Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Night of the Hunter

The Night of the Hunter

Robert Mitchum, Shelly Winters(at her most beautiful and alluring), Lillian Gish

I'm close to turning lights out, surfing channels, and come upon the opening lines of a black and white movie, spoken just after a camera in the sky has captured children - playing hide and seek - come upon the body of a youngish women. Female voice-over - coming from out of the sky:

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.

From an outstanding review by Tim Dirks:
The camera then tracks after an open touring Essex car [stolen], a Model T driven down a country road by a sinister, crazed, malevolent, black-cloaked, wide-brimmed and hatted 'Preacher' Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), one of the 'false prophets.' In a chilling, perversely evil and memorable monologue to the Lord, the killer-evangelist with borderline sanity, glances heavenward and delivers an insane prayer. He complains that he is "tired" of ridding the world of tempting females [one being the dead body just discovered]. As he drives by a cemetery, he reveals that he is a serial killer who receives divine inspirations to first marry, and then murder and rob women (usually rich lonely widows who do not see the menacing perversity in him):
Well now, what's it to be Lord? Another widow? How many has it been? Six? Twelve? I disremember. (He tips his hat.) You say the word, Lord, I'm on my way...You always send me money to go forth and preach your Word. The widow with a little wad of bills hid away in a sugar bowl. Lord, I am tired. Sometimes I wonder if you really understand. Not that You mind the killin's. Yore Book is full of killin's. But there are things you do hate Lord: perfume-smellin' things, lacy things, things with curly hair.
Thus was I pulled into a film noir classic: The Night of the Hunter - the only film ever directed by Charles Laughton. Tis a pity, as Mr. Laughton obviously had much to give as a director. I was entranced and hypnotized by this film, which was by turns suspenseful, darkly comedic, darkly observant of humanity, and spiritual. This film was Hitchcock meets Blood Simple meets Fargo meets Elmer Gantry. The thrust was simple yet profound; the craftsmanship simple yet rich and elegant; the musical score compelling and suspenseful; the direction filled with metaphor and classical reference.

A bit about the other actors(photo):

Shelly Winters was outstanding as a widow knocked askew by grief. That's Peter Graves as a heroic and tormented criminal. Lillian Gish (photo 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) steals the film by allowing the self-awareness and moral strength of a 50 year old woman to shine through her performance.

Spoiler alert!

The film title seemingly refers to a long childrens' nightmare of a night in which an eight year old brother and five year old sister escape a basement of death, flee overland to a river, and drift a rowboat downriver in the light of a quarter-moon. Still a steadily plodding horse carries Mitchum after them; always somehow keeping pace, no matter how fast they flee; always magically following in the correct direction.

The title, however, more aptly refers to a night in which Mitchum's demonic character is trying to wrest the children from the protection of Gish's shotgun-toting embodiment of faith and moral courage. She shoots Mitchum. As he flees to her barn, he emits a hellish demon-screech which is quite unlike anything previously heard from his character. She instructs the town's telephone operator:

Send the state troopers. I've got something trapped in my barn.

She says it as a matter-of-fact declaration. Mitchum stays obediently in her unlocked barn. He knows he is beaten. Gish displays little concern that he may come out and harm her or the children. She knows he may not - in the true sense of "may I?" - for he does not have her permission. She has vanquished a demon.

I've got something trapped in my barn.

Gish hasn't entrapped it via physical constriction, but rather with faith and moral courage. That is the way you vanquish a demon. Lillian Gish is the hunter of the movie title, and the night belongs to her. Her prey was threatening two innocent children (who represent all mankind). Her faith and moral courage entrapped it just as surely as a jungle pit entraps a tiger. After, Gish tells the boy(summarizing from memory):

You are more capable and resilient than you know.

The state troopers are on the way. Yet, after Mitchum is carted to prison, the film goes on. The children(representing mankind) are threatened by less obvious yet still dangerous forces, and they are not yet grown up enough to handle those forces on their own. The point of the final scenes is that Gish's job is not finished, and will not be finished while she remains on this earth. The children, who will follow her example as adults, will need to always be on guard. Through her example of direct and forthright action, she is showing them the way.

Robert Mitchum is greatly under-appreciated as an actor. He progresses the story via his physicality and sexuality. Mitchum must be the stuff of down and dirty sexual fantasy for many women. Here, he is menacing, and revolting, yet - I surmise - also subconciously thrilling. The duality reminds of the way Grace Kelly was cool and composed in the Hitchcock movies, yet I subconciously sensed she was hot, hot, hot - and yearned for her. Mitchum reeks of testosterone and danger, in the way a tall and powerful stallion reeks of testosterone and danger. A talented horseman can generally control and ride a stallion, yet he never forgets that proximity to a stallion is proximity to true danger. Stallions bite with bad temper, and can turn hooves on you in an instant. Brain damage or death are a real possibility. It tends to focus one's attention. One may wonder why the horseman goes near the stallion. Yet he does.

Thumbs up. 5 Stars. Way to go Turner Classic Movies.

Although one of the greatest American films of all time, the imaginatively-chilling, experimental, sophisticated work was idiosyncratic, film noirish, avante garde, dream-like expressionistic and strange, and it was both ignored and misunderstood at the time of its release. Originally, it was a critical and commercial failure.

Robert Mitchum gave what some consider his finest performance in a precedent-setting, unpopular, and truly terrifying role as the sleepy-eyed, diabolical, self-appointed serial killer/Preacher with psychotic, murderous tendencies while in pursuit of $10,000 in cash. Lillian Gish played his opposite - a saintly good woman who provided refuge for the victimized children.

The high-contrast, melodramatic-horror film with macabre humor deliberately pays tribute to its silent film heritage, and to pioneering director D. W. Griffith in its style (the use of stark, expressionistic black and white cinematography, archaic camera devices such as iris down) and in its casting of Griffith's principal protegé/silent star, the legendary Lillian Gish (in her first film since Portrait of Jennie (1948)). [...] In Laughton's words, it was

"a nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale."

From its start, the film is designed to have the special feeling of a child's nightmare, including the difficult keeping of a secret, and a magical journey to safety - all told from a child's point of view.

Dirks mentions this as a horror film. Roger Ebert says many horror films have copied bits of The Night of the Hunter - especially a scene where Mitchum calls down the cellar stairs to the children hiding below: "Chilll..dren?". It's good I didn't know this in advance, as I don't watch horror films! Might give me nightmares....

Addendum I:
In searching out photos, I notice this movie has been colorized. This is a desecration. This film came out when color was becoming widely popular - which may have partly accounted for its commercial failure. The movie is a children's nightmare put onto the screen. Filming in black and white was a conscious artistic choice.

Addendum II:
Roger Ebert:
"But does this familiarity give The Night of the Hunter the recognition it deserves? I don't think so because those famous trademarks distract from its real accomplishment. It is one of the most frightening of movies, with one of the most unforgettable of villains....
It is risky to combine horror and humor, and foolhardy to approach them through expressionism. For his first film, Laughton made a film like no other before or since, and with such confidence it seemed to draw on a lifetime of work. Critics were baffled by it, the public rejected it...."

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