Wednesday 21 October 2009

The Jonker Diamond (1936)

Director: Jacques Tourneur

An MGM Miniature with 'explanatory remarks' by Pete Smith, this is hardly a standard piece, but it's a great opportunity to see the cinematic skills of Jacques Tourneur. This is early in his career, The Jonker Diamond being the first film he made in the States after a few back home in France, and he would go onto renown in multiple genres, but especially with horror films, making a triumphant trio of films for Val Lewton in the early 40s: Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man. Later he'd return to it with the influential English film Night of the Demon, but he'd also prove with films like Out of the Past, Stars in My Crown and Nightfall that he wasn't a one trick pony.

Noobody gets to speak here except Smith and none of the actors are credited, even Hugh Marlowe who would go on to All About Eve, The Day the Earth Stood Still and, well, Earth vs the Flying Saucers. Smith's narration isn't quite as annoying as usual and the story of the Jonker diamond is an interesting one. After eighteen years of toil, Jacobus Jonker and his family discover the 726 carat diamond in South Africa in 1905, sell it through auction to Harry Winston in the States for a full million dollars, who hires Lazarre Kaplan to cut it into twenty smaller but perfect gems.

It's surprising to see this million dollar diamond shipped 3,500 miles by parcel post for 64c because what crook would expect that? It's interesting to find that it took Kaplan six months just to study where to make his cuts and then one tap of the hammer to cleave it in half. However while this is a story of a gem it's not quite a gem of a story. It's more fun to watch the Jonkers through the hardship of the search, the joy of discovery and the fear of theft. It's fascinating to watch the angles, the shadows and the looks that are swapped. This is definitely technique that Tourneur would use again later. No wonder Val Lewton wanted to hire him to make films for his new horror unit at RKO.

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