Sunday, 5 June 2016

Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955): Still packs a punch

I don't have any rules for watching movies. However, if classic movies are showing on the big screen, I'll try to pick movies I have never seen before. That way I know I'll get to see a movie with the most impact. You forget how much better older movies are on the big screen.

Night of the Hunter is one of those movies I've always wanted to see, and I finally got a chance to see it last night.

Night of the Hunter is a story about two kids running from a very bad man. A psychopath who justifies himself as a man of God, Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is always on the lookout for easy money.

In jail for a short stint after he's caught with a stolen car, Powell finds himself in a cell with Ben Harper (Peter Graves), who is scheduled to hang for the murder of two people during a robbery. Powell tries to find out where the money is but Harper refuses to talk.

Released from jail, Powell ingratiates himself with Harper's widow Willa (Shelley Winters) and his daughter Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). Only John (Ben Chapin), Harper's son, is smart enough to cotton on to what Powell is really interested in.

Desperate to escape the murderous reverend, John and Pearl end up fleeing downriver. However, no matter where they go, Powell is always a few steps behind them. Events come to a head at the home of good samaritan,  Rachel Cooper (silent screen legend Lillian Gish)...

Directed by the great actor Charles Laughton, and his only directorial credit, Night of the Hunter is a classic of film noir and its visual style has been hugely influential on later generations of filmmakers. A failure on its initial release, it became lauded as a classic and is now often ranked as one of the greatest films of all time.

Influenced by German Expressionism, Laughton uses a visual grammar that is highly evocative of its young protagonists' point of view. The film looks and feels like a child's nightmare, with the artifice of the nighttime outdoor sets only reinforcing the uncanny environment the children are trapped in.

The film is filled with some unsettling moments of visual poetry: the discovery of the children's mother dead in her car at the bottom of the river (above), the children's surreal trip downriver, and Powell's nightmarish re-appearance while the children sleep in a barn (the picture at the head of this review).

A good nightmare is nothing without a great boogeyman, and Mitchum is absolutely hypnotising as Powell.

More well known for his laconic, cynical tough guys, Mitchum completely inhabits the role of the hypocritical preacher. By turns charming, pathetic, terrifying and hilarious, he is the best thing in the movie.

The other performance worth mentioning is Lillian Gish. Playing the polar opposite of Powell, she is a genuinely good person who follows the commandments Powell pays lip service to. Rachel could have come off as a cardboard do-gooder, but Gish invests the role with a tough, hard won wisdom that makes Rachel feel like a human being.

The scene where she engages Powell with the proper lyrics to the hymn he has bastardised is terrific, as the terrified woman gains the upper hand over the 'hunter'. The night no longer belongs to Powell.

I was a little worried that this movie would not be as good as people make it out to be. I was happily very wrong. The beginning is a little stilted, some of the child acting leaves something to be desired, and the film feels like it goes on a few scenes too long, but these are really minor quibbles.

Mitchum steals the show, Laughton's direction shows genuine imagination, the suspense still works and the film packs a deliciously dark sense of humour. While there are a few things which are of their time, the large majority of laughs feel earned.

While he is threatening, Powell is also an idiot who is constantly having his schemes blow up in his face. While he manages to win over the more gullible people he comes across, his half-assed sermonising fails miserably against anyone with a modicum of sense. The scene where the children lock him in the cellar feels like something out of the Three Stooges, with Powell stumbling blindly up the stairs after the little tykes, only to have his fingers jammed in the door.

The ultimate lesson of the movie is that the boogey man is not real, and can be fought if you have a courage. Powell wins for so long because no one is willing or able to fight him. Fittingly, it only takes an old woman with a shot gun to reveal Powell for the half-witted buffoon he really is.

If you have not seen it, or you're put off by it being in black and white, do yourself a favour and check it out. Preferably on the big screen. Night of the Hunter is a genuinely great movie.

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