Dennis Hopper’s first leading role isn’t exactly an early template for his intermittently volcanic career. As Johnny Drake, Hopper plays a soft-spoken sailor who is so shy and tentative he clutches his hands at his waist and shuffles in place while struggling to make eye contact with anyone. He’s just a sweet, innocuous momma’s boy like that nice Norman Bates fellow.
Unlike Norman, Johnny’s placid demeanor doesn’t hide any secrets. The mystery belongs entirely to Mora (Linda Lawson), the sultry woman Johnny meets in a jazz club on the Santa Monica pier. Johnny, the most desperate sad-sack of a navy man you’ll ever see, falls head over heels for the sullen brunette at first sight and isn’t put off by the fact that Mora flees the club immediately after a menacing woman (Marjorie Cameron) materializes out of the night air and begins shouting at her in an identifiable, vaguely Germanic language (or at least that’s how I heard it).
Johnny has no way of looking at the credits of “Night Tide” (1961) to see that Ms. Cameron is credited as “Water Witch,” but the alarms should be sounding once his new object of desire identifies herself by saying, “I am called Mora.” Which is not the way any mere mortal introduces herself, but Johnny isn’t really paying attention. In fact, he’s so happy that a pretty woman has agreed to meet him for breakfast the next morning, he hops up and shimmies along a wooden railing like he’s in a Gene Kelly musical. But he’s not.
Writer-director Curtis Harrington was making the transition from avant-garde cinema to more mainstream feature filmmaking, though mainstream isn’t exactly the proper descriptor here. “Night Tide” is a triumph of atmosphere and tone that defies genre expectations. Harrington shows an easy, fluid command of the medium with many little flourishes that breathe life into sequences that could otherwise come across as strictly generic.
One of his favorite tactics is to switch scale within a scene. When Johnny goes to see Mora at her apartment above a merry-go-round (yes, it’s as cool as it sounds), he meets with the ride’s operator who provides the faintest of warnings that, of course, Johnny doesn’t heed. As Johnny dashes up the steps, he looks back down, and we see a long shot of the operator whispering hurriedly to someone else, a creepy little touch that gives even the love-intoxicated Johnny pause before he plunges headlong to his fate.
After they have a breakfast of fresh mackerel during which a seagull lands in Mora’s lap, Johnny learns that she makes her living by playing a mermaid in a 25 cent attraction on the pier. He also learns that’s not nearly the weirdest thing about Mora, but by the time even his puppy dog eyes are pried wide open he’s too smitten to wriggle free. I’ll leave you to discover the rest for yourself.
A skimpy shooting budget and post-production financing troubles (Roger Corman stepped in to rescue the footage from a lab that hadn’t been paid) do nothing to prevent the film from looking and sounding better than many more expensive projects. Harrington and his crew (cinematographer Vilis Lapenieks, veteran composer David Raksin, and editor Jodie Copelan among them) sculpt a moody black-and-white pocket universe that is just as disorienting on a sun-dappled beach as in a smoky night club, and the almost abandoned, decaying Santa Monica pier provides an authentic, engrossing setting.
The plot gets a little goofy at the midway point and almost collapses in a final scene that also echoes “Psycho.” However, the film is so deftly crafted and so replete with idiosyncratic frissons that the creaks in the screenplay don’t show too glaringly. And there’s always the considerable pleasure of watching a meek young Dennis Hopper twisting his sailor’s cap and looking like he’s about to say “Aw, shucks” at any moment.
The film is presented in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio.
You won’t be surprised to learn that a film that was eventually distributed by Roger Corman wasn’t maintained in pristine condition. Kino Lorber’s high-def transfer is “mastered in HD from 35 mm film elements restored by the Academy Film Archive, with support from The Film Foundation and Curtis Harrington.” The source material has its limitations and there are plenty of instances of damage visible from the source, but the 1080p transfer provides rather strong image detail throughout and the black-and-white photography has enough contrast to convey the appropriately off-kilter mood. It’s got its problems, but the transfer is quite strong.
“Night Tide” lapsed into public domain a while ago. I don’t own any of the various prior DVD releases (an Amazon search reveals a full screen worth) but I have little doubt this is a substantial improvement on most or all of them.
The linear PCM 2.0 track sounds both hollow and crisp, just right for the movie and for the fine soundtrack by David Raksin. Dialogue is clearly mixed and there are only a few instances of distortion in the audio. No subtitles are provided.
The film is accompanied by a commentary track by Harrington and Hopper which I believe was recorded for the film’s laser disc release in the late ’90s. I haven’t had an opportunity to listen to it yet, but I can’t wait.
Kino Lorber has also included two episodes of the public access show “Sinister Image” hosted by David Del Valle. The episodes were broadcast in 1987 (approx. 27 minutes apiece) and consist of Del Valle interviewing Curtis Harrington about his career. The first episode touches on “Night Tide” and the second on later films. The disc also includes an original theatrical trailer.
“Night Tide” frequently gets compared to “Carnival of Souls” (1962) and not just because of a faintly similar setting. Harrington’s film deals more in doomed romance than simmering menace, and doesn’t provide the scares of a typical horror film, but it isn’t supposed to. The intended tone is reflected in the title which is taken from the final stanza of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Annabel Lee.” The story might not hold together under drably logical scrutiny, but its strengths are considerable enough to qualify it as a flawed classic. Highly recommended.