The Night of the Hunter (1955)

2013 #91
Charles Laughton | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 1.66:1 | USA / English | 12

The [box office] failure of The Night of the Hunter was not, forty-five years ago, much remarked upon: it was a modestly budgeted picture, a little thing in Hollywood terms. But it has drifted slowly, steadily down the river of the years between then and now, and the long flow of time has brought it to a better place, where critics and filmmakers and moviegoers honor it

The Night of the HunterBox office gross is one of the methods most often used to summarise a film’s success and standing, and yet it’s one of the most useless markers of quality — and quotes like the above, from Terrence Rafferty in his article “Holy Terror” for Criterion’s Blu-ray release of Night of the Hunter (and available online here), prove why. This is an exceptional film, by turns beautiful, funny, and not merely scary, but terrifying. If Hollywood movies can be art — and I think we know they can — then this is surely a foremost example.

Based on the 1953 Southern Gothic novel by Davis Grubb, The Night of the Hunter sees convict Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) attempt to find the hidden robbery haul of his former cellmate, by inveigling his way into the man’s family posing as a preacher. While the mother (Shelley Winters) falls for the lies, her young son John (Billy Chapin) is more suspicious, and tries to protect himself and his little sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), while keeping the money hidden.

The story is largely told from John’s perspective. It’s a big tale to put on small shoulders, full of complex emotions and sometimes difficult themes (per Rafferty, “those venerable American subjects: fear, sex, money, and religion”), but Chapin bears it well. I guess this is one of the reasons why groups including the BFI recommend it as a must-see for kids. Although it’s dark and grim, it rarely wavers from the John’s point of view — it’s an induction into the harshness of the adult world for the two young siblings; a harshness the sweet, innocent community they come from does nothing to prepare them for.

Perceiving a knifeIn another piece in Criterion’s booklet, “Downriver and Heavenward with James Agee” (online here), Michael Sragow reckons the film is a “meshing of adult sensibilities with childhood perceptions”. I couldn’t have put it better myself (hence the quote). John is also the only one to see the truth of Powell — as, of course, do we — which completely ties in to how it can feel to be both a child and an older sibling: adults are dumb and don’t see the truth that children do; and younger siblings need protecting because they can be easily persuaded to the adults’ side (as Pearl almost is). Although it’s a tough film in many ways, this depiction of childhood, and at least one aspect, the loss of innocence that comes when you realise the world isn’t all fluffy and safe, is well captured.

Don’t think it’s too kid-friendly, though. Rafferty asserts that it’s “among the greatest horror movies ever made”, while Sragow thinks it’s the “intimate observations of the children’s psychology” we just discussed that “make the suspense almost unbearable.” Without once resorting to blatant horror techniques, the film builds a quiet and implacable sense of fear. The overall effect is one less of terror and more dread. It’s best described as chilling, which is so much scarier than the occasional jump.

Love-hate relationshipAnd yet, as Rafferty explains, “the most radical aspect of The Night of the Hunter… is its sense of humor. More conventional horror movies overdo the solemnity of evil. The monster in The Night of the Hunter is so bad he’s funny. Laughton and Mitchum treat evil with the indignity it deserves.” I wouldn’t say that humour is one of the film’s defining characteristics, to be honest, but it does undercut its villain. He’s not some unstoppable supernatural creature, but a man who can trip over while chasing you up the stairs, and so on. In some respects it’s this very ordinariness that makes him so scary: however much they creep you out during the film itself, you know there’s no such thing as vampires or werewolves or ghosts. There are Powells in the world, though; an everyday evil that you might not see coming, but can still get you. Brr.

It’s also stunningly shot — not just beautiful, but routinely incredible. It has imagery that instantly sears itself on your brain, with gorgeous lighting and perfect composition. Whatever else the film has to offer (and that’s a lot), it’s exceptional just to look at. That it’s the sole directorial effort from Charles Laughton may be a crying shame, because on this evidence — not just the pictures, of course, but the entire picture — we’ve missed out.

A long nightIn my 2013 top-ten, I described The Night of the Hunter as “darker than a long night of the soul”. That’s too good an expression to not repeat, partly because I think it sounds good, and partly because I can’t think of another way to succinctly summarise the film’s unique feel. I’m not convinced it’s a great film for children, not because they need protecting from the darkness of the world, but because it’s almost too good — it’s a great portrait of childhood, but perhaps one best appreciated in hindsight. Maybe that’s just because I haven’t seen it until adulthood. Whenever you catch it, this is a film of dread, fear, cruelty, and near-peerless beauty.

5 out of 5

The Night of the Hunter was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 12 for 2013 project, which you can read more about here.

It placed 7th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2013, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

The Locket (1946)

2011 #68
John Brahm | 82 mins | download | PG

This review contains major spoilers.

The LocketIf The Locket is known for anything, it’s for a plot structure that places flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks. There’s always the potential for good fun in that kind of structure, though it’s usually the kind of thing that sounds more complicated than it is — the straightforward ‘concentric circle’ arrangement here makes them a doddle to follow; so straightforward, in fact, that it would be easy to miss how it was so structured.

Some rich chap is about to get married to a gal named Nancy. On the big day, a doctor turns up asking for a word. He begins to relate a tale stretching back to before the war, of the guys Nancy has conned before, including himself. Is he making it all up for some reason? In the doctor’s tale, he begins dating Nancy only for an artist (played by Robert Mitchum) to turn up one day to tell him all about his past with her. Has the doctor made this similar situation up to sell his story? Or is Nancy really a serial con artist?

The story is, largely, a passable melodrama. We’re presented with plenty of evidence that Nancy is definitely a tricksy operator, but then is the man telling the tale an unreliable narrator? I don’t know if the filmmakers were even aware of such a concept. Maybe that’s unkind; maybe they just didn’t want him to be one; but the ending we do get is very pat, and I’m not sure it quite makes sense. Doctor doctor, is this some kind of a joke?It might have been more interesting if the doctor had been making it all up; or if it had been left open ended, with Nancy set to ruin someone else’s life. That could well have worked, leaving the audience to come to its own conclusions, etc. Considering the film’s age, however, I’m sure there were demands we see this thief and murderess brought to justice.

Despite pre-dating Hitchcock’s reportedly groundbreaking film by almost two decades, the deployment of psychology in Nancy’s motivations reminded me of Marnie. A burgeoning field at the time, I believe, which makes it both attractive to filmmakers and liable to be weakly applied. The film isn’t that similar to Marnie — other than the female lead with the event in her past that explains her criminal activities in the present, that is — but perhaps the reliance on psychological jiggery-pokery that I didn’t quite buy brought it to mind.

Nancy is made most complicated by the final scene, when the truth is more or less revealed. Her subsequent breakdown suggests that, maybe, she isn’t completely the Not a locket to be seenmanipulative criminal it seemed all along, but instead a damaged individual doing these things involuntarily. This isn’t the wholly nonsensical part of the film — her apparently-accidental marriage to the son of the house she grew up in would be that bit — but I preferred it when she was just a villain. Psychologically it holds relevance, but at the same time she’s rather taken it to extremes. Or maybe I was just fed up by then.

Generally, the film is a bit too melodramatic and half-conceived for my taste. There are some good bits — the ultimate conclusion to Mitchum’s story is neatly directed and surprising (hence I shall say no more here). As if that painting wasn’t freaky enough by itself… But, overall, this isn’t one for the “forgotten classics” pile.

3 out of 5