Night Tide is an odd but entrancing 1961 film written and directed by Curtis Harrington, and providing Dennis Hopper with his first starring role. It’s almost impossible to assign this movie to a particular genre although it clearly owes a great deal to Val Lewton’s horror movies made for RKO in the 40s.
Hopper is Johnny, a naïve and awkward young sailor. He meets a girl called Mora at a jazz club, and being the sort of young man who is always going to fall hopelessly in love with a girl he’s only just met, he falls in love with her. She seems interested, but nervous, especially after an encounter with a strange woman in the club. They start to see each other, and he has his first glimpse into her rather peculiar world. She works at an amusement pier, as Mora the Mermaid. She takes her role as a mermaid unusually seriously, and tells him of her deep affinity with the sea.
Johnny meets some of the other amusement pier people, including Captain Murdock. He’s an old sailor who runs the Mora the Mermaid attraction and it transpires that he raised Mora as his own daughter after finding her on a Greek island. He warns Johnny that his involvement with Mora may turn out to be unexpectedly dangerous, a warning echoed by the other amusement pier folk. Ellen, who works the merry-go-round, informs Johnny that Mora’s last two boyfriends (in fact her only two boyfriends ) died in ambiguous and suspicious circumstances. A clairvoyant does a tarot card reading which also points to a dangerous future. And there’s a cop hanging round investigating the deaths of the two young men.
This is no ordinary crime thriller however. Captain Murdock tells Johnny of the Greek legends surrounding mermaids and sirens, and that these legends have a basis in fact. There really are mysterious people of the sea, and they really can lure men to their doom.
So is Mora really a mermaid? Is this a horror movie, a fantasy, a murder mystery, a mythological tale, a psychological study or a love story? I’m not going to spoil it by telling you or offering any clues.
It’s a subtle and very low-key movie, the sort of quirky movie that could only have been made on a low budget. The low budget is no disadvantage to this movie, which is beautifully photographed and sensitively directed. Dennis Hopper’s performance is strange but effective, his inexperience as an actor working in his favour, making Johnny seem even more awkward. Johnny is as out of place in this world as a mermaid on dry land. He has never belonged anywhere. Linda Lawson is nicely enigmatic as Mora. Harrington gets good performances from his entire cast. The movie has a jazz influence to the soundtrack, and to the feel of the movie itself, which works well.
It’s a movie about love and loneliness, and about the sometimes unanticipated power of myth and of belief. Harrington handles his feature film debut with extraordinary skill, giving us a moving and fascinating film full of complex sexual and emotional conflicts. The ending works perfectly, and there’s enough ambiguity to make this a movie to watch more than once. Highly recommended.