Friday, August 12, 2005


Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms;
Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms."

If there ever was a movie begging for prompt dissection and thesisization, it's The Night of the Hunter (1955). It straddles the absurd and the chilling, like it's riding a rabid horse of religious allegory straight into the jungle of the human psyche.

Robert Mitchum plays Harry Powell, a deranged fire-and-brimstone preacher who insinuates himself into a condemned man's family to steal a stash of cash. Only the man's children know where the cash is hidden. Powell marries the man's wife (Shelley Winters) after brainwashing her with his crypto-religio-chauvinist head games, then torments and stalks the children looking for the loot's location. The children run away, but he follows, always just out of sight, calmly singing a hymn, his shadow advancing.

Sounds like a grand time, right? Well, it kind of is. It's intentionally a very funny movie. Some of the dialogue is hilarious, like when Powell covers for himself after killing his new wife by saying she ran away in the night:

Woman: "What could have possessed her to do such a thing?!"
Powell: "Satan."

The way Mitchum says it is great -- quick, with a shrug. "Satan, obviously." But for every funny moment, there is a moment of terror. Like when the two children run into the basement to hide from Powell, who then stands at the top of the dark stairway, coiled like a snake.

Powell: "I can hear you whisperin' children, so I know you're down there. I can feel myself gettin' awful mad. I'm out of patience children. I'm coming to find you now."

Yikes. Powell is one of the great movie villains, bested only by John Huston's horrifying Noah Cross in Chinatown. Night of the Hunter is black and white, very dark, with many shadows and warped sets and expressionistic composition. It's very biblical too; the end sequence is a war of Bible-quoting between Powell and a scrappy matron (silent film star Lillian Gish) who protects the children. It's like archangel versus devil, and there seems to be something cosmic at stake -- children, innocence, the future.

You don't hear much about this film--it was a critical and commercial flop and has never secured its place on top-10 lists--but it has colored modern works. Spike Lee used Mitchum's right hand/left hand speech (the story of love and hate) in Do the Right Thing. Christopher Durang lifted the last line ("They abide, and they endure") for his play Baby with the Bathwater. You can see aspects of Night of the Hunter in Polanski and Lynch and any good horror movie.

This is the only film the actor Charles Laughton directed, and the rumor is that he completely re-wrote James Agee's script. So what we see is a complete Laughton invention with a Mitchum twist. What in the world was on the minds of these two men?


Middento said...

Dan, Dan, Dan...

(affecting professor-voice here, rusty after so many months)

You say: "You don't hear much about this film--it was a critical and commercial flop and has never secured its place on top-10 lists--but it has colored modern works."

According to the AFI 100 Years... series, while the film doesn't make their 100 general films (which is, in my mind, ludicrous -- I mean, I love Tootsie, but #62? Please...), it does figure as #34 on their "thrills" list and Rev. Powell ranks as the 29th most dastardly villain.

But the AFI series is a shlocky list. How about Sight and Sound? Their 2002 poll lists no fewer than three critics and three directors who cite the film as one of their favorites (including one who plays with pirates).

This is only to say that NOTH, while a flop upon its release, is fairly well-known among certain cinephilic circles. Even in 1969, the Peruvian critics I study deigned to list Laughton with his sole film as one of the pantheon of American directors worth discussing -- which I'm sure did not originate with them but rather the Cahieristas. The film is considered quite the classic. (Indeed, it is one of the 400 films listed on the National Registry.)

(dropping professor voice)

You're right. It's a kick-ass movie and damn funny and scary at the same time. A must-see. NOW!

J.J. said...

Color me educated. I did underestimate NOTH's presence, but it still seems manifestly ignored to me. Sure, it was picked by six men (all non-mainstream, except for Verbinski) for Sight & Sound (also non-mainstream, for the general public). And I certainly cannot speak for Peru. But ask any casual movie lover about it and I'm sure you'll be met with blank stares. I'm not denying its subsequent acclaim; I'm denying its subsequent visibility--you really don't hear much about this film, National Registry or not.

As for the AFI, I can't believe Powell was at the end of the list. And I scoff at the idea that Hannibal Lecter is a villain. He most certainly is not. The Silence of the Lambs is practically a buddy picture. He's one of the good guys!

Middento said...

Heh, well I have to say, that precisely because it's not very well know, this is a great film to show to people, who are usually fascinated by it. I screened this for Critical Approach last year and people loved it, that I remember.

My new film in this category: George Stevens' The More, the Merrier. Have you seen that one?

Ehil Bent said...

J.J. said...

I just logged in to post about that. What synchronicity.