"MOVIE MAD" by Michael van den Bos

(c) 2014 by Michael van den Bos

2 Posts from April 2009


THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955 - United Artists) directed by Charles Laughton

The Night of the Hunter is an overlooked masterpiece of the horror genre that features no spooks, no witches, no mutated creatures, no sexy vampires, no grotesque aliens, and no chainsaw wielding loonies.  What it does have is a preacher man as the bogeyman stalking two children in a waking nightmare. This is one the most unusual genre films to come out of Hollywood at the height of its classic age and it still continues to haunt and to be scarily relevant more than 50 years since its original release.

The Night of the Hunter is set in West Virginia along the Ohio River during the 1930s.  Robert Mitchum plays Harry Powell, a bogus preacher and full-tilt psycho who twists the words of the bible in order to justify his praying and preying on credulous women in order to "cleanse" them of their feminine wiles and bilk them out of their money.  While serving time in prison Harry learns from his cellmate, Ben Harper (Peter Graves), that he stole $10,000 cash - resulting in the death of two people - in order to help support his poor family and he hid the money with the only ones he trusts: his two children.  Ben is hung for the murders as Harry completes his sentence and is released from prison. Once free, Harry immediately locates the dead man's home and eventually woos the Ben's gullible widow, Willa, (Shelley Winters).  Willa's daughter, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), takes an immediate liking to Harry, but Pearl's brother, John (Billy Chapin), sees through the spurious preacher's façade.  Harry ingratiates himself into the community as a man-of-God and marries Willa, all the while trying to manipulate the children into revealing the whereabouts of the $10,000.                                                                   

John, protecting his little sister, thwarts his step-father's many attempts to locate the stolen money which mounts Harry's anger and leads to a murder.  The children escape with the $10,000 and the maniac Harry is in hellfire pursuit.  The first half of the movie proceeds as a thriller, but it is the story's second half where the drama unfolds into moments of a dream-state and successfully enters the realm of horror.  On the start of their run, the children barely elude Harry by jumping into a skiff and sailing down a river.  On horse, Harry tracks the children, never letting up.  He's like a precursor to Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator.  Eventually John and Pearl find refuge with Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), a kind, elderly and genuinely religious woman who is caring for a small brood of orphans.  Harry discovers the location of the children but he is stubbornly blocked by a very resilient Rachel. The final act of the film is a true battle of good versus evil in a remarkably succinct and intense confrontation between the rifle-toting Lillian Gish and the vitriolic gospel spewing Robert Mitchum.

The Night of the Hunter is pure melodrama elevated to, dare I say, an art-horror film because of its heightened style in all departments; from the very daring script, to the haunting black & white visuals, to the impassioned performances of the lead actors.

Screenwriter James Agee was a Pulitzer Prize winning author and one of America's finest and most intelligent film critics during the 1940s early 1950s.  Aside from The Night of the Hunter, Agee wrote only two other screenplays, most notably the John Huston film, The African Queen (1951), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award.  For The Night of the Hunter, Agee refashions an ancient allegory - the war between the sacred and the profane - into a completely thrilling story visualized on screen as a stylish horror film.  It is also, perhaps, cinema's first astute and artistic exploration of children in peril from a real-life monster, an adult predator; an atrocity all too prevalent in today's society.

The prologue to the film sets up the uncompromising diametrical tone of the movie: Lillian Gish's image and the faces of her orphans are set against a starry sky.  She reads aloud to the children from Matthew 7:15 in the Holy Bible; "Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly, they are ravening wolves.  Ye shall know them by their fruits."  This is followed by a scene in a burlesque house where Harry sits in the audience watching a striptease act.  As he gazes upon the stripper with excitement and menace, his hand enters his coat pocket that is laying on his lap; in a flash a switchblade tears through the fabric.  This violently phallic image is repeated later in the film; Harry's switchblade reveals itself in an upward thrust at moments of sexual arousal, representing his immediate lust and his violent contempt for women.  Yes, it is an obvious symbol of brutal misogyny, however it still packs a visceral wallop, and if that image can elicit shock today then it must have been horrifying to audiences in 1955!

The children as representations of good, or purity, (though John is the least naive of all the film's characters until Rachel Cooper enters the picture) is certainly a cliché archetype, however the symbolism works here with forceful intent because the children become the subjective focus; the audience identifies with the plight of the children and the dynamic drive of the plot intensifies our need to want these "lambs" to out-fox the "wolf in sheep's clothing" and bring about his demise.  In many ways The Night of the Hunter is a re-imagining of two classic children's stories:  John and Pearl are "Hansel and Gretel" and Harry Powell is the "Big Bad Wolf" from Little Red Riding Hood.

The overriding visual aesthetic that pushes The Night of the Hunter into the horror genre is the intense chiaroscuro and distorted desgin that evokes the classic Universal horror movies from the 1930s and German Expressionist cinema (from where the look of the classic horror films and eventually Film Noir emerged) of the 1920s.  One example of Expressionism in The Night of the Hunter is the final bedroom scene between Willa, the children's mother, and Harry.  Overcome by her new religious zeal, Willa lays in her bed like a corpse in a coffin, arms folded across her chest, staring blankly at the ceiling.  She calmly reveals to Harry that she knows about the stolen money and Harry's desire to find it, but she believes these events occurred because the lord wanted Harry to marry her for the "...salvation of my soul".  From reaching one hand heavenwards, Harry slowly retrieves his switchblade, deploys the knife, and, with great care, he approaches Willa, slowly lowering the blade towards her throat.  Fade out.  This at once an eerie and beautiful scene, mostly photographed in long shot with the set design and the light creating razor-sharp angles.  The room looks like a miniature cathedral, or a sacrificial alter, and the acute shadows suggests the slashing of the knife.  The visual design of this scene is reminiscent of the first German Expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Other scenes in The Night of the Hunter evoke the German Expressionist horror film, Nosferatu (1922), and Universal's Frankenstein (1931).

Examples of German Expressionist and Universal Horror film design that influenced the look of "The Night of the Hunter":

[above] "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari " (1920), directed by Robert Wiene

[above] "Nosferatu" (1922), directed by F.W. Murnau

[above] "Frankenstein" (1931) Universal Pictures, directed by James Whale

The most dream-like sequence in The Night of the Hunter is the children's river escape.  The stylization of the production design, the lighting and the camera angles suggest a fairy-tale world; an Alice in Wonderland journey.  Each shot of the children peacefully sailing down the river is composed to emphasize heightened images of nature: an oversized cobweb, a frog, a turtle, rabbits, and the full moon.  The trance-like feeling of this scene is augmented by Pearl singing an ethereal children's song.  There is an enchanting, other-worldly feeling to this sequence that resonates in tune with the early classic Walt Disney animated features.  In fact, The Night of the Hunter is not only steeped in the horror genre, and Grimm's Fairy Tales, it is awash with the best of Disney's darker moments, like Snow White's flight through the forest (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - 1937) and the nightmare sequences from Pinocchio (1940).  The cinematographer of The Night of the Hunter was Stanley Cortez who shot several superbly atmospheric black & white films, including: the Universal horror picture, The Black Cat (1941); Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons (1942); and producer David O. Selznick's sentimental World War II home-front epic, Since You Went Away (1944).

The characters Robert Mitchum often played were loners, cool-talking tough guys or societal outcasts.  He possessed a quiet, earthy sexuality and a simmering sense of danger.  Mitchum's sleepy eyes and insouciant demeanour projected a world-weary, I-just-don't-give-a-damn personality that was appealing to women and men.  He could also play psychotic characters with a fearsome intensity.  His Max Cady from the original Cape Fear (1962) and Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter (an iconic image: the fist side of Harry's fingers are tattooed with the words "Love" on one hand and "Hate" on the other) are truly terrifying characters played with a bravado and assurance that is riveting. 

Mitchum audaciously pushes the envelope of hamminess, yet he never crosses into parody (unlike the film's director, Charles Laughton, who gave a few overly ripe performances during his acting career).  Mitchum's psycho portrayals are big and bold, but never so over-the-top that they don't mesh with the tone of the respective films.  (Actor Daniel Day-Lewis's outrageous performance in There Will Be Blood (2007) owes much to Mitchum's Harry Powell characterization, though some people may argue that Lewis's character was just plain caricature) 

Lillian Gish was arguably the premiere female actress of the silent film era, her greatest roles in films directed by the legendary D.W. Griffith (Birth of a Nation - 1915, Broken Blossoms - 1919, et al).  When the silent film era ended, Gish continued into the sound era with a solid acting career well into the 1980s.  Her role as written in The Night of the Hunter could have been insufferably "goody-goody" and just plain trite.  However, as Rachel, the "good angel", squaring off with Harry, the "devil incarnate", Gish brings a gravitas to the role, displaying a fine equilibrium of sensitivity, caring, tenacity and vigour.  She ultimately terminates the madness and delivers peace to John and Pearl.

Shelley Winters as the ignorant mother is astonishing.  She plays naiveté, exasperation, and desperation with such fervour and pathos that your heart goes out to her even though you feel like slapping her across the face for being so foolish.  Winters performance in The Night of the Hunter harks back to her sympathetic role in George Steven's A Place in the Sun (1951) - as Montgomery Clift's emotional needy and tragic girlfriend - and looks forward to another delusional and pathetic mother who puts her child in harm's way, the egocentric Charlotte Haze in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (1962).  Shelley Winters was a daring actress not afraid to sink her teeth into unglamorous rolls.

Charles Laughton had never directed a film prior to The Night of the Hunter; however, he did have one of the finest and more colourful acting careers in the 20th Century.  Laughton was a large man playing larger-than-life and eccentric characters: The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) for which he won the Best Actor Academy Award; a fabulously funny turn in Ruggles of Red Gap (1935); the vengeful Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935); the title role in I, Claudius (1937); Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939); the drunkard of Hobson's Choice (1954); and the curmudgeonly prosecutor in Witness for the Prosecution (1957) -  among so many juicy (for better or worse) performances.

Robert Mitchum and Charles Laughton

Charles Laughton's directorial debut displays a confidence and a creative eye that is rare in a first film.  This professional and artistic degree of cinematic craft was the outcome of acting in the movies for nearly 30 years and working with some of cinema's very best directors; from the results of The Night of the Hunter, Laughton learned his filmmaking lessons well.

Charles Laughton's hands-on directing of Robert Mitchum

Unfortunately, The Night of the Hunter was received poorly by the public and the critics and this is probably why Charles Laughton never directed another movie.  What a shame.  The mind tantalizes over what kinds of films he would have made as a follow up. 

In 1992, The Night of the Hunter was selected by the United States Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Film Registry, deeming it "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". Notwithstanding this worthy honour, Laughton's picture tends to be forgotten in discussions of the great films, such as Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game, Vertigo, Seven Samurai, and 8 1/2.  Though it may not always be ranked in the same exalted league as those celebrated films, The Night of the Hunter demands to be rediscovered by today's film fans and it deserves a position in the forefront of cinema's great achievements.  Its story is literally as old as the bible, but its unique treatment as art-horror, masterfully and excitingly executed, is just as ingenious and stimulating as the established masterpieces of world cinema.

Trailer for "The Night of the Hunter"

If you live in the Greater Vancouver area, you can rent the DVD of The Night of the Hunter, and the other film titles mentioned in this article, from the greatest video store in Canada, Videomatica - located at 1855 West 4th Avenue (phone: 604-734- 0411) in fabulous Kitsilano.


Maurice Jarre - An Epic Career: 1924 - 2009

Academy Award winning film composer Maurice Jarre died at the age of 84 on 29 March 2009.  The French-born composer created the scores for over 150 films and television shows, working with such notable film directors as John Frankenheimer, John Huston, Alfred Hitchcock, Elia Kazan, Clint Eastwood and Peter Weir.

Maurice Jarre's greatest cinematic collaborator was English director David Lean, for whom Jarre composed two of the most memorable scores in movie history: Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965).

Lawrence of Arabia's two originally considered composers, the Russian Aram Khachaturian, and the Englishman Benjamin Britten, dropped out of the movie early in post-production as they thought the film would be nothing more than a glorified travelogue. Producer Sam Spiegel then lined up the great American composer Richard Rogers, famous for his Broadway musical scores of Oklahoma!, South Pacific and The Sound of Music, to work on the Lawrence score.  When Lean heard Rogers "love theme" for Lawrence, a movie with no love story, he knew Rogers was not his man.

Finally, Sam Spiegel brought the 35-year-old Maurice Jarre to the attention of David Lean.  Upon hearing Jarre play his idea of the Lawrence theme on a piano, Lean got excited and told the composer he had captured the musical feeling for the story and that he had the job to score the entire picture.

[The 1962 original theatrical trailer for Lawrence of Arabia]

Lawrence of Arabia is loosely based on the real-life adventures of British army officer T.E. Lawrence as he unites warring Arab factions to fight against the ruling Turkish Empire during World War I.  David Lean's film is an extraordinary motion picture experience that is at once visualized with immense dynamism (shot in the 65mm - Super Panavision 70 process) without losing the story's humanity; the breadth of the imagery is in powerful juxtaposition to Lawrence's deeply conflicted notions of leadership and idolatry.  Maurice Jarre's score is properly stirring, but it is much more than mere underscore and mood enhancer.  The score is a sweeping evocation of not only the exciting enterprise that Lawrence leads, but it also melodiously expresses the emotional sandstorms in "the mighty warrior's" soul as he transcends from leader, to hero, and then struggles with a Messiah complex. 

Jarre's theme for Lawrence is arranged and orchestrated to be rousing, humourous, melancholy, dark and, occasionally, something akin to spiritual: all facets of T.E. Lawrence's being.   

[Maurice Jarre conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on the main theme of Lawrence of Arabia]

In many of Jarre's film scores he would masterfully combine intense percussive cues with lilting, symphonic leitmotifs.  (In later years, Jarre successfully experimented  with electronic synthesizer scores for films such as Peter Weir's The Year of Living Dangerously from 1982.)  Lawrence's lush and haunting suites are counterpointed by aggressive percussions that typify the brutality of the battle scenes and evince the savagery Lawrence will foist upon the enemy.  The dual nature of the Jarre score to declare the polarity of good and evil in man is reminiscent of the brilliant Bernard Herrmann's scores for Hitchcock's Vertigo and Scorsese's Taxi Driver.

David Lean's 1965 romantic Russian epic, Doctor Zhivago, (based on the Boris Pasternak novel), contains one of Maurice Jarre's most beloved - and too often cloyingly covered - compositions, "Lara's Theme".  Like his score for Lawrence of Arabia, Jarre's themes and orchestrations for Doctor Zhivago is attuned to the profound feelings and sentiments of the titular character, who is also a poet, as played touchingly by Omar Sharif.  This sweeping story about Yuri Zhivago's fathomless love for Lara, played with resolute strength by the stupendously beautiful Julie Christie, is set against the great social and political upheaval of the Russian Revolution. 

David Lean instructed Jarre that he did not want Russian music to dictate the style of music, but a symphonic composition that would universally evoke romantic emotions.  Jarre struggled with various attempts at the theme; all were rejected by the director.  Lean told Jarre to think of the feelings he experiences when he is with his girlfriend while spending time with her in the mountains.  After a weekend doing just what Lean suggested, Jarre came back with what would be "Lara's Theme", much to the pleasure and approval of his director.

Though Jarre was not writing a "Russian" score, he did want to incorporate a Russian sound.  This drew him to exploring the use of Russia's indigenous string instrument, the balalaika.  Jarre was to record the Doctor Zhviago score with the MGM Orchestra, but they had no balalaika players on staff.  Jarre was told of a Russian Orthodox church in Hollywood that could help him.  The church was able to round-up 22 balalaika players (they could not read music, so Jarre had to aurally teach each musician the 16 bars of the theme) to augment the mighty MGM Orchestra producing a rich, emotional symphony embraced by a warm, traditional Russian resonance.

[The 1965 original theatrical trailer for Doctor Zhivago]

Doctor Zhviago garnered mixed reviews from the critics, but the film was a massive hit at the box-office, the soundtrack album sold in the millions, the royalties from "Lara's Theme" made Jarre rich, and the composer won his second Academy Award from a David Lean picture.

Maurice Jarre's career consists of hundreds of other film scores that include The Longest Day, The Collector, Topaz, The Man Who Would Be King, Witness, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Fatal Attraction, Dead Poets Society and Ghost.  Jarre worked twice more with David Lean, composing the scores for Ryan's Daughter (1970) and A Passage to India (1984), the director's final film.  But the impassioned music for Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago - married to the indelible images and storytelling savvy of David Lean - was, is, and always will be the scores that will continue to inspire future film composers and emotionally move audiences for generations to come.

Be sure to watch Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago on the biggest screen you can find and make sure you watch it from a Widescreen/Letterbox DVD - never a "Full Screen" DVD which is Pan & Scan, meaning you will not see 40% to 50% of the original image.

If you live in the Vancouver area, you can rent Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago from the greatest video store in Canada, Videomatica - located at 1855 West 4th Avenue (phone: 604-734- 0411) in fabulous Kitsilano.