The other day I came across an interesting jazz clip on YouTube (haven’t we all?): a scene from an early 1960s movie in which a young Dennis Hopper, playing a rather unworldly sailor, ventures into a hip basement club. The place is full of cool cats and cinematic Beat types (being a little less over-the-top than most cinematic Beats of that era) listening to the real gone West Coast flute-jazz sounds of an intense combo.
Spying a moodily attractive, dark-haired lady across the small room, Hopper asks if he can sit with her. When he tries to make happy small talk about the band, the woman shushes him, saying, “I’d like to listen, please.” You dig, Dennis? You’re in a serious jazz scene, baby.
A Rough Start For The Easy Rider
That’s just the beginning of a weird and offbeat Hollywood trip for the future Easy Rider. The film is Night Tide, and one reviewer has called it “a psychosexual tale of Freudian camp and hilarity.” The viewer follows Hopper’s Poesian dream/nightmare journey, into a world tinged – perhaps even ruled – by the supernatural.
Intrigued by the film’s storyline, which concerns a woman who believes she’s a murderous creature of the deep (call it ‘mermaid noir’), I started poking around online for information about Night Tide, and found quite a bit. It definitely has a cult following, and a rep for being a better movie than surface descriptions might suggest.
A Cult Classic’s Evolution
Night Tide’s writer and director, Curtis Harrington, had built up an underground following for his previous, experimental films. Night Tide was his first full-length feature. (It was also Hopper’s first starring role, after supporting parts in James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause and Giant.)
Harrington was attempting to emulate the great 1940s horror movies of producer and screenwriter Val Lewton (I Walked With a Zombie, Cat People), employing a narrative structure very similar to Lewton’s. Financial disputes delayed the film’s distribution for two years, and upon its eventual release in 1963 it was deemed a failure. But when New York Times film critic Howard Thompson saw it at a 42nd Street movie house and began to sing its praises, he converted friends like Truman Capote too.
Night Tide Trivia
- The Beats-in-a-basement scene was shot in an actual Los Angeles jazz club of the time, the Blue Grotto.
- The flautist leading the jazz group is Paul Horn, a member of Chico Hamilton’s late-1950s West Coast “chamber jazz” quintet.
- The score for the film was written by David Raksin, of “Laura” fame, with some additional music by bassist Jimmy Bond.
- The ‘sea witch’ who holds sway over Hopper’s quasi-mermaid love interest was played by occultist and actress Cameron, who had previously appeared in Kenneth Anger‘s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.
Only in California, at the dawn of the sixties, could a film like Night Tide happen. You just can’t make up these kinds of cultural convergences. I’m looking forward to watching the entire movie; in the meantime, you can check out Dennis Hopper at the jazz club:
- Thanks to producer Chuck Nessa for a musician ID, and Jon Pollack, host of The Jazz Train on WMBR-Cambridge, Massachusetts, for the confirmation: The trumpeter is none other than lost-legend Joe Gordon.
- Night Tide remains available on DVD.
- More about the film here, here, here and here.
You can also watch the full-length opening sequence of Night Tide (and go from there, if you so desire):