Saturday, June 25, 2011

Signal Watch Watches: Night of the Hunter

This isn't exactly a review, but:  for quite a while I've meant to watch the Charles Laughton directed Night of the Hunter.  

The movie simply looks different from a lot of other movies of the day, with shots framed with a still-photographer's eye, unusual use of angles, overly stylized dialogue, and a general feeling of a stage play to the proceedings.  None of that is a criticism.  Quite the opposite.

don't mind me, I'm just here for a small bit a crazy
Robert Mitchum (Mitchum!) plays a psycho who isn't so much posing as a man-of-the-cloth as he is a deranged lunatic using his own made-up deal with God to cut a path across the Mid-West preaching by day and marrying widows (and murdering them) by night, then moving on to the next town.

While its filmed in the 1950's, the movie clearly takes place during the Depression.  Peter "Mission Impossible" Graves has a small role as the father of two children and the husband of Shelley Winters.  He steals $10,000 from a bank and kills two men in the process, but his intention was to get enough money to feed his community.

In jail, Ben Harper (Graves) is bunked with Powell (Mitchum) who is in on a stolen car rap.  When Harper is executed and Powell is released, Powell heads to find Harper's family and the $10,000 that was never recovered, knowing Harper's widow (Shelley Winters) and her children are left behind.

Shelley Winters is wooed by Mitchum

Mitchum is amazingly effective in the over-blown role of Harry Powell, a handsome minister with "LOVE" and "HATE" tattooed on his fingers.  And the movie has quite a bit to say about keeping one eye open with those we're trained to trust, and the wolf in sheep's clothing, and blindly following the expectations of those we look up to.  But it also doesn't cynically attack the idea that there is goodness, and it doesn't shy away from a childrens' storybook feel as the plot turns to children evading capture and finding a safe-haven.

Mitchum explains how he's a-gonna kill himself a widow
While I think we're all generally familiar with the name of the movie, I'm a bit surprised that the movie doesn't get more play.  But, after having sat through a tittering audience at the Paramount this week during Fahrenheit 451, I guess I'm also aware that modern audiences (and likely audiences of 1955) might have been a bit thrown-off by the oddities of the movie, and its not too hard to imagine crowds doing that same giggling at the stagey-ness of the movie without really processing what Laughton was trying to do (or just rolling with it if they didn't care for it), and that's create a fairy-tale world of fools, romantics, wolves, bravery and innocents and the strange gray haze between good and evil. 

Anyhow, I obviously liked it.


Fantomenos said...

I've probably mentioned this before, but have you read "Baby, I Don't Care", the Mitchum bio by Lee Server?

I think you'd really dig it. He also wrote a bio of Ava Gardner. They're both good, and if you're like me, make you think that you'd be better off wearing fedora's, smoking anywhere you want, eating steaks, y'know, all the Mad Men stuff.

The League said...

You did, and I failed to add it to my Amazon cart. I remember the Austin Library didn't have it, though. I will add it to the cart now. Everything I read about Mitchum just sounds... Mitchumy.

And, yeah, I think I would have been fine in mid-20th Century America eating steaks, wearing hats and whatnot. Alas, it may be what we swapped for technology and medicine.

Gerry said...

Love this movie and have been meaning to rewatch it for a while. Martin Scorsese loves this movie so much he incorporated elements of it into his Cape Fear remake.