Born in Paris, France, he was the son of noted director Maurice Tourneur. As a young man, Jacques went to live in New York City and proceeded to Hollywood with his father. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1919. He is famous for directing three atmospheric "horror" movies (in fact, film noir–influenced films of understated terror) with producer Val Lewton at RKO Radio Pictures in the 1940s: Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man. His 1957 film Night of the Demon also enjoys a high reputation and is considered one of the best horror/supernatural films in movie history. Tourneur also directed one of the classics of film noir, Out of the Past, in 1947. He also made the notable horror spoof The Comedy of Terrors in 1964. The next year. he directed his last film, the Jules Verne -inspired adventure yarn War Gods of the Deep.
In 1964, Tourneur directed an episode of The Twilight Zone, "Night Call" (Episode 139, February 7 1964), which proved to be an excellent showcase for Tourneur's directing style. His television work also included episodes of Adventures in Paradise ("A Bride for the Captain", 1962), Bonanza ("Denver McKee", 1962), and T.H.E. Cat (1966). He retired from directing in the late 1960s.
Jacques Tourneur received recognition for his contribution to the film industry in Chris Fujiwara's 1998 book Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall.