Monday, July 21, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Night of the Hunter" (1955)

'Preacher' Harry Powell of "The Night of the Hunter" has been called one of the most frightening villains in cinematic history, but Robert Mitchum doesn't actually seem to be trying very hard to be scary. In fact, there are times when his performance is downright comical, as if he's channeling a character from Loony Tunes.

The great actor Charles Laughton only got once chance to direct a feature film. "Night" was a critical and commercial failure, and his tenure in the director's chair was done. But over time the movie has risen in stature and today is regarded as a seminal midcentury film, due in large part to its distinctive look and Mitchum's bold turn.

It's generally included in the film noir tradition, though Laughton was consciously trying to emulate the German expressionist style of the 1920s. With its low angles, looming shadows and stretched perspectives, there are some shots that could have come straight out of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari."

I think this sensibility also influenced Laughton's direction of Mitchum's performance. Powell is a serial killer who poses as a wandering preacher during the Great Depression. He famously has "LOVE" and "HATE" tattooed on the four fingers of each hand, and has a prepared little speech about these forces continually grappling with one another. He talks to God frequently, and seems to think he's part of the Lord's higher purpose. A switchblade in the pocket of his black reverend's coat is the instrument of his judgements.

Powell grows increasingly deranged as the story goes on. By the end, he's leering into the camera and making animalistic squawks. He clutches a wounded limb with a sense of mortification, almost like Wile E. Coyote being  unable to believe that the Road Runner keeps getting one up on him.

At a spare 92 minutes, "Night" is one of the few films you wished was longer. It would help better flesh out the characters, particularly Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), the lonely widow who Powell woos and weds. He was prison bunk mates with her husband (Peter Graves), who was executed for a bank robbery in which he killed two people and made off with $10,000. He hid the cash inside his little girl's doll, admonishing the children to never speak of it to anyone. Powell is determined to procure it for himself.

In seemingly the space of just a few minutes of screen time, Willa is widowed, introduced to Powell, married, rejected out of her wedding bed, turned into a religious zealot and murdered. There's a beautifully creepy shot of Willa dead at the bottom of the river, still tied to the driver's seat of Powell's Ford Model T, her long hair flowing with the kelp. It only serves, however, to  underline the fact that she exists in the movie as a construct there to service the plot, rather than a flesh-and-blood person.

Another problem with the script (by James Agee, based on a novel by Davis Grubb) is that it's told largely from the perspective of Willa's son John (Billy Chapin), but he largely remains inscrutable. Chapin tries in vain, but the script sets him up as a totally reactive character. Though there is a certain level of threat during his scenes alone with Powell, where the "preacher" drops the wholesome pretense he shows to adults and becomes coy and belligerant.

The film takes the unusual twist of introducing a main character two-thirds of the way through the picture. John and his little sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) escape down the Ohio River in their father's skiff and eventually end up on shores belonging to Mrs. Cooper (the great Lillian Gish), an old woman who takes in orphans.

"I'm a strong tree with branches for many birds," she says, musing to herself as she is wont to do.

Cooper is religious and fierce, and is the only person in the movie not intimidated or fooled by Harry Powell. She siccs the shotgun on him to run him off, then stays up all night waiting for him to break into the house. Strangely, she has a phone in her home, but waits until she's put buckshot into the false preacher before calling the state police.

I liked how Powell exists more as an existential threat than an actual one, riding around the countryside looking for victims, singing gospel tunes in a rich baritone while trolling for the next helpless woman or child to harm. But in the end he's just a kook wielding a skinny little knife that an elderly widow easily gets the best of.

Entertaining? Certainly. Genuinely threatening? Hardly.

I admired "The Night of the Hunter," but it works better in pieces than as a whole.

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