to these bizarre developments. Murdock passes out in a bit that works better on paper, especially since he’s just about to reveal some key information but then konks out quite suddenly.
One surprise in the next scene is that the movie goes straight for the siren angle. Another more conventional film may have had Johnny keep the whole siren thing to himself, but he comes right out with it to Mora. At first, you believe what they’re talking about is the death of her two previous boyfriends, but nope. She actually thinks she’s a siren and he doesn’t believe her. The dialogue is very dramatic but it works. She responds to his disbelief with, “You Americans have such a simple view of the world.” She steps away and delivers a short but beautiful monologue. “Because I feel the seawater in my veins. Because I listen to the roar of the sea and it speaks to me like a mother’s voice. The tide pulls at my heart. And the face of the moon fills my soul with a strange longing.” Fucking Greeks, am I right? There’s an awkward hug and Johnny decides to see Madame Romanovitch.
Although she’s very grand, Marjorie Eaton is really fabulous in this scene and it’s one of my favorites. It’s rare for a Tarot reading scene to include the explanation of what each card means but here we get a real education in how all this kooky shit works. Johnny is definitely in danger and Mora is caught in a “vortex of evil.” He returns to the apartment in a wide shot representing his confusion and despair. He falls asleep and has a nightmare in which a towel-clad Mora approaches him and then turns into an octopus. Poor octopus effects aside, it’s a decent dream sequence that may have worked better if the tentacles had been shot in close-up.
There’s an odd but important scene where Johnny meets Murdock at a massage parlor. Bruno (Ben Roseman, Demensia) does his massage thing with a cigar on the side of his mouth and inquires of Murdock, “Pound you later?” Murdock once again cautions Johnny and the warnings do seem to be getting under his skin. It now appears that Mora may be mentally ill and the suspicions regarding her previous boyfriends takes shape. She suggests they go diving together and Johnny is understandably skeptical. It’s nice to see a character who is clearly in love but not stupid.
In a scene only let down by what I feel is inappropriate music (in an otherwise moody score by Oscar-nominee David Raksin, Bigger Than Life, The Bad and the Beautiful), they go underwater, gliding along the ocean floor. Suddenly, Mora grabs Johnny and starts removing his diving gear. It’s very quick and jarring. Johnny reaches the boat and although it’s just a tad over-the-top, his response to nearly being drowned by his girlfriend is pretty believable. The trauma of the murder attempt and his realization of the truth is too much for him. She stays under and isn’t seen again. He has another nightmare that isn’t nearly as effective as the first. A celebration on the boardwalk is announced and Johnny attends. He makes his way into Mora’s sideshow booth and finds her floating dead in the pool. Murdock appears with a gun, accusing him of murdering her. There’s a scuffle and some cops show up, arresting them both.
The last scene has a bit of a Psycho-feel as everything is explained at the police precinct. Murdock wanted to control Mora so he convinced her since childhood that she was a mythical sea creature but he didn’t take into account her independent spirit. It’s a messy situation because he confesses to murdering the two other boyfriends but she did try to kill Johnny when they were diving. This brings up the question of how culpable Mora is since she was basically driven mad by the captain. What looks like a clear-cut case soon becomes ambiguous when Johnny asks about the mystery woman who had been following the two. Murdock claims to have no accomplices, calling into question whether Mora may have actually been a mermaid/siren after all. I could’ve used one more appearance from the Water Witch at the end, but for now, Johnny merely drives off with the military police.
Writer-director Curtis Harrington had made a few shorts, including The Wormwood Star (1956), about Water Witch Cameron, before making his feature debut with Night Tide. Although clearly an outsider with an avant-garde sensibility (he worked with Kenneth Anger a few times), he had a long and varied career. A few of his films garnered major nominations from the American and British academies, like Games (1967) and What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971). He would end his career mostly doing episodic TV and TV movies, including the infamous Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell (1978). There would even be a Cannon movie in the mix, Sylvia Kristel’s hilariously bad Mata Hari (1985). Clearly an ‘artist’ with a capital ‘A,’ he handles the tricky story with care and sensitivity. He takes a serious tone for a plot that could be hilarious if it weren’t crafted so well. The story is a bizarre fantasy-psychological thriller hybrid that is uncompromising in it’s depiction of a tragic love affair.
Linda Lawson was in her mid-twenties when the film was made but she has a wise, older woman quality that brings her character to life. Luana Anders as Ellen, who will probably hook up with Johnny after he gets over this whole mermaid/murder fiasco, is nice but her greatest work lay ahead of her. She would work with Harrington again on Games and The Killing Kind (1973). She was clearly very well-liked by the new generation of actors and filmmakers coming up in the 60’s and 70’s, because she would appear as the wonderfully evil Louise Haloran in Coppola’s Dementia 13 (1963) and hook up with Corman, Hopper and co. for The Trip and The Young Racers. A life-long friend of Jack Nicholson, she’d also have roles in Easy Rider, The Last Detail, The Missouri Breaks, Goin’ South, and The Two Jakes, as well as Hal Ashby’s classic Shampoo, which was reportedly based on her own experiences, despite what rich egotist Jon Peters would have to say about it.
The genuine older woman of the film, Marjorie Cameron, has a much wilder background. If anyone has seen the Drunk History segment about rocket scientist Jack Parsons, then you know who this lady is. She was his wife and part of the occult group closely associated with Aleister Crowley. She was part of those ‘sex magick’ parties and at one point ran off with L. Ron Hubbard, another leader of a much more famous cult group. In a nearly wordless performance, she has an otherworldly quality which fits very well with her role as someone who may or may not be trying to lure Mora back into the watery depths.
Night Tide has a pedigree due to the presence of Dennis Hopper, but it’s telling that the film, with an equally strong lead performance, can stand on its own. It’s a quietly moving piece of work about love, loss, and loneliness.