Wednesday 28 April 2010

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Director: Charles Laughton
Stars: Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Arguably the greatest screen actor of the twentieth century, this was the only film Charles Laughton directed, though he also did uncredited work on Burgess Meredith's The Man on the Eiffel Tower. Much of the reason for this is probably because The Night of the Hunter was a notable flop on initial release, bringing in less than half its budget in ticket revenue. However the more I watch this film the more that failure seemed like an inevitability. This simply wasn't anything that anyone expected to see in 1955 and to be quite frank, still isn't what anyone expects to see today. When I first watched it in 2005 I think I expected a late film noir, black and white, expressionistic, all about the darkness in man's collective soul. I'm not sure what I really got out of that viewing other than more thought, but coming back to it again I realise that it's really a children's story, merely a much darker one than we're used to seeing.

Put simply, it's a fairy tale, one much closer to the original horrific style of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson than to the more usual soporific style we know today of Walt Disney. However it really isn't that simple, because Laughton also turned everything on its head so that the clear cut roles of good and evil are reversed, with more than a few social comments in the details. What's more, it invites and cautions us to work out which is which ourselves. Lillian Gish introduces the concept as the opening credits finish, reminding a host of children of the lessons of the Bible, not least that, 'A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit. Neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Wherefore by their fruits, ye shall know them.' In other words, a man is not automatically a saint because he's clothed as a preacher and a woman is not automatically a wicked witch just because she lives alone with a household of children and a shotgun.

We're quickly introduced to the most obvious character of the film, the heroic lead in any other framework. He's Harry Powell and in the memorable form of Robert Mitchum, in possibly the greatest role of his career, he's far from heroic, being a psychotic, ruthless murderer with LOVE tattooed on the knuckles of one hand and HATE on the other. He's one of the false prophets that Gish warned us about, a preacher as full of fake charm as any TV evangelist and as dark in soul as any serial killer, which is what he is. Just like Harry Powers, the Bluebeard of Quiet Dell, the real murderer who provided the inspiration for the character, he preys on widows by marrying, murdering and robbing them, and his latest victim is promptly discovered by a group of children playing hide and seek. Children get thrust into the adult world frequently in this film, forced to grow up and deal with things that they shouldn't have to deal with quite yet.

Powell openly talks to God as he drives down the road in his stolen car in an amazing scene that explains who and what he really is. The more I think about this scene, the more it stuns me that it even exists in a Hollywood film, let alone one from 1955. It's out there with Monsieur Verdoux and Kind Hearts and Coronets, but with none of the black humour, just Mitchum's charm to carry it. 'Well now, what's it to be Lord?' he asks. 'Another widow? How many has it been? Six? Twelve? I disremember.' He believes he's doing God's work, addressing sins that the Lord hates: 'perfumy things, lacy things, things with curly hair.' He visits a burlesque joint to watch Gloria Pall strut her stuff and trigger in him the most overt tie between sex and violence ever seen in a Production Code era film. He clenches his fist, the one with HATE on the knuckles, reaches inside his pocket and triggers his flick-knife, unmistakable phallic symbolism that rips through the cloth.

He even looks up at God and points out in a memorable and melancholy way, 'There are too many of them. You can't kill the world.' It's here that he gets arrested, convicted and locked up, but not for ripping apart a stripper and not for any of those disremembered widows he's murdered. He gets a month in the Moundsville Penitentiary for stealing the Model T we first see him in and it's there that he meets Ben Harper. Harper is a bank thief played by a young Peter Graves, known best for TV but a highly versatile name in film, this coming after Red Planet Mars and Stalag 17 but before It Conquered the World and Poor White Trash. Here he's gone pretty quickly, having made it home just long enough to hide the ten grand he stole before the cops arrive to haul him away in handcuffs and a judge sentences him to death by hanging for the murder of two bank guards. Naturally, Powell and Harper end up sharing a cell.
These early scenes leap around all over the place, with flaky rear projection work, jerky aerial shots and apparently no cohesion whatsoever. Experience in watching film suggests that this is terrible filmmaking, but really it's just telling its story using methods other than the standard ones we're used to seeing in movies. If anything it tells its story more like a piece of classical music, using impressions and themes, and I can't help but wonder if anyone's compared The Night of the Hunter with Peter and the Wolf, Prokofiev's symphony for children that goes as far as to give each character its own instrument and leitmotif. There's certainly some of that here, Powell being given his own prominent theme, but the construction goes deeper than that. To see this film properly, it would appear that we should watch with the innocent eyes of a child but understand with the experienced mind of an adult. That's quite a balancing act.

To make it even more complex we actually need to watch through the eyes of two children, one a little older and a little more aware than the other. These two children are John and Pearl Harper and they were right there when their father Ben arrived home and hid the ten grand inside Pearl's doll. He makes them promise not to tell anyone where the money is and they have every intention of keeping that secret, even from their mother Willa, played by Shelley Winters. We're not given ages but John is obviously quite a few years older than Pearl, and it's constantly reinforced through their actions just how differently they see the world. When Ben is hauled away, Pearl doesn't seem to understand but John holds his gut and cries, 'Don't!' When the kids in town sing Hing, Hang, Hung (See What the Hangman Done) and draw a stick figure in chalk on a wall like a game of Hangman, Pearl hums along with the tune but John tells her not to.

Most obviously when Harry Powell comes calling, targetting Willa Harper as the next widow on his list, Pearl immediately dotes on him, climbing up beside him on the counter at Spoon's Ice Cream Parlor where her mother works, while John is suspicious from the start. And you can be sure that Harry Powell is going to come calling. Every time busybody Icey Spoon tells Willa that she should find herself a husband, we see a hurtling train and we know Powell is on it, because of the skewed angles and the dramatic music. He arrives just at the right moment, his head appearing in silhouette over John as he reaches the point that 'the bad men came back...' in a bedtime story he's telling Pearl that's obviously about them. You see, he's tried everything to learn where Ben hid his money but in vain as Harper took the secret to his grave. The promise of $10,000 is more than enough to make Willa the next widow on his list.

The Night of the Hunter is a twisted nightmare of a film and the more you think about it the more twisted and nightmarish it becomes. The British Film Institute listed it in the top ten of 'the top fifty films you should see by the age of 14' but failed to mention that anyone viewing at that age is going to see something rather traumatic that they'll only be able to really quantify after quite a few more years of experience with life. Effectively it tells children in no uncertain terms that everyone they've been conditioned to see as good guys might be bad guys and vice versa. It tells them that mom might be wrong, absolutely wrong and unwilling to listen to you when you put her straight. It equates maturity with sex, bigotry with vigilantism, stability with violence. All these are complex but none more so than the central message that the Bible is the source of all moral grounding but only through individual intepretation. Trust the Bible not those quoting it.

The story came from a novel by Davis Grubb and was adapted for the screen by noted film critic James Agee, shortly before he died of alcoholism. It was shot in 36 days in the middle of the fifties but it looks three decades older because of the choice to shoot it as expressionism as if it was a silent German movie. The cinematographer was Stanley Cortez, who had shot The Magnificent Ambersons for Orson Welles and also lensed Laughton's other dabble in direction, The Man on the Eiffel Tower. While many films borrowed from expressionism, not least film noir, they tended to focus on obvious aspects like contrast and shadow rather than more obscure elements like surreal angles and dream logic to invoke mood rather than story. In using all these, Cortez brought to film perhaps the closest successor to 1920's The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. It's stylised to depict less of a story and more of a child's reminiscences of one in a nightmare.
Everything is impression here. Laughton, Agee and Cortez set up iconic vignettes, each little scene telling its own little stories, then link them together to tell a bigger story through collage. Some of it is specific dialogue, such as when Powell explains that his wife Willa has run off in the night. 'She'll not be back,' he says. 'I reckon I'm safe in promising you that.' Some of it is visual setpiece, like when we see Willa's corpse, still in her Model T, at the bottom of the lake, hair waving with the seaweed. Often it's just little details, like when John's closest friend, Uncle Birdie, sets his bottle of whiskey on its side and doesn't notice because he's still spooked from seeing Willa underwater. It's here we know that he isn't going to be the help he promised to be. Sometimes it's in the angles, as when John and Pearl finally escape from Powell by heading down the river in their dad's skiff. We watch their journey from the side, like a pursuer, and from above, like God.

Often these clever little touches are not explained, like the creatures who watch their journey. Initially I couldn't fathom why we got to see what appears to be every animal in West Virginia during this boat ride, but this time through I see some meaning. The owl and rabbit are obviously hunter and prey, Powell and the children respectively, but if Powell is the devil then the toad is his minion and the sheep are the faithful followers of Jesus. How much we should read into this I'm not sure but there's obvious meaning. Certainly when the skiff drifts to the bank during the night while the children are asleep, we're watching it from above like God guiding Moses into the reedbeds at precisely the right spot. In the morning they find themselves outside the house of Rachel Cooper, who is God to Powell's Devil, even though she threatens with a switch and carries a shotgun when she needs to. She reads them the Moses story soon thereafter and John tellingly mixes up Bible stories as they parallel his own experiences.

There's so much meaning here that there are layers on layers, most of it implied rather than spoken out loud, though there are markers such as when Rachel explains, 'I'm a strong tree with branches for many birds. I'm good for something in this world and I know it too.' The polarised message helps the story to become timeless, those famous tattoos only one reminder of that. Powell isn't just in black and white because the film was shot in black and white, you know he would still be that way even if the film was in colour because his outward appearance mirrors his inner being. Harry Powell, a deceptively banal name, is one of the screen's most memorable villains and Robert Mitchum brings him blisteringly to life while never trying to be specifically sinister. It doesn't take long for the charm to become sinister all on its own. He isn't just the pointer towards Max Cady in Cape Fear, but also everything Christopher Walken has ever done.

He's balanced here by Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper, perhaps the greatest screen actress of them all who had depicted innocence and holiness so well back in the silent era. She's as powerful as Mitchum here, though in a far more stable and less flamboyant way, but her character has just as much meaning. Almost the epitome of the easy target to moral crusaders of the fifties, she's a single parent who takes in stray children but has the strength to bring them up properly the way their own parents couldn't. She makes money by selling apples just like every decent witch in the cartoons, but she's really the God figure. However God created the Devil and we're reminded of that during the powerful scene where Powell waits outside her house to nab the kids, all the while singing his theme, the hymn Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. She sits inside with her shotgun and joins in, but she means it while he's merely being ironic.

This is a film that shouldn't just be watched by the time you turn fourteen, but every three or four years after that too to accompany the inevitable changes that life brings. Multiple viewings are required, as I've just discovered. How I could have missed the majesty and genius of this film entirely on my first time through, I really can't fathom, but perhaps crystal clarity from one viewing should be expected from bubblegum movies rather than serious art, and art this obviously is. It's a dark fairy tale thirty years before Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton, it's told as a surreal nightmare using the tools of expressionism thirty years after the German silents and it's implied through mood rather than told through plot like a piece of classical music, so Pan's Labyrinth shot like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari but implied like Peter and the Wolf. Now I can't help but wonder that after the revelations of my second viewing, what more can I expect from a third?

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