Beware! Louis Jourdan is Here

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Louis Jourdan in COUNT DRACULA (1977)

We lost Louis Jourdan on Valentine’s Day and since then there has been an abundance of considerate obituaries and tributes to the debonair French actor who stole film fan’s hearts and swept many of his leading ladies off their feet. Jourdan was strikingly handsome but I’ve always found him a bit intimidating on screen. In real life Jourdan had fought Nazis as an active member of the French resistance and by most accounts was a loyal husband to his wife (Berthe Frédérique “Quique”) for 68 years until her death in 2014 but something about his smoldering intensity and somber eyes made me uneasy. The characters he played were often hard to read and I found myself constantly questioning their motives. This is undoubtedly due to his exceptional performances in films such as LETTER FROM AN UKNOWN WOMAN (1948) where he plays a self-absorbed pianist who breaks Joan Fontaine’s heart and THE BEST OF EVERYTHING (1959) where he drives the gorgeous Suzy Parker mad with jealousy or JULIE (1956) where he stalks and terrorizes poor Doris Day. In retrospect Jourdan was incredibly apt at portraying men with questionable motives and he had a viper-like way of honing in on naive young women who became easy prey. It doesn’t surprise me that he eventually ended up playing a comic-book villain in SWAMPTHING (1982) and a James Bond baddie in OCTOPUSSY (1983). But if I had to select his most fearsome role I’d single out Jourdan’s outstanding turn as the infamous bloodsucking Count in COUNT DRACULA (1977).

The acclaimed 1977 BBC production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula was directed by Philip Saville, a pioneering figure in British television recognized for his experimental use of video and technical prowess. Saville was apt at breathing new life into arduous stage plays for the small screen and COUNT DRACULA is a wonderful example of his artistic ambitions. Saville’s adaptation is admired for its faithfulness to the original novel and it makes excellent use of some actual locations as described by Bram Stoker including St Mary’s Church in Whitby and the decaying cemetery that surrounds it. Although working with a limited TV budget, Saville used some surprisingly inventive techniques such as superimposition, solarisation, slow motion and bold color schemes to give his COUNT DRACULA an eerie otherworldly feel reminiscent of European vampire films made by Jean Rollin and Jess Franco.

The strange, spooky and sensual world created by Philip Saville is beautifully inhabited by Louis Jourdan as the mysterious Count. Jourdan was still an incredibly handsome man at age 56 and his maturity adds considerable depth to his unique portrayal of an ageless blood thirsty fiend who mesmerizes the women he encounters while intimidating the men. Jourdan’s Dracula disregards Stoker’s description of the Count in favor of Byronic traditions and presents him as a seductive, self-aware, extremely confident and utterly charming creature of the night. He seems to glide through the film on a cloud of mist surrounded by fog and masked by shadows. Jourdan’s unmistakable French accent is throaty, hollow and guttural as he purrs out his commands to his harem of young vampire brides who coo and claw at him.

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Jourdan’s Dracula is frightening because he’s smarter and slicker than his foes. He doesn’t need to surprise them or sneak up on them unannounced. He boldly arrives without aplomb, standing tall, wearing an unadorned black suit and a smirk of satisfaction. He’s unafraid of the religious artifacts and Latin prayers his enemies hurl at him and embraces his undead form without remorse and reservation. Instead of pining over lost love, Jourdan’s Dracula is driven by his carnal desires and unquenchable blood lust. He’s an uncanny and arcane figure who climbs castle walls and transforms into a bat and a wolf but he preserves an earthy quality that seems devoid of humanity. He’s pure animal. An elegant, well-spoken and undeniably handsome animal but an animal nonetheless who maintains no romantic illusions and rejects religious dogma. It’s a distinctly dark, brazenly erotic and powerful portrayal of one of literature’s most recognizable and formidable characters that showcases Louis Jourdan’s talents.

Although Philip Saville’s 1977 production of COUNT DRACULA obviously owes much to its predecessors including Tod Browning’s DRACULA (1931) and Terence Fisher’s HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) his film influenced later revivals of Stoker’s tale including John Badham’s DRACULA (1979) and Francis Ford Coppola’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992). And despite its limited budget and sparse special effects, I find Saville’s moody, atmospheric and downright creepy film superior to both its successors in many ways. While I admire Badham’s casting choices and the overall look of his creation, Frank Langella’s Count never manages to make the same kind of impact that Louis Jourdan does although Langella was obviously mimicking elements of his performance. And Coppola’s overstuffed epic, although occasionally nice to look at, is just an empty exercise and too vacuous to be taken seriously. So if you’re a horror fan who enjoys a good vampire film I highly recommend seeking out Saville’s COUNT DRACULA. And if you’re a fan of Louis Jourdan it’s an absolute must see!

Further Reading:
Louis Jourdan Obituary – The Guardian
Louis Jourdan, French actor and star of Gigi, dies aged 93 – BBC News
Louis Jourdan, Suave Star in Europe and Hollywood, Dies at 93 – The New York Times
R.I.P. Louis Jourdan- The A.V. Club
Louis Jourdan (1921 – 2015) – The Dissolve
Louis Jourdan 1921-2015 – Laura’s Miscellanious Musings

7 Responses Beware! Louis Jourdan is Here
Posted By Robert : February 19, 2015 9:27 pm

I believe this played on PBS Great Performances. I have always remembered it to be the closest of all adaptations to the original novel. This article brought back some great memories. Thanks!

Posted By AL : February 19, 2015 9:27 pm

Susan–thank you for this brilliant essay praising one of my Faves. I had a bootleg for years until BBC finally released it with a beautiful DVD transfer. Jourdan truly was a superb Dracula and the film is excellent–capturing and maintaining the appropriate mood. I’ve always felt that this is what was lacking in the Lee films. (P.S. I assume that your readers are aware of the breathtaking restoration of NOSFERATU). luvAL

Posted By Qalice : February 19, 2015 9:49 pm

Thank you for bringing this “Dracula” to the blog! I saw it when it was new and I agree with everything you say. Jourdan played a very attractive and simultaneously terrifying Count. I think any fan of the genre would be glad to see this version.

Posted By missrhea : February 19, 2015 10:01 pm

This adaptation drove me back to the novel that I had tried to read in high school but abandoned. Since it was serialized in its original PBS airing, I was able to blast through the book and finish before the final episode was shown. I managed to record it on a later showing but either my mother or my husband taped over half of it. Argh! I was so thrilled when PBS finally released it on DVD. Louis Jourdan’s Dracula haunted me all those years and even now, when I won’t voluntarily watch vampire anything, I’m willing to look at bits of this production. Thanks for a great reminder of how good this was.

Posted By LD : February 20, 2015 11:11 am

Have not seen Jourdan’s portrayal of Dracula but because of other roles I have seen him play, I can’t imagine anyone being better as the Count.

Posted By Mitch Farish : February 20, 2015 2:09 pm

Fan’s of the novel finally got a faithful rendering of the story. A perennial Halloween favorite until the censors hacked off the non-graphic bit where the Count’s wives feast on a baby. I suffered for years through defective bootleg copies from eBay before the BBC released the uncut version to American fans. Now it occupies a treasured place in my collection. Thanks for recognizing the definitive Dracula.

Posted By george : February 22, 2015 3:19 am

I saw Jourdan’s Dracula when it aired in ’77 and never forgot it. Like missrhea, I was thrilled when it came out on DVD and snapped it up. Jourdan’s performance is superb and, as Kimberly said, the film is genuinely creepy.

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