The short films Jacques Tourneur made for MGM (almost two dozen of them, in total) represent a tapestry of the underrated auteur’s crystallizing style. Though they range in quality, each film proves to possess unique qualities that ultimately provide deeper insights into his artistry.
Arguably the best of the bunch is Killer-Dog, a simultaneously tender and intense film about a dog named Major who is wrongly accused of killing sheep. Via a typically nimble tracking shot, Tourneur opens the film in the courtroom as Major is led out to face his trial. From here, we flashback to the time Major first met his owner, the young and precocious Betty Lou. It’s in this flashback that we also learn of Major’s past, namely his peaceful, collie mother and his vicious, wolf-dog father who, himself, is caught killing sheep and put to death. One morning, after sneaking out of Betty Lou’s open window in the middle of the night, a neighboring farmer (the same one who put Major’s father to death) reports that two of his sheep have been slaughtered, pinpointing Major as the perpetrator. Back in the present day, the judge obliges a recess so that Major may prove his innocence, which he does after saving the farmer’s sheep from the real attacker, a vicious coyote who had been stalking the grounds.
Killer-Dog’s story is largely dictated by a voiceover performed by Pete Smith, who narrates the film’s action and provides context for the viewer. Because the literal text of the narration is purely explanatory, much of it feels superfluous. Tourneur’s background in silent film, however, allowed him to put emphasis on the film’s images, some of which rank among his most evocative and deftly orchestrated. In a way, Killer-Dog is Tourneur’s most lyrical film, feature-length or otherwise. The film’s fabulistic tone is at once charming, evoking nothing less than the Aesopica in the way it attributes human characteristics to its animal subjects. That said, the film’s mise en scene grounds Killer-Dog in a decidedly naturalistic setting. As is Tourneur’s wont, he shoots his exteriors in an unfiltered, wide-open fashion. Natural sunlight basks the farm grounds in an idyllic but tastefully unsentimental manner. Conversely, despite accentuating the pastoral beauty of the setting, Tourneur makes sure to provide enough space for the possibility of violence within it. For instance, a particularly sweet moment between Betty Lou and Major is cut down by the sound of an off-screen gunshot that takes the life of Major’s father. As serene as much of the film is, Tourneur takes the appropriate steps to keep the film grounded in its very dire stakes.
Killer-Dog foreshadows the later works Cat People and The Leopard Man, a pair of B-horror films Tourneur directed for producer Val Lewton and RKO. Each film examines the line between humans and animals and, in the case of Cat People, the instinctual capacity for violence present in those with a hereditary predisposition for such behavior. This is a particularly luminous revelation considering the artistry of Cat People (as well as The Leopard Man and a third Tourneur film, I Walked with a Zombie) is largely attributed to Lewton. While it’s fair (and accurate) to label Lewton as the chief creative force behind his numerous RKO pictures, Tourneur’s touches are indeed present. Interestingly enough, for Cat People, Tourneur was able to reverse the roles established in Killer-Dog. Rather than an animal with human attributes, the female protagonist of Cat People possesses animalistic attributes. The organization of these strategies, however, is irrelevant as Tourneur is ultimately much more concerned with the concept of dualism—particularly when it concerns instances of humanity.
Because of its concision and clarity of vision, Killer-Dog ranks among the best short film ever produced by MGM. Tourneur’s ability to establish a number of his thematic and visual preoccupations within the film’s 10-minute run time unboundedly led to the formal and narrative economy that would become something of a trademark later in his career. Working within the short form, it can be said, eventually opened up the breadth of his capabilities as a director and an artist.