Sunday, 2 December 2012

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Dir. Charles Laughton
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, Billy Chapin 

The great English actor Charles Laughton had a more than distinguished cinematic career, winning the Oscar for Best Actor in 1933 for his role as the king in Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII and being nominated for the same award twice more (for 1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty and 1957’s Witness for the Prosecution). In 1955 he stepped behind the camera for the only time to direct The Night of the Hunter. A flop at the time, is it now hailed as one of the greatest films of the ‘50s. 

What Laughton has left us with is a quite extraordinary film, and one which shows where his tastes in film really lay – contrary to many of the films he himself starred in. It makes love to the conventions of black and white film and The Night of the Hunter is full of shadows and silhouettes, contrast and shade. As well it might be, for at its heart is a story about good and evil. 

Ben Harper (Airplane!’s Peter Graves) is executed for his role in a robbery in Depression-era America. Before his death he hides his loot with his two children John and Pearl (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce). He also inadvertently leads his cellmate to their door. That cellmate is a twisted psychopath known as the Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). This evangelizing preacherman with ‘LOVE’ and ‘HATE’ tattooed on his knuckles has travelled the land murdering widows and stealing their savings as part of what he sees as God’s plan. He seeks out Harper’s widow, Willa (Shelley Winters), as part one of his plot to force John and Pearl to reveal the whereabouts of the hidden money. He only cares about the money and not his wife. He hates women. He is one of the most misogynistic characters ever committed to screen. And he puts his aversion all down to God’s will: “There are things you do hate, Lord. Perfume-smellin’ things, lacy things, things with curly hair.” He reckons God doesn’t mind the killings (“There’s plenty of killings in Your Book, Lord”) but “There’s too many of them. I can’t kill the world.” 

This low opinion of women is held throughout the film. Harper entrusts his son with the location of the money, but not his wife. After his marriage to Willa Powell tells her, disgusted, that “You thought, Willa, the moment you walked in that door I’d start to paw at you in that abominable way that man are supposed to do on their wedding night.” He has no truck with that; when he does penetrate her it is with his stick knife. Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden) says of sex in marriage that it is all just “flapdoodle”: “A woman’s a fool to marry for that. That’s somethin’ for a man. The Good Lord never meant for a decent woman to want that. Not really want it. It’s all just a fake and a pipe dream.” She counts herself lucky that after forty years of marriage “I just lie there thinkin’ about my canning.” Even the film’s heroine, the charitable Mrs Cooper (Lillian Gish), refers to all women as “durn fools” for being so susceptible to a “tricky mouth and a full moon”. 

But it is when John and Pearl go on the run to escape Powell that things really get interesting. Throughout the film great use has been made of the potential of black and white. Angular shadows are thrown by streetlamps, Powell’s sombre black attire contrasts sharply with the muted greys of the other characters’ costumes, people hide in the dark and perspectives are played with (when John spots the silhouette of Powell on a horse the effect was apparently created by mounting a midget on a pony!). When the children flee they float slowly downstream in a skiff. Pearl’s haunting rendition of the song ‘Pretty Fly’ creates a fugue-like state. They drift past the evils of the world on the banks – glistening spiderwebs, bloated toads, snarling foxes, watchful owls. The camera charts their dreamlike voyage from overhead; they truly are babes lost in the wilds. Their innocence contrasts with the viciousness of Powell or the human frailties of the older characters. “Children”, as Mrs Cooper opines, “are Man at his strongest. They abide and they endure.” 
Frog-ra knew that tonight, he would feast
Like In Cold Blood, The Night of the Hunter is fascinating for the way in which the story is framed. Don’t get me wrong, Mitchum’s portrayal of the unholy murderer is fascinating. His Biblical phrases, tell-tale silhouette, iconic tattoos combine with his frequent singing of ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’ (as ominous a foreshadowing as the Crocodile’s tick-tocking in Peter Pan) to create a very maleveolent and memorable villain. Personally I preferred his performance as the vengeful Max Cady in Cape Fear (another film that made great use of the ‘limitations’ of black and white stock and Mitchum’s heavy-lidded gaze). But The Night of the Hunter is more of a throwback to German Expressionism. It is fascinating to see the sort of movie Charles Laughton chose to make when given the chance. 

What have I learnt about West Virginia?
This is West Virginia as seen in the Great Depression. Times are tight and children go around begging from door to door. Thankfully some Christian charity does still exist. But religion largely seems to involve torchlight revival meetings, hymn-singing and prudishness. 

The West Virginia state penitentiary is in Moundsville and execution is by hanging. The Ohio River flows along the state’s northern border. Paddlewheelers are still plying these waters though the flow seems quite lazy and slow. 

Can we go there?
The film is set quite firmly in northern West Virginia. Powell steals a car from Moundsville and is imprisoned and later executed there. The former West Virginia Penitentiary can now be visited. Powell and Ella go to Sistersville to get married. Mrs Cooper assumes that the children must have drifted downstream on the Ohio River rather than paddling against the flow from Parkersburg. This setting is not coincidental. The book upon which the film was based was written by Moundsville native Davis Grubb. And he based the story on a series of real-life killings in the 1930s carried out by Harry Powers. 

But while the film, the book and the original murders that inspired it all occur in West Virginia it is quite obvious that the movie was shot on set in Hollywood. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

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