Thursday, August 25, 2011

CANON OF FILM: THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER

THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)

Director: Charles Laughton
Screenplay: James Agee based on the novel by David Grubb

Although he acted in over 50 films during his illustrious acting career, Charles Laughton only got to direct one film in his lifetime, but he made it count, and it stands as strange unique essential film that’s part “Huckleberry Finn,” and the rest, this surrealistic nightmare with a tone that seems to directly influence modern horror/slasher film directors like Wes Craven, John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper. “The Night of the Hunter,” frightened the hell out of me on my first viewing, and still continues to shake me on subsequent viewings. It’s at times a little over-the-top but the film follows nightmare logic, so then there’s no reason for it to make any sense anyway, as long as we’re constantly frightened.

The opening shot is a warning from Lillian Gish, an old silent film star who transitioned brilliantly into supporting roles with talkies, as she “Reverend” Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). Powell is a sadistic career criminal who finds out from an inmate about $10,000 he stole from a bank that the police haven’t found, because he’s given it to his two children (Peter Graves and Pearl Harper) ages around 11 and 8 to keep hidden. After their father is executed, Powell sweeps into the town wearing a priest collar, a black hat, and “LOVE,” and “HATE,” tattooed his knuckles as he retells Genesis with his story of right-hand, left-hand. “With this hand Cain struck his brother low.” The only two people in town who don’t buy his act are the two kids, and it doesn’t help them that he’s dead-set on marrying their disillusioned mother (Shelley Winters), and trying to coax out of the kids where they hid the money. (And although they reveal it fairly early, I ain’t telling you where they hid it.) After he drowns his wife, the kids board a raft and start heading up the Mississippi, while Powell maliciously follows them using any means necessary and destroying anything in his path. Mitchum was broad-shoulder, big and handsome, and because of that, he usually played the hero in most of his films, especially Westerns. Yet, he played two of film’s most iconic villains, along with Max Cady from the original “Cape Fear.” His natural charisma lets us follow him almost as blindly and some of the townspeople who seem to make up his congregation, as he references the bible the same way Michael Corleone references his contributions to politics with a wink of the eye so silent, nobody catches it, except the kids. Kids seem to be better at spotting bullshit than adults, I don’t know exactly why. I won’t reveal the heart-wrenching and terrifying third part of the film which lends itself to a little bit of falsehood, but by this point, any sign of brightness is wanted and warranted, and besides, and old lady with a shotgun is always going to be a crowd pleaser, especially this saintly one. The film baffled critics and audiences upon original release, because it didn’t feel like anything that came before. Not much has since. David Gordon Green did a loose remake of this with his film, “Undertow,” that had Green’s more natural southern gothic twist (When he’s not making “Pineapple Express”). Not much else though. You don’t get too many dreary psychological horror films that are also popcorn-eating, elbow-bruising chase movies. There’s a lot a story in this simple little tale, and it’s the unique frightening manner in which it’s told that we remember. It's a shame this is the only thing Laughton ever directed. Imagine what else he could have done behind the lens? Scary.
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