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

Advertisements

…there’s more…

So it’s time again for a batch of the movies that I HAVE seen.  We are starting to get more into the time frames from which I’m more familiar with, although there are still a ton of movies from this roughly ten year span that I haven’t seen.  Either way I have some work ahead of me, so without further ado…

The Stranger (1946)

This was one my more recent Orson Welles views.  As one of his less talked about films, I didn’t know whether it was something that I should expect to really enjoy like The Third Man, or Mr. Arkadin, or if it was more of a “I was young and needed money” type of movie.  I was pleasantly suprised to find that it was the former rather than the latter.  Welles plays a former member of the Nazi party hiding out in plain sight in small town America.  He is being pursued by the ever vigilant Edward G. Robinson, who isn’t quite sure whether this is the man he is hunting, or if he is simply a small town school teacher.  The Stranger is a fantastically underrated film, Welles as a director, and both Welles and Robinson as actors are top of their game!

“The Stranger asks the age old question: What’s worse,  accidentally marrying a Nazi, or purposely grooming your eyebrows to look like semi-circles?” – Ashley

La Belle Et La Bete AKA Beauty and the Beast (1946)

Of the two versions of this film and one version in Television format (that I’ve seen anyway), I much prefer this black and white, french one from the mid 40s.  The magical whimsy that Cocteau naturally imbues this film with, through the special effects costumes, and the poetic nature of the story, far surpasses the Disneyfied and televised versions.  Jean Marais seems natural, alien, and feral all at the same time, as the beast.

The Big Sleep (1946)

Fantastic for so many reasons, not the least of which that this story serves as the inspiration for as well as the loose structure of The Big Lebowski, one of my favorite movies of all time.  Bogart and Bacall are never better together than they were in this, each at the top of their games, and each with their roles fitting like gloves.

“Wait…now who’s that guy again?” – Ashley

The Killers (1946)

I have to admit, I like the second version of The Killers, directed by Don Siegel of Dirty Harry fame, better than this 1946 version by Robert Siodmak.  Despite liking source material, Siodmak, the actors Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner, there is just something about seeing Ronald Reagan and John Cassavettes playing opposite each other (Reagan in the villan role) that captured my attention and cheered me up.

“Ava Gardner, you so pretty!” – Ashley

Great Expectations (1946)

The rare, short David Lean film, Great Expectations was suprisingly to me, not as daunting as it could have been.  Great performances by Alec Guinness as Herbert Pocket, and Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham.

Notorious (1946)

I like this movie, although I do not necessarily love it as I feel I’m supposed to.  Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman are great actors, but I feel that too much is made of this film.  Worth the watch, but ultimately films like Casablanca, Charade, and Rear Window are much much better.

“B.I.G!” – Ashley

Out of the Past (1947)

This is a fantastic film noir starring Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas, about the owner of a small town gas station, whose mysterious past catches up with him when a big time criminal boss lures him into a world of crime.  Awesome cast!  Kirk Douglas makes a great villain.

Ladri Di Biciclette AKA The Bicycle Thief (1948)

It has been such a long time since I’ve seen this movie, and since that time I’ve seen so much more in the way of foreign and art films.  And while I thought some of those films were strictly better, The Bicycle Theif still remains a benchmark against which I weigh other movies.  This film more than any other introduced me to and maintained my interest in Italian Neo Realist film.  From here I moved through the years to Fellini, Pontecorvo, Germi, Bertolucci, Pasolini, and of course Antonioni.  Still, The Bicycle Theif remains in my head, as clear as when I first saw it.

“Italian Neo-Realism…boooooring!” – Ashley

Rope (1948)

Not one of his best films, but certainly, Rope stands as an interesting experiment.  Comprised of 5 or 6 different long camera takes, Rope is effectively a filmed stage play.  The transitions inbetween scenes are fairly clever as they are meant to be invisible, making it seem as if it were filmed entirely in one take.  The action, suspense, and plot twists depend entirely upon the acting, as the camera cannot do any elaborate or special movements.  The plot centers around some young men who, as an experiment to see if they can get away with it, have murdered their fellow classmate.  As a means of proving how perfectly constructed this crime is, they host a dinner party while the body of the victim is still in the room.  It is up to Jimmy Stewart, a guest at the party, to reconstruct how it happened and expose the two murderers.

The Lady from Shanghai (1948)

Orson Welles.  Murder.  A beguiling lady.  With those ingredients you have  the recipe for an awesome movie.  To tell you facts about the plot, would almost give away too much.  Needless to say, check it out, it’s awesome.

The Red Shoes (1948)

This tragic fairytale utilizes saturated comicbook-esque color to highlight the passions in the life of the young ballerina, Victoria Page.  The color red, specifically, stands out as a sort of totem color standing for passion, drive, and even obsession.  While beautiful to look at, the story is not as engaging as some others of this era, the film’s main plot is mostly love story and for a self professed action buff, I felt it was lacking something.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

All you need to know about this movie:  AWESOME FUCKING MOVIE!  SEE THE SHIT OUT OF IT!!!!

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Alec Guinness is a master of disguise in this dark comedy about inheritance, and family relations.  It is a good film, a real good film actually, but I didn’t think it needed any further hype than that.  It certainly gave was the grandfather to a lot of grade B or lower films that have come out of Hollywood, Eddie Murphy pretty much has copied the premise of Kind Hearts and Coronets in all of his more recent flicks from the Nutty Professor to the present (and by this I don’t mean the failed humor, I mean the fact that Alec Guinness plays so many different characters.)

The Third Man (1949)

An absolute classic!  Orson Welles plays Harry Lime to the nines, pairling each of his moments onscreen with his dialogue, utilizing each to the fullest.  Joseph Cotten plays Lime’s jilted best friend, hunting for the elusive truth about his pal.  He is torn between his attraction to Lime’s girl, and the loyalty he feels toward his friend.  Pitch perfect in every way, right down to the bombed out rubble of the post-war Vienna setting (The film was actually in and around post-war Vienna).

Orphee AKA Orpheus (1949)

Just like “La Belle et la Bete”, another film by Jean Cocteau, Orpheus is a beautiful piece of lyrical, visual poetry.  It is filled with similar themes of death, life, love, mirror images, and redemption.  Highly visual, and despite being fairly sussinct for all of it’s ambition, it accomplishes it’s goal.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

A film noir through and through, from the “one last heist” type plot down through the starkly bleak urban setting.

Rashomon (1950)

The film that introduced the rest of the world to Akira Kurosawa, and Toshiro Mifune (Through the Venice film festival).  That alone warrants it’s inclusion on this or any other list of influential films, but Rashomon has so much else going for it.  It is the story of an assault, and murder, told after the fact from each of the points of view of the parties involved, the witness, the bandit, the wife, and even the victim.  Completely blew me away when I first saw it!

“If you don’t like this movie, I’ll punch you in the face.” – Ashley

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Quite possibly the best film noir movie out there.  An ingenious story toying utilizing elements of Hollywood’s past (Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Buster Keaton, and Cecil B. DeMille, all play integral parts in the story, some, like DeMille and Keaton, play themselves), and it’s future combining them together artfully and cohesively.  Billy Wilder’s fascination with cynicism finds a comfortable home in this tale of stars who are not ready to be forgotten.

“Don’t move to Hollywood.” – Ashley

Strangers on a Train (1951)

Hitchcock’s story about a chance meeting on a train that ends in murder.  One of his more atmospheric films, Strangers on a Train is a potboiler right down until the end, despite the stakes being revealed from the onset.

“Murder-swap!” – Ashley

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

Yet another Alec Guinness film that serves to highlight his subtle yet potent presence.  Here, as a seemingly mild mannered bank clerk, he masterminds a heist to smuggle a shipment of gold out of the country.  Filled with spot-on comedic moments and timing, this movie along with the original version of the Ladykillers is tied as my favorite Alec Guinness film (not including the original Star Wars Trilogy).

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

A hallmark of science fiction, The Day the Earth Stood Still, seems a little dated and the premise is a little thin.  I enjoyed watching it, but I have to say for a genre of movies that depends highly on the visuals and special effects, it didn’t have the affect on me that it would have if I’d grown up with it.  That being said, it is still a fun story, and is certainly responsible for inspiring a huge number of films and directors that are inspiring me today.  Klaatu…barada…nikto.

Ikiru AKA To Live (1952)

This film asks the question, “Can one person make a difference?”, and answers with a resounding yes!  After years upon years as his bureaucratic, mundane job accomplishing nothing, Kanji Watanabe learns he has cancer and strives to do something worthwhile with the rest of his life.  Something that will make a difference to someone.  This is one of Kurosawa’s best films, illustrating the perils and dilemmas of the everyday person and demonstrating each person’s responsibility for their legacy.  Warm, humanistic, and bold, this film should be required viewing for everyone.

Le Salaire De La Peur AKA Wages of Fear (1953)

An excellent adventure film, the Wages of Fear strives to break out and be more than the definition of it’s genre.  The good news is that it succeeds.  Utilizing tension and pacing, Henri George Clouzot, keeps the audience on the edge of their seats as our (anti)heros accend the trecherous mountain pass in trucks carrying nitroglycerine, in order to stop a fire at an oilwell.  The people sent on this mission are completely disposible, each doing it for the high pay that comes with the completion of this dangerous job.  Re-made as Wizards, a film by William Friedkin, and starring Roy Schieder, The Wages of Fear stands out as one of the best action movies that I’ve ever seen.

On the Waterfront (1954)

Mired in controversy due to Director, Elia Kazan’s anti-communist and anti-union sentiments, (Kazan named names during the blacklisting period of the fifties in Hollywood) the good qualities of the film can sometimes be overshadowed.   Marlon Brando, and Rod Stiger turn in Oscar worthy performances, deserving recognition outside of this argument.  The film itself still stands as an alegory to the cancerous nature of communism and the power of the individual worker against the greedy union and mob influences.  Not as powerful a film as it is often hyped up to be, but certainly important to the history of Hollywood, and definitely worth a watch.

“Method = No enunciation. ” – Ashley

Rear Window (1954)

One of the best films ever made, and certainly Hitchcock’s best film, Rear Window does so much with so little.  It serves as a meditation on the voyeuristic nature of movies, and in society, all the while telling a cracking good yarn.  Hitchcock combines visual and storytelling elements of Jacques Tati, Orson Welles, and Billy Wilder, while adding in his own gift for mystery and suspense.  This is the best of all worlds, a nearly perfect film.  Not to mention it has the beautiful Grace Kelly in it too!

“Your creepy neighbor may save your life.” – Ashley

Well, that’s it for now.  Hopefully you’ve enjoyed another installment of the short but sweet reviews of these films that I’ve already seen.