Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Surreal "Night" From Charles Laughton

There are some movies whose characters, images or themes leave an indelible impression on you. And each time you revisit them, you may see something new that enriches the viewing experience. For me, The Night of the Hunter (1955) is one of those films. As the movie begins, Ben Harper (Peter Graves) is awaiting execution for his part in a robbery that led to the deaths of two men. The money from the heist hasn’t been recovered. Ben shares a cell with an odd preacher named Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) who tries to find out where he’s hidden the money. After Ben's death, the now released Harry uses his guile and charm to worm his way into the life of the thief’s wife & children. He also dazzles the residents of their town, who are taken in by his faux spirituality. Ben’s son John suspects there’s more to him than meets the eye, and sees a hint of the evil under the surface. The preacher's dark side begins to emerge. Eventually, the children must run for their lives as the maniacal, black clad preacher pursues them in his quest to discover the location of the cash.

The Night of the Hunter is the only film directed by actor Charles Laughton, best known for his roles in films like Witness For The Prosecution and The Private Life of Henry VIII. Laughton & writer James Agee collaborated on the screenplay, based on Davis Grubb’s novel. It’s an excellent production, with an expressionistic look, courtesy of the moody cinematography by the talented Stanley Cortez, who also worked on Orson Welles' The Magnifcent Ambersons. The stylized, almost theatrical sets, offbeat camera angles and unique use of shadows & light add an ethereal quality to the film. Some sequences have an almost fairy tale feel to them, including a dream-like journey down the river by the children, as they try to escape from the madman on their trail. They eventually find shelter with a kind old woman (played by silent film star Lillian Gish) who has a group of other displaced children living with her.

Robert Mitchum & Shelley Winters
The performances are superb; Mitchum excels as the deadly Powell, who hides behind a mask of civility and smooth talk. His charming, hymn-singing preacher can turn from kind & caring to a lying, violent fiend in seconds flat. He’s the personification of evil, becoming a relentless force of nature during the final third of the movie. Gish is wonderful as the angelic earth mother who stands up to Mitchum's devil, the light shining against his darkness. Shelley Winters is very good in a supporting role as the children’s mother, who eventually falls prey to Harry’s manipulations. Billy Chapin & Sally Jane Harper are quite effective as the children, John & Pearl. The Night of the Hunter was not successful during it’s initial run, but the movie has grown in stature over the years, becoming a cult classic. Directors such as Martin Scorsese, Terence Malick, The Coen Brothers and Spike Lee have all cited it as a favorite and a major influence on their work. In 1992, the movie was selected for addition to the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress, who preserve culturally or historically significant films.

If you do decide to watch The Night of the Hunter, try to rent or purchase the excellent Criterion Collection edition, which was released in 2010 on Blu-ray & DVD. In addition to a great looking transfer of the movie, it features some fantastic extras, including a new documentary on the film's legacy, and archival interviews with some of the stars. The most amazing extra is a two and a half hour film called Charles Laughton Directs Night of the Hunter, which is taken from home movies filmed on the set. It covers the entire scope of the production, giving a complete picture of the making of this captivating film. Sadly, due to the film's poor initial reception, Laughton never directed another movie. The Night of the Hunter is one of my favorites. It's truly a one of a kind film. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have; it’s a movie that truly stays with you after watching it. And you'll never hear the classic hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" the same way again. Highly recommended. Here's a link to the The Criterion Collection's "Three Reasons" trailer for the film:

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