Saturday, February 22, 2014
300. The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Running Time: 93 minutes
Directed By: Charles Laughton
Written By: James Agee, from novel by Davis Grubb
Main Cast: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, Billy Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce
Click here to view the trailer
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This has been sitting on my desk for nearly one week, as it arrived from Netflix sometime around last weekend and has been waiting for my viewing ever since. It may go down in history as the longest someone let such a good movie sit on their desk, without breaking down and checking it out. Shame on me.
The film stars Robert Mitchum as Reverend Harry Powell, an impure man of the cloth (most places tend to write terms like "Reverend" and "man of the cloth" in parenthesis, suggesting that Harry may not actually be a real preacher. However, I don't think it's ever said that he isn't, just that he's a corrupt one) who is only out to serve himself, rather than the good Lord. The film begins with Powell being arrested for being caught in a stolen car. Meanwhile, Ben Harper, the patriarch of a small town family, has robbed a bank and made off with $10,000. In the process, Ben killed a couple of people and as he arrives home with sirens blaring behind him, he hands the loot to his young son, John (Chapin) and makes him and his sister, little Pearl (Bruce), promise to hide the money and swear never to reveal it's location. John promises just as the police ride up and arrest Ben, hauling him to prison to share a cell with the Reverend. In his sleep, one night, Ben begins to mumble something about $10,000 being hid, but before he can get out the whereabouts, he's awoken by Powell, who's been listening in. He stuffs socks in his mouth, so as not to accidentally reveal the whereabouts during his slumber and goes back to sleep. Days later he's executed for murder and all Powell knows is where the man is from and that he has a family. Being the greedy, evil man that he is, Powell sets his mind on tracking down that money, any way possible, driving to the small hometown of Ben Harper and wooing his widow, Willa (Winters). Eventually the two marry and later, Powell realizes that the children know where the money is hidden. That pretty much brings you up to speed.
They call "The Night of the Hunter" a film noir and I suppose it is, but my definition of "film noir" is a little different than yours. See, I like to self apply my own definition to that term and my definition brings to mind the likes of police, investigators, detectives and ragtag groups of bank robbers, running the streets and chasing each other down. Those are the sorts of things I think of when I hear the term "film noir" mentioned. This - "The Night of the Hunter" - well, this is a whole different ball game. As far as I'm concerned, this movie is a tried and true horror movie, one that will surely have you checking the deadbolt twice before heading up to bed. You could've added Robert Mitchum to the list of actors who have wowed me by their BOOK performances way back when I watched "Out of the Past", in May 2012. Now, you could etch his name in granite and hang his picture in the actors Hall of Fame that exists in my own head, in the personal preferences section of my brain. I'll just go ahead and say that I think his performance here can be considered one of the most evil villains in all of cinema; I mean this guy was creepy! More on that later...
I'll go ahead and nitpick now, because there is definitely some nitpicking to do. First and foremost, the ending was - I hate to say it - awful! Man, really? REALLY!? You're going to leave me with a powder puff ending, with Ms. Cooper celebrating Christmas with the children? What a drag, man! In fact, Mitchum is hauled off like Sylvester at the end of a Tweety Bird cartoon and what he just spend over an hour establishing as one of the great characters to grace cinema, is nearly ruined! The way I see it, John fingers Powell in court, sending him to be hung. We cut to the gallows, where the Reverend is standing with a noose around his neck. John is in attendance, as Ms. Cooper thought it would do him good to get a little peace after the nightmare he's just lived through. As the noose is tightened, Powell begins to sing - "Leanin', Leanin', Leanin' safe and secure from all alarms....", staring a whole through John. The noose drops and Powell dies with a crooked, evil grin on his face. That's your ending right there and while I haven't found any evidence, I just have a strong feeling that Laughton was forced into the powder puff ending that we got. I mean, what was with John having a conniption, when the police finally arrest Powell, beating him with the doll and telling him to take the money? I didn't get that. Another thing I didn't care for was the intermission like middle portion, where nothing really seems to happen, Powell disappears for about fifteen minutes and the kids sing songs on their way down the river, while we're "treated" to National Geographic like shots of wildlife! WTF?! What was the meaning of showing all the animals? I will say though, that sending Powell away for fifteen minutes only made it THAT much more tense when he showed back up, riding a stolen horse across the landscape, singing his trademark song. It kind of throws ahead to Quentin Tarantino's Elle Driver and her trademark whistling, doesn't it?
Speaking of influences, the German expressionism is very present, as one can't help but think of films like "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" and "Nosferatu", especially during the scene where Powell stands over Willa's bed, switchblade in hand, while shadows of pointy sets linger behind him. Brilliant, beautiful and haunting! As far as future influences go, I couldn't help but be reminded of Stephen King's "The Stand", when observing the character battle between the Reverend and Ms. Cooper, comparing them to Randall Flagg and Mother Abigail. I'd like to think that it's a very accurate observation and that I can't have been the first to notice that. I wonder if Mr. King was influenced at all by this film. You see, in my eyes, Powell is actually Satan and really, there seem to be a bunch of clues confirming this. There are dozens of instances in the film where he does NOT appear unless he's preceded by a shadow. How about that monstrous yell he gives, just as the children escape the cellar and close the door behind him, catching his fingers in the door (Seriously, if you don't remember the yell, go back and listen - it's scary!). Or what about the way Powell seems to disappear when Pearl turns the light on, during the scene where he's waiting outside Ms. Cooper's house, her with a shotgun in hand? Such a complex character that you could really study and take notes on and Mitchum brought it all to life. You could tell he was having fun up there too and that he knew just how to play the character. I'm not saying that Mitchum can relate to the evil that was Powell, but Mitchum controlled the character much like a puppeteer controls a marionette.
Ummm...in case you missed it in all that - I loved this! I could probably go another few paragraphs, but I won't just because. If you're one of the ones who aren't convinced that they were making great movies in the 50s, then here's your proof. I promise, it's nothing like any old movie you've ever seen and it kind of breaks a lot of the unwritten rules of the times, does it not? I mean, I was pretty freaking shocked when they actually killed off Shelley Winters (a notable star at the time, I think) at the HALFWAY MARK! I couldn't believe it. By the way, while I LOVE most old movie posters, this one is pretty crappy. If I was going to see this movie based solely on this purpose, I'd be expecting a film about marital unbliss and that's all. It should have been a much darker poster, with a sole shot of Mitchum and his love/hate hands, with the tag line, "Would you like me to tell you the little story of right hand/left hand?" Man, I just love it when a movie effects me so much that I start playing armchair filmmaker!
RATING: 8.5/10 Would've been an easy '10/10' had there been a better ending. That's probably the longest review I've written in a while and that's a good thing!
MOVIES WATCHED: 807
MOVIES LEFT TO WATCH: 194
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