31 January 2009

The Night of the Hunter, Like Children it Will Abide, it Will Endure

WARNING! SPOILERS ABOUND (And no plot summary provided)

Yesterday I got an email from a cyber friend from across the country who alerted me to TCM's showing of The Night of the Hunter (1955) that evening. I wrote back saying a few things about the movie and he replied that he'd never seen it.

Readers of this blog know full well that I am no snob (you do know that, don't you?) so my reaction was not, "how can you never have seen The Night of the Hunter." No I thought, "how lucky to be discovering this great film for the first time."

The sentiment was introduced to me by film critic and historian David Thomson when at the Pacific Film Archives he introduced Some Like it Hot (1959). Thomson expressed envy of those who were seeing it for the first time.

Well said. To re-frame an old cliche, you never forget your fist time. Repeat viewings of a beloved film are great (why else would I won 100 plus DVDs?). With each viewing you discover something else you love about a film or at least get to enjoy what you already love about it. But the first time is special indeed. Everything is new including how the damn thing turns out. With any movie the denouement is critical and especially so with thrillers or dramas. As many times as I've seen and enjoyed The Sting (1973) nothing can match my first time seeing the way Newman and Redford...Oops, my spoiler alert was for The Night of the Hunter only.

Film critics and audiences of 1955 owe us big time for a monumental screw up. They didn't like, let alone love, The Night of the Hunter upon its release. First time director Charles Laughton consequently had a snit fit and never directed another movie. Thus the world has been deprived of what might have come next from Laughton the director. It was not until after Laughton's death that The Night of the Hunter was appreciated. Sheesh people of 50 years ago, what's your problem?

So the world has to settle for just one Laughton directorial effort. But what a film! Robert Mitchum was never better. His "Reverend" Harry Powell is one of the spookiest characters of film. A hymn-singing, bible-quoting slippery eel of a thief and totally unrepentant killer. With the word "love" tattooed on one set of knuckles and "hate" on the other he is superficially a beguiling figure. But at least one person sees through him and thank God she does. This wise and heroic figure is the pint sized star of silents, Lillian Gish. She raises wayward children on her humble farm while witnessing an infinitely more sincere variety of Christan love. She's also handy with a shotgun, by God.

Shelly Winters appears as a woman whose husband (Peter Graves) is hung for committing murder in the act of bank robbery. She later marries Mitchum who is far more interested in finding the stolen loot than he is in consummating the marriage. One of my favorite characters actors, James Gleason appears as the drunken old uncle.

Two child actors, Billy Chapin and Sally Ann Bruce (neither of whom went on to have any sort of career to speak of) are probably on screen longer than anyone else and perform ably. It is their stubborn and heroic refusal to yield to either the reverend's charms or threats that are key to one of Hollywood's more unlikely and unforgettable escapes.

Another key player in our drama is Ms. Icey Spoon played by Evelyn Varden. Here ladies and gentleman is a person as villainous as the film's killer. She is a woman in her mid 60's who, to put it bluntly can't shut up. But the worst of it is what she says. Icey will rail against anyone she finds it convenient to blast away at (even her poor husband is not immune, never mind that he may well be within earshot). Everyone. they say, is entitled to an opinion. But hers are unkind and hurtful. Though cloaked in her own law abiding "God fearing" respectability they are inciteful (never insightful) and shallow. The reverend 's new wife is a saint until tangential evidence suggests otherwise. The reverend is a saint until he's the devil himself and then she's leading the lynch mob -- literally. In her own way, Icey is as frightening as the reverend. Her type permeate society, aiding and abetting evil until its exposed, at which point they are first to point fingers and demand justice. These sorts have no real values nor shame.

The Night of the Hunter is thus a good old fashion horror story but one with ample portions of genuine sweetness. It is also a parable with bible-like stories aplenty crammed into its 93 minute running time. But it is also a directorial tour de force. The stylized world Laughton created is full of indelible tableus. The shot of Winters tied to the seat of a car at the bottom of the river, her hair acting like the river's weeds is unforgettable.

There are elements of Gothic horror from scenes in the house where the reverend terrorizes the heroic kiddies. Their ensuing journey down the river seems mythic and if there's any fault to the film its that these scenes could have been extended.

I hope my friend enjoyed his first viewing of The Night of the Hunter. I certainly enjoyed what was probably my fourth of fifth. Yes the "first time" is special. But repeat, shall we say..encounters, can be most satisfying too.


R. D. Finch said...

What a great movie this is. I rented it a few years ago and had just begun watching it when friends stopped by with their daughter, who was about ten at the time. She was riveted by the movie and watched it all the way through. This has to be the greatest of all of Mitchum's great performances. It's certainly one of the scariest portrayals of a psychopath I can think of, even moreso than Mitchum in "Cape Fear." Can you believe he was never nominated for a best actor Oscar? When I think of this movie the two images that first come to mind are when the kids are floating down the river and they're photographed through a spiderweb and the shot of Shelley Winters in the submerged car with her hair floating like seaweed. Indelible images.

Kaustuv said...

One of the creepiest performances i have ever seen. Mitchum excels at his portrayal of duality in character. Strangely unrecognised.

Xavier_Ninnis said...

Wow, I love "Night of the Hunter, but good God almighty, the children are excruciatingly bad. What standard it is that one would have to employ to in order to judge their performances as able, or even minimally competent, is beyond imagining.