Public libraries are havens. When in my early 20s, I spent a ridiculous amount of time in a library in the downtown part of Norfolk, Virginia. I was so poor then that I couldn’t afford to buy books, not even from the bookshop where I clerked and was entitled to an employee discount. But books were far from the only items I got from the library. I also borrowed movies there, and records. If my library had loaned out clothing items, I probably would’ve gotten my duds from there. Ok, maybe not that.
Once, while perusing their small-but-impressive VHS tape collection, I happened across a title that immediately arrested my attention. It was called Night Tide, was from the early ‘60s, starred Dennis Hopper, and was some kind of quirky fairy tale story involving a mermaid and a sailor. How had I never heard of this movie, never mind never seen it? Oh, well. Thanks to my library, I was now hipped to it. And thanks to my library card, I was about to see it.
After one viewing, I was astounded by the high quality of the movie. I watched it again and liked it even more. Then I called all my local film buff friends and invited them over for a screening. They were to bring the booze and snacks, I was to show them an obscure Dennis Hopper movie that would wow them. Nobody was let down.
It might be a stretch to classify Night Tide as film noir. Then up-and-coming auteur Curtis Harrington very consciously directed the movie (the story of which is based on his own, unpublished work of short fiction) with Val Lewton’s ‘40s horror films Cat People and The Leopard Man in mind. And Harrington would go on to direct ‘70s horror films, like Whoever Slew Auntie Roo and Killer Bees, before delving into TV fare such as “Dynasty.” But Night Tide isn’t a horror movie. It’s better described as an offbeat fairy tale on celluloid. But it contains suspense, darkness, mysterious deaths, gunplay, and it just has that particular edgy artfulness to it. Yeah, it’s noir.
Hopper owns the screen in portraying Johnny Drake: a young, handsome, endearingly nervous sailor stationed near Santa Monica. Linda Lawson is Mora, an exotically pretty, overly serious young woman who lives above a merry-go-round in the beach town, and works as a mermaid on the amusement pier. Gavin Muir is the retired seaman Captain Murdoch, who is Mora’s legal guardian and her boss at the beach attraction gig. Marjorie Cameron portrays a sinister woman who never speaks but just runs around spooking people. And Luana Anders is Ellen, the safe, nurturing girl who is the granddaughter of the geezer that runs the merry-go-round.
In an opening scene that immediately puts the film on groovy terrain, Johnny, on weekend shore leave, wanders into a beatnik-friendly nightclub. A hep jazz combo wails and many of the customers wear shades indoors. Johnny sees Mora sitting in there, looking beautiful and appearing entranced by the Herbie Mann-like sounds. Johnny forces his way into a seat at Mora’s table, then hits on her. She initially holds him off but gives in to his quirky charms over the course of the evening.
A fresh mackerel breakfast on her balcony the next morning, and a swimming date soon after, and the two are now a pair. Johnny wants to spend all his weekend leave time with his striking new honey.
But this is to be no carefree affair for Johnny. Everybody he runs into tells him to be wary of Mora. Ellen, who always seems to want pull Johnny into her home and feed him some nice, hot soup, fills him in on the fates of Mora’s last two boyfriends: both were “nice boys” who, while dating the mermaid girl, disappeared and then washed up on the shore, goners. Captain Murdoch, a man who likes a drink and a nap, warns Johnny to stay away from Mora, and suggests that she may be a Siren: one of the dangerous Sea People who lure sailors to their brutal underwater deaths. Cameron’s character appears to be some kind of Mama Siren, who is there to glare at people and to never let Mora forget that she is not free to lead a normal human life. Mora herself is haunted and, while she wants to let herself go with Johnny, she, too, tells him he is asking for trouble by getting close to her.
Night Tide was completed in 1960 and opened in ’61, but financial problems with its distributor caused it to be held back for general release until ‘63. The holdup must have been frustrating for Harrington, but really it was a non-issue, as the film has a timeless quality. Also, it may have been a little ahead of itself in ’61 in terms of its hipness; the world needed a few years to be ready for it. Roger Corman, who knows some things about B-movies and the finance involved, pulled some strings that helped Harrington finally get the film out there in movie houses across the country.
Reading Stephen King’s Joyland is what made me think of Night Tide. I just gave the movie a fresh viewing, which was maybe the sixth or seventh time I’ve seen it now. It never fails to ensnare me. It’s just a fantastic beach town amusement park tale, same as Joyland. There’s fortune telling, a bathhouse scene, carnival rides, pier culture, the ocean, some riotously over-the-top dream sequences involving sea life, etc. And throughout the film there’s a captivating light shining on the essence of a seedy oceanside area. Plus, it’s a classic story told in a fresh and edgy way. Call it a B-grade horror flick if you need to, or an arty fantasy tale, or a noirish work of early ‘60s beach town cool. I call it one of my favorite movies ever.
Brian Greene's articles on books, music, and film have appeared in 20 different publications since 2008. His writing on crime fiction has also been published Noir Originals, Crime Time, Paperback Parade, and Mulholland Books. Brian's collection of short stories, Make Me Go in Circles, will be published by All Classic Books in late 2013 or early '14. Brian lives in Durham, NC with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, and their cat Rita Lee. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianjoebrain.
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