Sunday, September 5, 2010

Classic Movie Review: The Night of the Hunter

The actor Charles Laughton directed The Night of the Hunter, based on the novel of the same name by Charles Grubb, in 1955. He never directed another movie. This was the result of poor audience and critical reaction to the film. It was considered a disaster at the time. More than half a century later, the film often finds itself on lists of the best movies of all time and in 1992 was deemed culturally significant enough to be marked for preservation by the Library of Congress.

Admittedly it is not the most accessible of movies to a fresh audience. The arresting visual style will most likely be lost on someone unfamiliar with its cinematic allusions and the history of German Expressionism. Likewise, the highly stylized nature of the film including the dialogue, performances, set design, lighting and music might seem strange, disorienting or downright phony to someone trying to fit this angular peg into a round hole.

Not all films follow convention. They can’t all be pigeonholed into a set of categories, although modern audiences have been trained like rats in a lab to automatically respond to certain cues in cinema. That’s why audiences tend to reject films that are challenging and different (not just films, really, but works in all media). Perhaps 1950s audiences, fed largely on a diet of grandiose Hollywood spectacles, vibrant musicals and Technicolor extravaganzas didn’t know what to make of a film like The Night of the Hunter. However, even today I don’t imagine it would find a wide audience. Its pedigree these days is fostered by critics and scholars. The film mainly survives in cinema studies classes.

The Night of the Hunter is often regarded as film noir. Indeed my first exposure to it was in a film noir course in college. It does not, strictly speaking, fit into that genre. To be sure the visual scheme takes many cues from noir, but it would be more apt to note that the film noir tradition was influenced by German Expressionism (it’s no wonder that the German expatriate Fritz Lang’s best Hollywood films were films noirs) so that Night of the Hunter is actually going to the roots of film noir and beyond.

Robert Mitchum plays Harry Powell, a ‘preacher’ who marries rich widows and then murders them. He roams the countryside like a predator in search of his next victim. During a brief stint in prison he learns from his cell mate, Ben Harper (a man on death row), that there may be a large stash of cash hidden somewhere in the family home. Powell sets out to woo and marry the widow Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) and glean from her young children, John and Pearl, where the money is hidden.

Powell is a part that seems tailor-made for Mitchum. It’s difficult to imagine any other actor fulfilling the role of a charmer with hot-tempered aggression boiling beneath the surface better than him. Come to think of it, his Max Cady in Cape Fear is a direct descendent of Powell. His performance is a feat of great physicality. Watch how he manipulates and contorts his body in certain scenes to fit in with the lighting and shadow. This is particularly noticeable in the scene when he kills Willa as he angles his head just so and reaches his arm toward the ceiling.

Winters’ performance seems stranger, more off-putting. We know from both her earlier and later work that Winters was a gifted actress. But here she often comes across as wooden and stagey. I think it's clear that Laughton was trying to achieve a look and feel to match the silent era films of the Weimer Republic. The expressions and gestures she uses are similar to those of the great silent film actors who had only their bodies to rely on for their performances. If you watch The Night of the Hunter immediately after Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), which was a heavy influence on Laughton’s film, you will immediately recognize the visual style of that 1920 silent classic reflected in many scenes in the latter. The two most obvious are Willa’s death scene already mentioned above and the descent into the basement to search for the money. As Harry chases the children up the stairs his gestures call forth the somnambulist Cesare in Caligari or, perhaps more immediately, Frankenstein’s monster. In fact, James Whale was very much influenced by German Expressionism when he made Frankenstein.

In the final act of the film, the children escape downriver and find refuge in the home of the kindly Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), who has a collection of children abandoned by parents who couldn’t make it through the Depression. The casting of Gish in this pivotal role is a minor stroke of genius. Gish, of course, was a great silent film star appearing in D.W. Griffith’s two great epics, The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. Rachel is presented as the antithesis to Harry. She is the faithful believer to his false prophet. He is the wolf in sheep’s clothing to her protective shepherd (the children are repeatedly referred to as variations on little lambs). Her performance is the most grounded and realistic in the film. There’s a fascinating inescapable irony in the performance because while Winters and Mitchum are emulating the silent film style of acting, Gish actually lived it and was raised on it, but here she emulates the method style that was becoming popular at the time this film was made and which Mitchum employed himself in other films.

Of course, while the chiaroscuro lighting of Willa’s death scene is probably the most famous to come from The Night of the Hunter, one other image struck me as perhaps the most important in the story – that of Rachel sitting in her rocking chair on the front porch – the ideal image of a grandmotherly figure, but with a shotgun across her lap. That single shot sums up her role as both mother and protector to John and Pearl.

Ultimately, though, what I discovered watching the film again is that at its heart it’s a film about the innocence of children. John is at the cusp of knowing the difference between moral rights and wrongs. When his father tells him about the $10,000 (stolen from a bank) and that he mustn’t tell a soul where it’s hidden, we know in our heads that it’s not right to keep the money, but we side with John because he has no moral calculus for knowing the right thing to do. He trusts his father. Later when Harry shows up, John instinctively recognizes his predatory nature. Pearl is younger, she trusts everyone. When Harry arrives at Rachel’s house, Pearl walks to him and stands right by his side despite the fear he instilled in her earlier.

It’s a kind of cautionary tale about how we treat our children, how easily influenced they are by charm and sweet tales of salvation. Both Rachel and Harry tell stories, and both are given due diligence by the children around them. But the difference is that one is spinning stories for good while the other has nefarious motives. The lesson learned is that both types of people can effect profound change in the minds of innocent little lambs.

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