Friday, October 2, 2015

Night of the Hunter: Dark, Light Classic

All moviegoers should be required to watch Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955) before they’re allowed to label a film great, beautiful, creepy, or strange. They should also be required to watch it by themselves, a with lights dimmed, on a screen no smaller than 42 inches with everything else unplugged.

For literary types, think Mark Twain, with his belief that humans are dimwitted, rapacious, conniving, hypocritical bandwagonners, married to Flannery O’Connor, the Catholic writer who believed people's heads are screwed on so backwards they have to be gored by a bull in order to have a shot at redemption. 

But don’t think about that too long.

For film students and budding critics, think David Lynch's Blue Velvet stirred in with Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade. And keep in mind these odd couplings are taking place during the post-war Eisenhower years, an era of such cinematic prudishness it has come to be known (by me) as America’s Victorian Age.

Charles Laughton

So naturally a real critical and commercial bust when it first came out, this fine brew has aged extraordinarily well. Check out these credentials:

The prestigious French film journal Cahiers du Cinema ranked it as the second most beautiful film ever made. The film’s villain, Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum at his absolute best) is No. 29 in AFI’s top 100 film villains. The late Roger Ebert called it “one of the most frightening of movies with one of the most unforgettable of villains.”

The Library of Congress added it to the National Film Registry in 1992 and, most importantly, it is among my top-five favorite films of all time. So do not, in the name of all that is cinematically holy, let the fact that Night of the Hunter is in black and white keep you from enjoying this stunning film or, for that matter, from enjoying this somewhat well-written commentary on it.

On the surface, this seems to be a simple Southern gothic yarn about Harry Powell, a psychopathic killer, and his effort to find $10,000 left behind by 
executed killer Ben Harper for his two little children, Pearl and John, who, sadly, are in the incapable hands of their scatterbrained mom, Willa, played by a young, very trim Shelley Winters.
Laughton after critics bashed Night of the Hunter

But thanks to Laughton and screenwriter James Agee, it becomes a disturbing fairy tale-dark fable about a battle between good and evil played out on the rickety stage of an obscure little Depression Era bible-belt community in West Virginia.

Like so many works of art, the film derives its beauty and power from the tension between opposites, contraries, paradox and incongruities. Take that bible-belt community, for example. These people pretty clearly practice that old-time religion (the “old-time” brand, by the way, actually began roughly the time this film was set), but the story’s pervading conflict is between harsh, deranged, manipulative, conniving religious hooey and genuine Christian charity.

Viewers would not yet have greased their fingers with buttered popcorn before seeing these opposing forces on the screen.

Night of the Hunter opens with credits appearing and dissolving against a pitch-black starry-skied backdrop and a jarring, ominous score that my musically inclined colleague calls a kind of dark fanfare made up of timpani, low brass, probably including trombone, and maybe a trumpet, with either a string instrument or high woodwind tossed in for good measure. 

In less than a minute, this unsettling opening transitions into a mellow, but not altogether soothing lullaby sung by children’s choir. Here are the lyrics:

Dream, little one, dream,
Dream, little one, dream.
Oh, the hunter in the night
Fills your childish heart with fright.
Fear is only a dream,
So dream, little one, dream.

I find this the least comforting bedtime poem since the "If-I-should-die-before-I-wake" prayer that had me reflecting on my mortality well into the night back when I was a wee lad. Just to paraphrase: "The night hunter frightens your childish heart, but that's okay because fear is just a dream, so go to sleep where you can dream, which is where fear and Freddy Kruger and Harry Powell dwell. Sleep well, little one!"
Lillian Gish as Mrs. Cooper

The opening credits end with the last word ("dream") of the lullaby, but the starry sky stays, and an unidentified older woman, from the waist up, now appears against this backdrop. So with no earthly setting, she begins to review what she has told some children "last Sunday." 

Now the faces of five children appear out of the firmament as they hear the woman remind them of the beauty of the lilies of the field, and how we are not to judge lest we be judged, and how we must beware of false prophets who, though they appear in sheep's clothing, "inwardly . . . are ravening wolves."

With the woman still speaking from the heavens, a quick dissolve gives us a God's-eye view (likely shot from a helicopter) of a river cutting through farmland. She continues to speak while three cuts and another quick dissolve take us to a little boy's discovery of a dead woman's body lying on stairs descending into a cellar.
As John and Pearl first see Harry Powell

As the woman in the sky utters her final words, "by their fruits ye shall know them," the camera cuts to another God's-eye view, this time of a man in a black hat riding his 1920s-era convertible down a country road. 

While he drives, he converses with God, with whom he seems to be on intimate terms. Incidentally, we don't hear God's side of the conversation. We soon know this is Harry Powell, the villain. And I will argue later that he isn't.

First, let's recap what Laughton has done with his first 3 minutes: He's counterpointed a sinister opening fanfare almost immediately with a children's lullaby; said lullaby, however, is sinister in its own right; an angelic figure shares spiritual wisdom and warnings to children, all of them apparently up above the earth so high, but in a very dark sky; he then juxtaposes the dark with a view from above that is shot in hard, midday light, but which takes us literally underground (the cellar), then figuratively into the Underworld with the appearance of Harry.

Anyone dizzy yet? Destabilized? It gets worse. Or better.

The film's  most fearsome creature is not the villain, even if he is the 29th best villain in American film history. There is, rather, a collective villain: the numb-skulled, intellectually challenged, gullible, and, to quote my friend Karl Isberg, "micro-cephalic mental midgets" who inhabit the film's community. 

They bring to mind the king's observation in Huck Finn: "Hain't we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain't that a big enough majority in any town?"

The real wolf in sheep's clothing is the town's Queen Bee church Lady, Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden) who, with little exaggeration, could be called Willa Harper's mentor from hell. When Harry arrives in town to find the $10,000, Icey believes it's a sign of God, and "that man of God . . . is just achin' to settle down with some nice woman and make a home for himself."

There is no evidence of that, of course, but once Icey plays the God card, the very dense Willa gives her hand in marriage to Harry, thereby sending her children forth into the Dark Forest with a voracious, relentless -- and occasionally buffoonish -- beast sniffing out their trail like the Hound of Hell.

Much of the remainder of the film takes place as John and Pearl light out on the river in search of a safe haven, and here again it toys with our sensibility and, as far as I know, breaks new ground. Laughton and cinematographer Stanley Cortez combine breathtaking photography with soothing music as we watch completely vulnerable children in flight from a man who would happily torture and murder them. The most scholarly way I can put this is that such incongruity messes with our brain and heart. 

We want to gaze at and savor the moon-dappled river and the little things on the skiff and the foregrounded bunny on the shore, and we want our hearts to be soothed by little Pearl's soft song, while at the same time we're seeing small human beings at the mercy of nature, in a dark and seemingly hostile world.
Pearl and John all, all alone
By now, perhaps we've forgotten all about the woman who spoke from the heavens about wolves in sheep's clothing and such. Well, the kids eventually wash up on her shore, so to speak, and she suffers them to come unto her. A true embodiment of charity and compassion, she (her name is Mrs. Cooper) provides a stark contrast to the numb-skulled hypocrites and doofuses back in the town.

When the two refugees show up at her place, she already has a house full of them, but she recognizes the little Harpers as "the least of these my children," and welcomes them to their new home.

The film's climactic scene is a beauty. When Harry's ominous shadow first covers the wall of the kid's bedroom, he is singing the old hymn "Everlasting Arms." We hear him sing it again when he's on their trail. When he arrives at Mrs. Cooper's place, he sings it again.

Then in what surely won an Oscar in 1955 for Most Incongruous Images and Sounds Juxtaposed in a Single Scene, this fearless, wise, loving mother sings it with him, and we're back to the opening. Watch this:

Like so much else in the film, this grinds the gears of my small(ish) brain. The good shepherdess (armed, as you saw) watching over her flock, harmonizes with the fox in the hen house. For Harry, the song is just more of his malarkey-filled pitch to the unsuspecting masses; for Mrs. Cooper, it's true -- but now it's one song, the voices blending. But even in this scene, regardless of her vigilance, it's clear she can't save them all: While Mrs. Cooper keeps Harry at bay, an owl makes dinner out of a bunny.

As she says later, it is, indeed, "a hard world for little things."

In closing, here is a brief look at some other eye-catching or quirky or thought-provoking scenes that helped turn Laughton's work into a classic: 

Harry listening to God
Early in the film after asking the Lord who he should kill next ("Your book is full of killin,'" Harry reminds him), Harry stops for a striptease performance, knowing already that God hates "perfume-smelling things, lacy things"; he initially has a look of pure disgust at what this filthy woman is doing, but suddenly her dancing causes his switchblade to go off in his coat pocket, ripping its way out, giving us all uncomfortable Freudian flashbacks. Then his expression softens noticeably and he begins a new chat with The Creator of the Universe.

[Spoiler alert] The film's style swings back and forth from realism to expressionism. The latter is in full force in a scene which takes place in Harry and Willa's bedroom. Light and shadow have transformed the room into a chapel, while Willa, the blissful stupid martyr, awaits her fate with all the serenity and acceptance of Desdemona. Harry stands bathed in light next to a window appearing to be receiving more instructions from God.

Bedroom or chapel?

Once he has them, with his trusty switchblade in hand, he moves toward Willa, and the rest of the scene, stylized and mannered, could easily be a dance, a setting for a portrait, or a theatrical blocking rehearsal.

[Another spoiler] Shortly after this scene, we find how Harry disposes of Willa. With her hair floating out behind her like tall grass in flood water, her foolishness is gone (she's certainly no longer shallow) and she is eerily beautiful in her final convertible ride.

Combine this image with music director Walter Schumann's mellow, dreamy score, giving way to Harry crooning "Everlasting Arms" just before the cut, and the result borders on black humor. It's hard not to laugh in the face of horror, and that's not right. 

Willa's last ride
Finally, I can't help sharing Icey Spoon's take on marriage and sex. Remember: You're hearing this in 1955. While she's trying to hook up Willa with Harry, Icey dismisses Willa's first marriage to the handsome Ben (Peter Graves) as "shilly-shally." 

"That wasn't love," she says, "that was just flapdoodle. When you've been married for 40 years, you know all of that don't amount to a hill of beans. I've been married to my Walt that long and I swear in all that time I just lie there thinkin' about my canning." I can't believe they got away with that line, and I'm not going to comment on it.

As I've written this piece, I've watched and re-watched Night of the Hunter until my eyes have grown bleary, and I love it more with every viewing. Consequently, I have discovered a succinct definition of a classic movie: "unoverwatchable."

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