Night Tide

Rick McGrath

Night Tide (1963) Written and Directed by Curtis Harrington Cinematography by Vilis Lapenieks Film Editing by Jodie Copelan Production Design by Paul Mathison Original music by David Raksin

Cast (in credits order): Dennis Hopper as Johnny Drake; Linda Lawson as Mora; Gavin Muir as Captain Sam Murdock; Tom Dillon as the merry-go-round owner; Luana Anders as his granddaughter, Ellen Sands; Marjorie Eaton as Madame Romanovitch, the tarot card reader; H.E. West as Lieutenant Henderson; Cameron (as herself). (Rest of cast listed alphabetically) Kirby Allan as the Bongo player; Chaino as the Lead Bongo Player. Ben Roseman, Bruno VeSota (uncredited).

Running Time: 84 minutes

Not Just Another Fish Story...

Night Tide (made in 1960 but not released until 1963) is a very interesting flick that, on the surface, appears to go under for the third time just before reaching shore. And then it hits you like a tidal wave -- of course -- the Edgar Allen Poe connection, the Sirens, the Harpies... they're all symbolic. Writer/Director Curtis Harrington has, perhaps unwittingly, crafted a psychosexual tale of Freudian camp and hilarity, as the fishy Linda Lawson flops around the periphery of the Electra complex, while cute-as-a-bug Dennis Hopper stalks wacky women on a huge phallic pier, which penetrates the subconscious Mother of the restless id.

Night TideHarrington has said Night Tide was his first original screenplay, having written it based on an unpublished short story called "The Secret Of The Sea". The movie's title, aside from being more noir, is from the Poe poem: "And so, all the night tide, I lie down by the side of my darling, 'my darling,' my life, and my bride in her sepulcher there by the sea; in her tomb by the sounding sea." Hey, that sounds pretty sexy, in a necrophilic way, as well!

But why the frantic Poe? The beat of Night Tide is more lunar. I'd go for the ponderous Walt Whitman, and his poem about over-the-top motherly love..."out of the cradle, endlessly rocking" the theme music for this whacked-out wave, cresting on a lonely beach somewhere west of Hollywood.

But toss enough charged symbols into a pot, and you'll end up with something that crawls by itself.

"The tide pulls at my heart, and the face of the moon fills my soul with a strange longing" -- that's the sexually charged lament of seaside sideshow mermaid Mora Murdock (Linda Lawson). Found and taken from a Greek island when she was a small child by Capt Sam Murdock (Gavin Muir), then jealously raised to believe she was a member of the ancient race of Sirens -- so she'll stick around and the good Capt'n won't be lonely in his drunken old age -- Mora's life is complicated by her natural sexual longings... and an old woman in black (Cameron), who mysteriously appears and often utters words of an unintelligible language to our vulnerable heroine. In the meantime, her boyfriends keep washing up on the beach, and she's stuck in a loser carny operation pretending to be a mermaid in an appropriately cheesy sideshow.

Johnny and the Capt. Mora's sand dance

Enter Johnny Drake (Dennis Hopper). He's pretty screwed up as well. He joined the navy in Denver, and after a year he's been to Hawaii once. He appears to have no friends, and even though he's a non-commissioned officer, we find him cruising the seedy side of the California beachside nightlife, obviously looking for... sex.

Johnny and Mora meet in a fantastic scene... inside the Blue Grotto jazz bar. Johnny's sexual tension is palpable as he stalks the tables, Mora is cold and distant, lost in the music (played by an ass-kickin quartet led by the very young Paul Horn) but Johnny is persistent, and just as they start to talk, the lady in black appears and mumbles some unintelligible words to Mora, who freaks and runs out of the club. Johnny catches her, walks her to her apartment above a merry-go-round, and asks if he can come in for "awhile". She declines, and then invites him for breakfast the next day, where she astounds Johnny with a display of her intact virtue: a seagull flies in and calmly rests on her lap.

And thus the relationship starts.

Warned by all, including Capt Murdock, to stay away from Mora, the killer mermaid, Johnny remains attracted like a mouth to a teat, finally deciding to get some answers by tracking down the mysterious woman in black. Along the way he checks out Mora's only-too-fake sideshow act, necks with her on a beach, then witnesses her release some tension with a sexually primitive bongo dance in the sand. Finally, Johnny manages to spy out and track the dark woman to Capt Murdock's dumpy digs in Venice, but all he finds is the drunken sailor, who relates the story of how he found and raised Mora.

The movie's Act III climax comes in Mora's apartment. Johnny has arrived to find Mora in the bath. He's tired, so he decides to kip out on the couch while she finishes. He dreams, and in his dream Mora comes out of the bathroom wearing naught but a white towel. She comes to the couch, opens the towel and leans her torso intro Johnny's face. He gratefully accepts, but when he opens his eyes Mora has changed into a giant octopus that's strangling him. He cries out and wakes. He discovers Mora has left the building. Johnny follows her wet footsteps for an impossibly long time, finally ending on the dark, spooky beach under the pier. The waves crash. The pilings rise like the columns of Atlantis from the sea. He runs and calls. She finally answers and he rushes into the breakers to pull her to shore. Gee, wonder what all that means? I'd say Johnny's dream shows he has a bit of a problem with a woman who wants to get real close and tie him down... maybe he'd rather be tied up. If the pier is a penis, then the dressed-in-white sailor Johnny sure looks like semen (bad pun, no?). And Mora, faced with a choice between screwing Johnny and joining the waterboys, seems to be stuck running up and down the beach, neither fish nor fowl, unable to break out of her guardian's psychic spell and enjoy a normal relationship.

Red Tide

The final climax, the death of Mora, happens during a skin diving session on the day of the full moon, "when the tides are highest". It's not explained why that makes diving better. Oh well. Underwater, Mora cuts Johnny's airhose, sending him gasping to the surface. She dives deeper and deeper, finally dying in the throes of rapture of the deep. Only one orgasm per life... and I hope it was a great one.

Johnny saves Mora Night Tide: dead Mora

Johnny hides out for a few days, reading the papers, but when nothing makes the news he ventures back to the pier for one last look at the mermaid show. Sneaking in past Murdock, Johnny is shocked to find the dead body of Mora carelessly lying in a little water at the bottom of her tank. Murdock arrives, accuses Johnny of her murder, fires wildly, breaking the tank and attracting the cops, who find him lying under Mora's stiff corpse.

In the epilogue, we learn from a confessing Murdock that he killed the other two suitors to keep Mora for himself. Johnny brings up the woman in black, but Murdock has never seen or heard of her. Mora has already identified her as a member of the "water race", and that their call to her is growing stronger and stronger. Her presence and meaning is left as the film's enigma -- something to talk about on the drive home from the theatres. "Was there really an ancient race? Was Mora really a mermaid?" However, the dark woman is not that great a mystery. As many critics point out, Director Curtis Harrington was clearly inspired by Val Lewton's Cat People (1942). The movies are quite similar. Not only does the heroine metamorph into another being (jaguar, mermaid), but both feature an older woman speaking a foreign language which frightens the younger. If the sexless mermaid represents Mora's flight from physical love, then the woman in black is simply Capt Murdock in another form. No wonder she's frightening. As the symbol of Murdock's own twisted fantasies, she represents verboten love -- the non-romantic variety. It's the guilt of leaving the old man versus the desire to strike out on her own which drives Mora's tidal consciousness. (Just as an aside, a notorious LA woman simply known as "Cameron" plays Harrington's Woman in Black. She was, reportedly, a disciple of the infamous Satanist Aleister Crowley. If you see this movie, hit the pause button the first time she gets a close-up. Tell me, does that face not look like a guy in drag to you?)

Johnny is set free, and is met in the cop shop by Ellen, granddaughter of the merry-go-round owner and someone who's had the hots for Johnny's ass throughout the story. She invites Johnny back for a ride his next shore leave. He smiles and agrees. Looks like he's gonna get laid after all.

Tapping some avant-garde roots

Director Curtis Harrington earned a reputation as an experimental filmmaker in the 1950s, shot Night Tide as his first feature-length flick in 1960, then did some genre features (Who Slew Auntie Roo?, What's the Matter With Helen?) before retiring to television, where he kept food on the table by directing episodes of "Wonder Woman," "Charlie's Angels" and "Dynasty," among others.

Filmed on a budget of just $75,000, Night Tide is a pretty polished movie, considering its financial limitations. In part, the movie's sophisticated look can be attributed to the on location cinematography of Vilis Lapenieks, who masterfully shot the seedy arcades of Santa Monica, Pacific Ocean Park, and Long Beach Pike. The interior shots were handled by Floyd Crosby, the Academy Award-winning photographer who shot High Noon. (He also fathered the pistol-packin' David Crosby.) As well, Harrington convinced his friend David Raksin to come up with a jazz-influenced musical score. No musical slouch, Raksin had written the scores for Laura and The Bad and the Beautiful, as well as the musical arrangements for Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times.

Harrington was also able to sign Dennis Hopper in his first lead role. Hopper had only made two prior movies -- Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant -- and knew of Harrington's short experimental films. Hopper's acting in Night Tide is, I think, ultimately suspect. It's fun to see him so young, so cute in his tight navy suit, but he plays Johnny Drake as a bumbling, nervous, fidgety, slightly stupid loner ... so much so he often seems dislocated from the action and his co-stars.

Linda Lawson makes Mora the role she is most remembered for and identified with today, and she joins an exclusive club of movie mermaids -- Glynis Johns (Miranda), Ann Blyth (Mr Peabody and the Mermaid) and Daryl Hannah (Splash).

The supporting actors are all very good, including Sherlock Holmes veteran Gavin Muir, Ellen Sands as the lusty girl on the merry-go-round, and Marjorie Eaton, who gives Hopper an unforgettable tarot card reading. (Aside: turns out he's "The Hanged Man". That's supposed to mean Johnny will let go, surrender, change his mind, pause & reflect... and all that mystic mumbo-jumbo. Go ahead, ask me what's hanging.)

It's not surprising this film has a cult following. It's got a lot of good things going for it. Sure, there's sappy dialogue and some stilted acting, and the thing barely moves along at times, but on top of a great jazzy soundtrack, Night Tide is visually alluring. Most of all, ultimately you find yourself caring for these fringe characters, and the death of Mora does seem tragic, given the circumstances of her sexual awakening. Like the lonely Johnny Drake, we just spent a weekend holding the towel for a virgin mermaid who decided to take a long walk on a short pier, submerging into the dark of the ocean... that calls out with the tide....

© Rick "Ojo" McGrath 11/2000


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