Sunday, May 16, 2010

Night of the Hunter (1955) part 1 of 2

Although my book, Film Noir: Reflections in a Dark Mirror, was published before my book, Mitchum, it was actually written later. The book on Robert Mitchum was commissioned in the mid-1980s and had reached galley proof stage when the publisher went into liquidation. Another publisher expressed interest but it took a few years of hassling before I could convince the top man that the rights belonged to me. Meanwhile, the book on film noir had appeared. I mention all this because a full chapter in Mitchum is devoted to The Night of the Hunter, the only film so treated in the book, and despite the strong noir elements the film I was not thinking or writing about it in noir terms. Obviously, Mitchum was a book about Robert Mitchum and, equally obvious, it was written for a (possibly) different readership. This different thinking doubtless affected, perhaps diluted, my view of the film’s noir qualities. Nevertheless, my very high regard for the film is apparent and in this chapter I touch on most if not all of the noir-ish elements it contains.
This chapter from Mitchum now appears here. I have resisted the temptation to revise it although I have tinkered a little: changing a reference to dates, correcting a couple of typos, and tossing in and throwing out commas here and there but I have not attempted to update the style in which it is written, nor have I changed any British-English spelling into American-English spelling. So, what follows, for good or ill, is Chapter 5 of Mitchum: The Film Career of Robert Mitchum.

The Night of the Hunter
Bruce Crowther

'Charles loathed those children. He made me direct them." (Robert Mitchum)

Given the kind of film popular amongst audiences for Hollywood’s products at the time, it is not surprising that on its release in 1955 The Night of the Hunter mystified many. The film met with only cautious critical response and failed to find an adequate popular audience. Drawing heavily upon German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s, with all the elements implied by that genre’s gothic morbidity, it did not fit into preconceived notions of what Hollywood movies of its own era should be.

With the always comforting benefit of hindsight it is possible to see The Night of the Hunter as one of the finest examples of film-making, not just of the 1950s, but in the entire history of popular cinema.

The principal quality of Davis Grubb’s novel, upon which The Night of the Hunter is based, is its well-planned, strongly constructed story. It is a fable of sexual alienation within a family, religious hypocrisy, fear and greed. This powerful core formed a clean-limbed frame for the screenplay upon which it was possible for the director to build a haunting film. Although screenplay credits are given exclusively to James Agee, who was one of the outstanding film critics of his day, much was changed after his draft of the screenplay was submitted and clearly Davis Grubb contributed many suggestions.

Ultimately, however, the film stands as a testimony to the fine performances in all its central roles, to its superior design, brilliant cinematography, and inspired musical score. Most of all, however, the film brings enormous credit to the visual imagination and artistic integrity of its director, and in so doing goes a long way to giving credence to the often misguided and frequently improbable ‘auteur’ theory of film-making.

When all this is allied to that original storyline, with its universal and timeless appeal, it is not surprising that The Night of the Hunter is as vital today as when it was made more than fifty years ago.

The director was Charles Laughton, at the time noted as a stage and screen actor, who had never before directed a motion picture.

Born into a hotel-keeping family in Scarborough, England, in 1899, Laughton went on to the London stage shortly after the end of World War One. He made his first films in 1928 with Elsa Lanchester whom he married the following year. The couple appeared on the New York stage in 1931 and then went to Hollywood. There, Laughton made The Old Dark House (1932), which was directed by James Whale who was fresh from his success with Frankenstein (1931). Laughton and Whale had previously acted together on the stage in England and it is highly probable that the Expressionistic vision Laughton brought to The Night of the Hunter was influenced by his fellow-countryman who displayed similar preoccupations in some of his work.

From 1931 to the end of his film career Laughton moved back and forth between Hollywood and England playing an astonishing variety of roles. His most memorable performances show the infinite range of his talent: Island of Lost Souls (1932), The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), Ruggles of Red Gap, Mutiny on the Bounty (both 1935), Rembrandt (1936), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), Hobson’s Choice (1954), Advise and Consent (1962). The manner in which Laughton immersed himself completely in his roles, and the flamboyant relish with which he tackled them, concealed a tortured private life. Unable to accept certain realities, especially his physical appearance and his sexual proclivities, he fought against them. A side-effect of this consuming if misdirected effort was that Laughton could seldom enjoy the fame and reward his professional life justly brought him.

A positive effect of his deep-seated psychological unrest was that he was able to bring to some of his projects a measure of understanding few others could command. This is especially true of The Night of the Hunter with its complex psychology and undercurrents of hidden impulses, which drive men and women to acts that appear outwardly to be beyond all reason.

James Agee’s version of the screenplay for The Night of the Hunter emphasized the Depression setting of the novel, concentrating on conditions of the unemployed and hungry and taking up political issues implicit in the novel’s background. Given the emotional depth of Agee’s journalistic writing on the Depression, this slanting of the screenplay is thoroughly understandable even if it took the tale away from its true heart. Laughton, aware that the screenplay was neither the true core of the novel nor of the film he wanted to make, set about a massive editing job in which he was aided by Davis Grubb whose visual image of how the finished film should look fitted in well with the director’s preconceptions. The end result owed much to their collaboration and, aware of this, Agee asked that he should not be credited. His wishes were overruled by producer Paul Gregory who knew the value of having Agee’s name on the credits. George Eells, in his biography of Robert Mitchum, quotes Gregory as remarking that Agee ‘was rolling around on the floor drunk most of the time’, and that Laughton sought help from Dennis and Terry Saunders but, ultimately, ‘Charles ended up doing most of it.’

Laughton’s vision eschewed reality in favour of deliberate non-naturalistic stylization. Where Agee opted for an accurate visual comment upon Depression life, Laughton chose artistic devices which contrive simultaneously to be astonishingly simplistic. Laughton also made use of unfashionable technical devices. Wipes and iris-outs, for example, had long-since ceased to be normal Hollywood practice.

The setting for The Night of the Hunter is Cresap’s Landing, a small town on the banks of the Ohio River, which has recently been shocked by a killing during a robbery carried out by Ben Harper (Peter Graves) who now awaits execution, meanwhile sharing a cell with Preacher Harry Powell (Mitchum).

After the execution the Preacher arrives in Cresap’s Landing where he ingratiates himself with the townspeople and attempts to charm his way into the Harper family. The intrusion of the Preacher into the emotionally distraught Harper household generates powerful sexual impulses. The newly widowed Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) is still sexually vibrant and is attracted by the dominating figure of the Preacher whose pseudo-religious words and actions barely conceal a twisted psychotic who has already murdered several women in his personal, heaven-sent campaign to rid the world of sexual undesirables. To the Preacher’s deranged mind this includes any woman possessing natural sexual needs and following his marriage to Willa he cruelly rejects her tentatively loving approaches. As a result of the Preacher’s behavior towards her Willa begins to retreat into a private fantasy world in which Biblical stories mix uneasily with the reality of hunger and deprivation in Depression-hit America.

Willa’s children, John and Pearl (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce), are less sure of the Preacher’s intentions. John especially mistrusts him, sensing his innate evil.

The $10,000 stolen by the children’s father is hidden in Pearl’s doll, but before he was arrested their father swore them to secrecy, even from their mother. The Preacher however intuitively guesses that they hold the secret he seeks. He attempts to persuade John and Pearl to tell him where their father hid the money but they resist him. Willa, who has turned to fundamentalist religion in her fear and frustration, overhears the Preacher’s efforts and becomes a danger to him. He murders her, disposing of the body in the river. With no one to defend them against the Preacher, the children are helpless and young John tries to make him believe that the money is hidden in the cellar but his trick is soon discovered. The Preacher’s anger is diverted only when Pearl tells him the truth. Before the Preacher can seize the doll the children manage to make their escape and take to the river.

Sheltering with an old woman, Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), who is already caring for a number of homeless waifs, John and Pearl experience an interval of security and happiness but this is dispelled when the Preacher tracks them down. Old Miss Cooper recognizes his true nature and defends the children against him when he desperately tries to enter her house and take the money. In the course of a night of psychological harassment Miss Cooper shoots and injures the Preacher and next day he is arrested. For a brief moment John experiences the hallucination that it is his father’s arrest all over again and in a sudden, hysterical outburst he throws himself on the Preacher, belabouring him with the doll until dollar bills float all around. ‘I can’t stand it, Dad,’ he yells. ‘It’s too much, Dad. I don’t want it.’

Later, at the trial, John refuses to testify against the Preacher and as a lynch mob gathers Miss Cooper scurries home with her brood while the police smuggle the murderer away to another town where he may expect a fair trial. With the threat to their happiness and their lives removed, John and Pearl are able to settle down with Miss Cooper.

It was Charles Laughton’s preoccupation with the films of D.W. Griffith (he and James Agee screened several of them at New York’s Museum of Modern Art while preparing The Night of the Hunter) that led him to cast Lillian Gish, the First Lady of the Silent Screen. In her autobiography, Mr Griffith the Movies and Me, Miss Gish comments only briefly about her role in The Night of the Hunter. She suggests that the film’s theme, which she describes as a 'battle between good and evil', was undercut by Laughton’s decision not to risk ruining ‘Robert Mitchum’s image by having him play a thoroughly wicked man. In the earlier days of film it would have been considered a triumph to play evil convincingly.’ This description of the theme of the film seems to be oversimplified, and her implication that Mitchum made the Preacher anything less than wholly wicked does not sit easily with most perceptions of his performance.
In the event, Lillian Gish’s own performance, by contemporary standards a too good, almost sugary interpretation, fits the overtly simplistic tone of the central struggle.

As Willa Harper, who misguidedly marries the Preacher, Shelley Winters has a part which perfectly matches her ability to project characters possessing an intriguingly balanced mixture of warmth and redolent sexuality. Here, with the fearful sexual repression inflicted upon the character through her association with the malignant psychopath, she has a role which allowed her fully to exploit her talent. Only rarely in later years did she have opportunities like this, often being reduced to caricaturing the person moviemakers seem to think she is.
In deciding to cast Robert Mitchum in the central role of Preacher Harry Powell, Laughton raised a few eyebrows. On his record up to this time Mitchum had certainly shown enough signs of his ability, given an adequate script, to turn in an excellent textured performance. This, however, was something well outside any role he had tackled so far. In some respects it could be seen as a risk to his career but it was also a challenge and one to which he rose magnificently. His decision to play the role may be seen as a practical example of an assertion he once made in an interview with Hedda Hopper: ‘If you want my interest, interest me. If you just want my presence, pay me.’ Undoubtedly, the role of the Preacher interested him.

Mitchum’s first appearance in the film, as he drives along a country road, immediately establishes the psychotic Preacher’s character. He is talking to God; it is a friendly conversation in which the tone of voice contrasts sharply and uneasily with the words being spoken. Words, spoken softly with alarming matter-of-factness, which acknowledge the fact that the Preacher is a multiple-murderer:

‘Well, now. What’s it to be, Lord, another widow? How many’s it been, six? Twelve? I disremember. Lord, I am tired. Sometimes I wonder if You really understand. Not that You mind the killings.’
But then the evil shows through, building in a speech which ends on a note of lip-curling, disgusted viciousness:
‘But there are things You do hate, Lord: perfume-smelling things - lacy things - things with curly hair.’

Later, the Preacher is in a burlesque theater watching a stripper performing in the spotlight. Now, without words, the vengeful maniacal hatred of the man spills out on to his face. A hand, with the letters H-A-T-E tattooed on the fingers, clenches in anger before sliding into a pocket. A second later, with orgasmic violence, the blade of a switchknife cuts through the cloth of his parson-black coat. Head angled upwards, the Preacher pleads that ‘there are jes’ too) many of ’em, Lord. I can’t kill ’em all.’

When the Preacher is briefly incarcerated for car theft, he shares a cell with Ben Harper and in a melodramatic moment his reptilian head appears upside down at the top of the screen as he stares from the top bunk at his cellmate who lies sleeping below. It is in these moments, talking in his sleep, that Ben reveals the existence of the money and sets in chain the grim events that follow.

James Agee’s concern for the millions of Depression-hit Americans had formed the impulse for his best-known literary work, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which movingly chronicles their plight. It appears probable that he saw the film in terms akin to the photographs taken by Walker Evans, which hauntingly illustrate this book. Although Laughton’s vision removed almost all such images, a speech by Ben Harper as he lies on his bunk talking more to himself than to the Preacher, ably expresses Agee’s preoccupation:

‘That’s right, Preacher. I robbed that bank because I got tired of seeing children roaming the woodlands without food, children roaming the highways in this year of Depression; children sleeping in old abandoned car bodies on junk heaps; and I promised myself I’d never see the day when my younguns’d want.’

The religious motif of the film’s many threads makes its first strong appearance as Ben Harper dies on the scaffold at the end of the hangman’s rope. A bell tolls and the prison tower is silhouetted like a church against the sky. The Preacher stands at his cell window, hands clasped around his switchknife as if holding a crucifix as he prays:

‘Lord, You sure knowed what You was doing when You put me in this very cell at this very time. A man with ten thousand dollars hid somewheres, and a widow in the

Mitchum’s ability to convey great depths of meaning with nothing more than a flicker of the eyes is very well in evidence on several occasions. Most telling, perhaps, are the moments when the Preacher engages the boy John in a battle of the will. When they first meet and John tries to discover if his father told the Preacher the truth about the money, his mere questions reveal his knowledge to the Preacher who lets the boy know he is on to him with a sardonically amused glance. Again, on the river bank at the town picnic, when the Preacher sets out to charm the vulnerable Willa, he and the boy battle for possession of the secret. The Preacher announces that the children’s father told him where the money is, all the time watching the boy’s face:

‘That money’s at the bottom of the river, wrapped around a twelve-pound cobblestone.’

As John inadvertently reacts to this statement, which only he among the listeners knows to be false, the Preacher’s eye gleams with the fact that now he, too, knows.

Perhaps the strongest and most telling scenes in the film are those which depict the Preacher and Willa on their wedding night. After looking at herself in the mirror, her expression full of love and warmth for the man she has married, Willa goes into the next room to where her new husband lies waiting in bed. On the way she disturbs his coat and hears a thud as something in the pocket knocks against the door. She takes out the switchknife, looks at it in surprise, then affectionately murmurs, ‘Men’. Moments later she is the horrified recipient of a merciless harangue from the Preacher who forces her to look again at herself. This time Willa sees a different reflection in the mirror; she and the nightgown she wears are shabby and the love and warmth of her expression have fled to be replaced by the first stirrings of despair as she listens to the Preacher:

‘What do you see, girl? You see the body of a woman. The temple of creation and motherhood. You see the flesh of Eve that Man since Adam has profaned. That body was meant for begetting children. It was not meant for the lust of men.’

Later, when Willa has learned too much to be allowed to live, the Preacher prepares to kill her. They are in the bedroom of the Harper home and the shot is angled so that the rafters of the room form a Gothic arch over Willa as she lies on the bed, arms crossed on her chest as she awaits her fate with saint-like acceptance. At this moment, the Preacher’s head turns in a gesture already becoming familiar. He is listening to God’s words. The awkward angle of the head and the accompanying raised arm creates exactly the right impression of externally controlled psychosis. A similar angle of the head accompanies the moment when, after disposing of Willa’s body by sinking her and her car in the river (an act which foreshadows that in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho still five years away from being made), he tells her friends that she has run away from him. One of them is confident of Willa’s return:

‘She’ll come dragging her tail back home.’ The Preacher’s head angles and the eyes glitter: ‘She’ll not be back. I reckon I’d be safe in promising you that.’

(Click here for part 2)

1 comment:

  1. I was looking up "Angel Face" and I was wondering are you planning on reviewing The Accused (1949) ?


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