The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The Night of the Hunter – 1955

Director – Charles Laughton

Starring – Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Peter Graves, Lillian Gish, and Billy Chapin

There are not many other films that carry the respect and weight of expectation to the extent that The Night of the Hunter does.  In most cases this works as a benefit for most other films.  This way the film doesn’t have the possibility of letting you down if it fails to live up to those lofty expectations.  Despite, or perhaps because of this, The Night of the Hunter succeeds where a slightly lesser film, with lesser actors, might fail.

First and foremost, the film is remembered for the iconic performance of Robert Mitchum as the Reverend Harry Powell, a performance that oozes with anger and menace.  Mitchum plays Powell to the woman-hating, selfish, and sadistic nines, enjoying every minute of his own performance (which usually doesn’t work, but here, I’m having just as much fun as he is).  Powell roams the country-side of a beleaguered depression era America killing widows and stealing their money.  Even though he claims to be instructed to do it by God, I’m of the opinion his religious bent is simply his sheep’s clothing and the killing is actually his wolf’s nature.

The plot kicks in when Powell learns of hidden bank-robbery loot stolen by a soon to be executed inmate.  Seeing this as a sign from God to continue his “work”, he devises a plan to pay a visit to the inmate’s family and claim it, no matter the cost.

Powell descends upon the Harper family figuratively, and (visually) literally like a nightmare, wooing the widow, and charming the young daughter.  The inmate’s young boy, John Harper, played adequately by Billy Chapin, is left to stand up to this impending threat by himself with no help from anyone.

Now, this is a basic enough set-up, and if it were to continue to play out this way, it would have turned out to be a basic enough movie.  Good, but not great.  What makes this film truly shine is the fantastic American Gothic visuals provided by the cinematographer, Stanley Cortez, who also worked on Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons”, which, if you’ve read my review of that film, also had stunning visuals.

Each frame in the film could be viewed on its own and considered a piece of art strong enough to contend with any other frame.  The use of silhouettes in this film provides a menacing atmosphere that acting just wouldn’t be able to portray.  Combined with the charismatic performance of Mitchum, the cinematography goes great lengths to illustrate the surreal horror the characters are living.  Set pieces change dramatically from day to night, from home to prison.  Sanctuary to purgatory.  One of the most impacting images in the film, a scene that takes place underwater, could have been accomplished completely through suggestion, and very well could have removed the suspense that the film had worked so hard to build up by that point, but instead served to heighten the impending danger and further tilt our perception about what Powell was capable of.

Another scene that stood out visually (there were MANY), was a scene where the children are hiding in the cellar.  We break through the actual limits of what we could have seen by pushing past the fourth wall.  Powell, standing at the top of the cellar stairs, blocks the escape of the children in the cellar.  The children are all the way down at the other end of the screen from Mitchum, further illustrating the conflict between the characters, and what obstacles there are yet to overcome.

Charles Laughton, the actor famous for his roles in films like Spartacus, Captain Kidd, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, takes the directing reins in this film.  So disappointed by the reaction to the film after it’s release, Laughton afterwards vowed to never direct again.  It’s unfortunate that this turned out to be the case, because despite a few mediocre performances from the children, The Night of the Hunter was a very well constructed piece of art, worthy of its place on this list of 1001 greatest films of all time, and certainly the product of someone with vision and voice.

“Okay we get it, he’s a bad guy. Put down the fucking horns!” (on the musical score). – Ashley

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The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The Magnificent Ambersons

Director – Orson Welles

Starring – Joseph Cotton, Delores Costello, Anne Baxter, and Tim Holt

Often compared as a bastard sibling to the widely praised Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons is the second of Orson Welles’ two picture deal with RKO Pictures.  While he was away filming another feature in Brazil, Ambersons was taken away from Welles by the studio who felt the picture was too slow and somber.  RKO cut roughly 50 minutes of footage from the end, and tacked on a happy ending to appease test audiences who, since it was released after the attack at Pearl Harbor wanted something a bit more cheerful, and with laughs.

Ambersons tells the story of a spoiled little rich kid, George Amberson Minaver, played to cruel, selfish perfection by Tim Holt.  George (apparently based on the somewhat spoiled Orson Welles) is so caught up in himself, and his worries, that he doesn’t allow anyone else in his family the opportunity of their own happiness.  Seeing the affection between his mother, Isabel, and Joseph Cotton’s character Eugene Morgan, as a threat, he firmly plants himself in between the pair willing to go to great lengths to keep them apart.  The families reliance on their seemingly endless wealth threatens to teach them some hard life lessons.  From this brief synopsis, you can see where the story is going, but rest assured you won’t see the abbreviated ending coming.

Despite the new happy ending, The Magnificent Ambersons, as it exists today is incomplete.  The editor, Robert Wise, a director in his own right (The Haunting, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music) was put in charge of cutting the film to its current length.  While salvaging as much as he could of the story, the film still seems to end abruptly, destroying the our investment in the characters as well as the weight and importance of the story.  The cut footage was rumored to have been destroyed to prevent Welles from protesting and producing another cut, all though officially it was to clear space in the studio’s vaults.

Since we will never fully know what this film could have been, it is unfair to say it is as good as Citizen Kane, nor is it fair to put it on the list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, especially since it isn’t commercially available on DVD in the United States (I watched a decent quality AVI file that I happened upon).  That being said, what is present in the version that I saw, was a prime example of why Orson Welles was (and still is if you ask me) such a revered filmmaker.  The ensemble acting is the quality you might expect of the Mercury players, everyone does a great job, not only of playing their parts, but also of supporting their fellow actors in their roles.

A class could be taught on the cinematography of this film alone.  Stanley Cortez replaces Gregg Toland as Welles’ cinematographer of choice, but none of the elegance inherent in Citizen Kane was lost.  Unlike a lot of films from this era, Welles isn’t afraid of using shadow to dramatic and atmospheric effect.  Character’s, especially female characters, in most american films seem to always find that same pocket of light that illuminates them in just such a way.  In Ambersons, not only is there plenty of darkness, but it is nearly a character all its own.  One that each other character interacts with, and plays against (both physically with the shadows in a scene, and metaphorically with their own motivations and intentions).

Another interesting element deserving of mention is the mammoth estate in which the Amberson’s dwell.  The sense of foreboding and expectation carried by the physical structure that houses this indomitable family affects the story as much as any other element in the story.  The cavernous stairway is host to as many romantic kisses as it is to malicious eavesdropping and tense stand-offs.

Finally it is important to point out the resonance this film has had with one of my favorite films of all time, The Royal Tenenbaums.  Similar to The Magnificent Ambersons, Tenenbaums deals with the perceived mythology of a family of spectacular characters, and juxtaposing that ideal against the reality of the dysfunction that is inherent in family.  Similarities range from the small (the titles are similarly grand) to the grand (the main conflict in both films comes about when love and relationships are threatened by jealousy and depression).  Wes Anderson, to his credit, has managed to finish what Orson Welles was never able to.  With The Royal Tenenbaums he manages to bring closure to the wonderful story that has had a false happy ending on it for nearly 60 years.

Is The Magnificent Ambersons great?  No, not as a whole, but what it’s made of, what it was going to be, and what it has inspired, is far more than great!  It’s Magnificent!