Sunday, May 16, 2010

Night of the Hunter (1955) part 2 of 2

By Bruce Crowther
part 2 -- click here for part 1

Mitchum exercises firm control over the difficult scenes he plays with John and Pearl. The dangerous game they play in the cellar, when the children escape from him and run for the stairs, is pure farce but there is a powerful undercurrent of tension created by awareness that evil lies close beneath the surface. This evil breaks out as the children trap him in the cellar and Mitchum emits a primitive moan. The moan later becomes an atavistic shriek of rage as the current carries the children and their boat beyond his reach.

Startlingly, the director then contrasts the evil animality of this moment by the use of real but unthreatening animals to display the children’s relatively tranquil passage along the river. As they drift along the river, close up to the camera is a spider’s web from which they appear to be escaping as Pearl sings:

‘Once upon a time there was a pretty fly,
He had a pretty wife this pretty fly,
But one day she flew away, flew away.
She had two pretty children
But one night these two pretty children flew away,
Into the sky, into the moon.’

This scene, and subsequent moments, which show a bullfrog, rabbits and sheep, underlines the traditional peacefulness of nature. The imagery is strong, almost childlike in its boldness. Yet, because this and later passages depict the world through the eyes of John and Pearl, the imagery is exactly right.

Although off-screen, Mitchum’s presence menacingly overhangs these scenes and others that trace the children's progress along the river. Even when he is on-screen it is usually in long­shot, often photographed from a helicopter (by no means as commonplace in 1955 as it was to become). And there is a famous moment when the silhouetted image of a man on a horse is framed in the opening of a barn in which John and Pearl are hiding. For this scene a midget on a pony was used to achieve the correct perspective within the confines of the studio but the camera trickery in no way diminishes the dramatic visual effect.

Thus, whether playing emotionally powerful scenes with Shelley Winters as the doomed widow, or a comic yet dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with either Billy Chapin as the boy or Lillian Gish as the sugar-coated old lady, Mitchum dominates the film. This dominance is such that when he is not on-screen, when his presence is merely suggested, no one can be unaware of his impact and his importance to the artistic whole.

Good as the other performances are, and Shelley Winters is exceptionally fine in the role of the repressed and doomed widow, no one succeeds in diminishing Mitchum’s powerful presence. That he is able to dominate the screen in the setting of Laughton’s uniquely personal film, in which haunting visual images abound, is a remarkable testimony to his ability as an actor.

Laughton’s regard for Mitchum was clear from remarks he made, among them the declaration, to journalist Helen Lawrenson, that ‘Bob is one of the best actors in the world.’ Laughton was not only deeply impressed with the actor but also with the man himself: ‘All his hip talk is a blind. He’s a very fine man with wonderful manners and he speaks beautifully when he wants to. He won’t thank you for destroying the tough image lie’s built up as a defense. In fact, he’s a very tender man and a very great gentleman.’

Undoubtedly, this was one of those rare occasions when a truly imaginative director was able to develop his source material, which was in this case already strong in imagery and psychological content, by going back to the roots of the original and recreating it in his own terms. There is much that is pure Laughton: his decision to include farcical moments was potentially dangerous but in the event they work beautifully and create an entirely justifiable variation upon the book. Laughton’s touch remains sure throughout the film and, contrary to Lillian Gish’s assertion, the humor is not allowed to deplete the overall menace. Even when there is something to laugh at on the screen, there is never any suggestion that the children find what is happening to them anything less than terrifying. At the same time, however, Laughton does not see the need for the audience to be terrified as well. It is better that the onlooker should be afraid for the characters on the screen.

Similarly, Laughton has adjusted Davis Grubb’s sometimes uneasy attitude towards the sexual content of the novel. Central to the novel’s theme is the implicit undesirability in society of ‘clean’ sexual responses. Any suggestion of enjoyment emerging in sexual relationships is artificially repressed by labeling such sexuality as ‘dirty’. Unfortunately, through Grubb’s stylistic devices, much of the purity of purpose disappears. By eschewing certain elements of the novel, which unsatisfactorily attempt to draw Freudian parallels, the film improves on some moments by giving them a wider range of implications. Notable among these is John’s refusal to testily against the Preacher. In the novel he docs this because he refuses to look at the man and thus cannot identify him. In the film, without this underlying motivation, John’s action becomes positive and can be taken as a practical assertion of a Biblical text quoted at the beginning: ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged.’ By acting in this way John has behaved in a truly Christian manner thus counterpointing the falsity of the Preacher’s use of the Bible. It is not accidental that John simultaneously uses this moment to show that he has a truer sense of right and wrong than the mob, which will later try to lynch the Preacher.

Further touches of originality from the director include his introduction of recurring visual and verbal imagery of fruit, especially apples, which serve the purpose of linking the essentially sin­free quality of nature with the harbinger of evil (the apple in the Garden of Evil).

The overall impression of the film’s making is one of superb command. Laughton is constantly in control of his actors and his visual effects. The use of studio sets for some of the river scenes and the occasional deliberately unconcealed artifice never detract from the forward sweep of the narrative. The pace varies but only when the director chooses to allow it to do so. The ­fast-paced struggle in the cellar and the urgent chase to the river are followed by moments of apparent tranquility as the children’s boat drifts away from the menacing Preacher. Yet these moments of calm are effectively undermined as Laughton cross-cuts to the pursuer. As suggested earlier, although the children might think they are safe the audience knows that they are not, The audience’s concern for the safety of the children is thus redoubled.

Stanley Cortez’s cinematography and Hilyard Brown’s production design make full use of the director’s decision to illustrate his story in a manner which derives directly from German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s. Dramatic angling of shots, the use of tilt pans, bold use of shadow in moments of tension, elegant chiaroscuro in the more tranquil moments, all enhance the director’s intentions. Although Cortez was much praised for his work on The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), on no other film was he allowed such free rein to his considerable technical expertise as on The Night of the Hunter.

Walter Schumann’s score similarly adds immeasurably to the film especially through the incorporation of ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’, which occurs at moments almost exactly matching those in the novel. Other songs are incorporated: at the picnic the townspeople and the Preacher sing ‘Bringing in the Sheaves’; there is the children’s nursery rhyme sung by Pearl in the boat drifting down the river; as the children take refuge in a barn an off-screen voice sings a lullaby, ‘Hush, Little One, Hush’.

Schumann’s original themes for Willa and the Preacher are highly effective, especially in the scene in which Willa is murdered. There, the two motifs blend together, one gentle, the other starkly dramatic and is and eventually overpowering. The major chords with which the movie begins and which recur on each of the Preacher’s appearances also make the final aural comment on the film, thus hinting that the peace and tranquility with which the story ends might not be the real last chapter; after all, the Preacher is still alive. In its effectiveness, and to a certain extent in its construction within the context of the film, Schumann’s score foreshadows Bernard Herrmann’s later score for Hitchcock’s Psycho.

The importance of Walter Schumann’s score for the film is underlined by cinematographer Stanley Cortez, reported by Paul Mayersberg in his book, Hollywood the Haunted House. While Cortez was preparing the lighting for the scene in which the Preacher murders Willa, Laughton asked him what was in his mind at the time. Cortez told him that he was thinking of a piece of music, Sibelius’s ‘Valse Triste’. Laughton was immediately inspired to convey the scene in rhythms reflecting the waltz. He sent for Schumann, told Cortez to explain to the composer what was in his mind, and as a result the music for this scene was scored in waltz time. This musical motif was developed by Schumann in the scene in which Willa’s body is shown in the river, the light striking through from the surface of the water, as her hair floats eerily to and fro as if in time to the music.

For all such important contributions, however, The Night of the Hunter is Charles Laughton’s work. Indeed, the manner in which he encouraged the involvement of cameraman and composer in the creative process enhances rather than detracts from his superb command. His vision is a powerful and unifying presence, which lifts the finished product far above the norm for the period in which it was made. The attendant quirkiness and his insistence on using wipes and other techniques many thought to be outmoded helped fuel adverse criticism at the time of its release. Effects such as, for example, the use of a right to left wipe as the Preacher slashes Willa’s throat, can now be seen as the hallmarks of an authentic, if eccentrically off-beat genius.

For Robert Mitchum, the part of the malevolent Preacher was an opportunity to plunge wholeheartedly into a compelling bravura performance. In the light of the manner in which Charles Laughton played so many of his own film roles there is little doubt that Mitchum was encouraged in this by his director. Adverse criticism of Mitchum’s portrayal of Preacher Harry Powell, while not widespread, leveled accusations of an absence of subtlety, the performance most commonly being described as two-dimensional. Yet, as Robin Wood points out, Mitchum’s ‘technically brilliant two-dimensional performance is exactly what is required - a detailed psychological portrait would surely have burdened the film unnecessarily’.

One thing can be stated without reservation: Mitchum’s performance in The Night of the Hunter overflows with instances of under­statement and subtle awareness of the needs of the part.

However, as a result of the poor initial public response, the film was not widely seen and thus barely affected Mitchum’s screen career. Hindsight allows the conclusion to be drawn that this was unfortunate. Perhaps a more enlightened response to The Night of the Hunter by the public, and especially by the film industry’s moguls, might have allowed different decisions to be taken, which could have directed his career away from the arid patch through which it was to pass during the 1960s.

For all the general lack of interest in the film some critics of the day offered favorable comments. Hollis Alpert, in Saturday Review, felt this was ‘by far [Mitchum’s] best role to date’. Bosley Crowther, in The New York Times, stated that he ‘plays the murderous minister with an icy unctuousness that gives you the chills. There is more than malevolence in his character. There is a strong trace of Freudian aberration, fanaticism and iniquity’.

Gordon Gow, writing in Films and Filming in 1975, suggests that Mitchum’s portrayal of Preacher Harry Powell was ‘arguably the best of his career to date’. Even with some of the remarkable performances that were to come after Gow wrote this, it is hard to completely contradict this opinion.

The status of The Night of the Hunter has grown steadily in recent years, earning lavish praise during revivals in the 1980s in the Los Angeles Reader, The New Yorker and The Village Voice, all of which is no more than its just due.

But such praise as this camp too late to be of benefit to the participants in the movie’s making in 1955.

Perhaps the worst after-effect of the poor initial response to the film was the fact that Charles Laughton was never again allowed to direct. Today, long after Laughton’s death in 1962, this can be seen as nothing short of a major loss to motion pictures.

Occasionally films are made which fall outside any known Hollywood genre. On some of these occasions unlikely bedfellows come together largely through accident or improbable design and are helped out by good luck, with the result that a work of unique chemistry is created. It is often such creations which afford filmgoers of many generations most enjoyment. The results of these moments of genius transcend period tastes and sensibilities; they are an aspect of the film-maker’s art which cannot be confined by the calendar. The Night of the Hunter is such a work.


WSNC said...

An excellent analysis: intelligent, fair, and insightful...and, most importantly, it makes me want to see the film again. Thanks!

Brian Cole said...

The Night of the Hunter has, for some time now, been my favorite movie (with a tip of the hat to Kurosawa's Ikiru.) Contemporary critics and the audiences that relied on them didn't know what to make of this film. Thankfully, many more have since come to see this as a special sample of cinematic creativity. Not to nitpick with the author of this fine article on Mitchum and the movie, but Simon Callow has said that Laughton got along well, for the most part, with the two lead child actors and directed them. Who knows after all these years?

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