Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Dark Side of Mother Goose

The premise of "THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER" is deceptively simple - a maniac chases two children across the countryside in pursuit of stolen money. A moralistic play on the axiom of money is the root of all evil. Yet in Charles Laughton's hands it becomes something totally different.

Readers might not know this film by title, but you have probably seen a picture of Robert Mitchum with the words "Love" and "Hate" tattooed on his hands. Mitchum plays Harry Powell, a murdering psycho in the guise of a minister who roams the land preying on the innocent and gullible citizens of rural communities. He is thrown in prison for stealing a car, but as is illustrated in the opening scenes this is the least of his crimes.  In prison his cell mate who is sentenced to die tells him about a stash of stolen loot he had hidden on his property before he was arrested.                                    Harry is released from prison and journeys to the executed mans home with the intention of finding the money but acting as if to comfort the dead man's widow (Shelly Winters), son, and daughter. She falls under his spell and they marry.       
It is important to note that her son sees him for the fraud he is from the start. The widow is ignorant of the stolen loot, but her children know the hiding place because their father had put it into the girls doll before he was arrested. Eventually, the mother catches on to the real reason of the preachers affections and threatens to tell the authorities. Of course he can't let this happen so he murders her. He then turns his attention to the children. They escape and head downriver on a boat, Harry Powell in pursuit. 

Meanwhile, the preacher arrives at the town near the farm, and finds out the children are staying there. He tries to sweet talk the old women to give him back his children. She sees him for what he is and runs him off with a shotgun. Through the night he lurks on the fringe of her property, singing the hymns that punctuate the dread that he wears like an aura. Deep in the night the singing stops and he tries to break in the house and receives a load of bird shot for his troubles. One of the orphans runs to get the sheriff, and Harry Powell, hiding in the barn, is taken into custody. The preacher is judged guilty of his crimes and sentenced to be hanged.His last sight before being spirited off to prison is the frenzy of a lynch mob who want instant justice. The children have found solace with the old women. The Angels have dispatched the devil. All is right with the world.

What is it about this film that makes it a classic? It was released in the mid-'50s, and was a commercial failure. Audiences couldn't decide if it was a drama, a horror movie, or a really twisted nursery fable. Featured, flopped, forgotten.This was the first film that Charles Laughton directed and it would be his last. That is most unfortunate. It's tantalizing to speculate what other films he would have made if he hadn't been burned by the critics and the public. Years later it was resurrected and shown at art house theaters and classic cinema revivals and gained a new audience. When you view it you can see why. The use of tone, shadows, and light is remarkable. This film could only be made in black and white. Throughout the film are separate scenes that in themselves are masterpieces. After Harry Powell murders his new wife, he places her in a car, engages the clutch and the car and body slide into the river. Later on, a fisherman sees the car and body from the surface. The camera lingers over the vision of Winter's body underwater, her hair rippling in the current.

Later when Harry is chasing the children across the country side, they take refuge in a barn for the night.They are in the loft with the upper door open.The moon casts a bright light across their sleeping forms, when the voice of Harry Powell singing a hymn in the distance is heard. They awaken and watch Harry travel slowly across the screen. It is hard to convey the visual beauty and impending terror that this scene illustrates. The moon is used like the background light such as you see in Chinese shadow puppet theater. This was all Laughton's vision, and  he shared that vision with an audience that just didn't get it.

Harry Powell is twisted in so many ways. Impostor, pathological liar, thief, and sexually repressed psychotic murderer. This psychosis is manifested in creative ways. One scene is particularly poignant: Harry sits in a burlesque theatre watching the gyrations of the stripper onstage, muttering about harlots and Jezebels but also getting aroused to where he involuntarily activates the switchblade knife he keeps in his pocket, the blade tearing through the fabric of his trousers as if to suggest an erection. In this case, to further enhance the violence that Harry equates with sex, the phallic symbolism in the form of an opening knife blade. Sheer genius.

Robert Mitchum, who sometimes seems to be sleepwalking in some of his films, pulled out all the stops in his role. Later in his career, he was quoted as saying that he considered his performance in "THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER" as his finest and I would have to agree.
This film was definitely made before it's time. I believe it has finally found it's audience.

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