Thursday, January 14, 2010

Not-So-Mellow Melodrama

Film: The Night of the Hunter
Format: DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television.


Charles Laughton only directed a single film in his career, and was so disappointed with the critical and commercial response to it that he decided to never direct another one. His one movie was The Night of the Hunter, a movie that, since its initial poor reception has been thought of as one of the greatest American films of any decade, let alone of the 1950s.

The film concerns the person of Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a man who at least claims to be a preacher, but he is very much unlike any other. Powell is a particular type of Bluebeard—he finds widows with a little bit of money, kills them off, takes the cash, and moves on to the next town. It’s after one of these incidents that Powell is detained by the police for driving in a stolen car and thrown into the pen.

While in jail, Powell is put into the same cell as Ben Harper (Peter Graves), a man who stole $10,000 and killed two men so that his own children wouldn’t starve. Harper is going to hang for his crime, and Powell, who does appear to believe that he’s preaching some word of the Lord, thinks that he’s been lead to this place for a purpose--$10,000 missing and, as he says, a widow in the making.

Released from prison, Powell makes his way to Harper’s hometown, chats up Harper’s widow Willa (Shelley Winters), eventually marrying her, always with an eye toward finding the money. Powell has it in his head that the children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), know where the money is, and he’ll stop at nothing to find it. So, while he convinces the townspeople of his own piety, he plots for his own devious and nefarious ends.

Eventually, pushed to desperation, Harry takes his trusty switchblade to Willa, pushing her and her car into the nearby river, a scene that is still effective in its combination of horror and beauty. Willa, sitting in the car under the water, her hair streaming in the current, looks as if she could be driving down a country lane, aside from the waving water weeds. The children run, taking a boat down river, and finding shelter with Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish, who came out of semi-retirement for the role). Powell follows, leading to a culminating confrontation between preacher, kindly old woman, and the running children.

The Night of the Hunter is a melodrama in the truest sense. The children, and especially Rachel Cooper, represent goodness while Harry Powell in the guise of a church man is the embodiment of evil. Like a classic melodrama, there are musical interludes as well. The most interesting is the song Pearl sings as the children float down river, but the more frequent and more malevolent is the one Powell sings as the he chases the children. It is also melodrama in that the movie has a surreal quality to it--we are dealing with an idealized world rather than anything based in reality. There is a dream-like quality to many of the scenes, which often act as visual set-pieces more than they do movie scenes.

Melodrama, of course, has a negative connotation, which is unfortunate here. This is an effective melodrama, one with real menace and real evil. A typical melodramatic villain is something to boo and hiss at; Harry Powell is a true evil presence, a malevolent force with which to be contended. Powell’s most distinguishing characteristic, aside from his deep and resonant voice and preacher’s hat, are the tattoos on his fingers. On his left hand is the word “HATE”; the right holds “LOVE.”

The movie is held together by the performance of Mitchum, who is one of the great screen villains in cinematic history. Lillian Gish is equally memorable as the resolute Rachel Cooper who refuses to let anything happen to the children in her charge.

Where the movie fails is in the performance of the two children as well as Ruby (Gloria Castillo), the oldest of Rachel’s charges. While John’s performance has some skill, he often has an odd smile on his face that doesn’t always seem appropriate for the moment. Pearl is a completely different story. She, quite frankly, looks like a kewpie doll mated with a newt, and is as wooden as they come.

I also have issues with some of the action of the film. Despite the way he treats the kids, despite everything she knows, Pearl still clings to Powell throughout, as does Ruby. He buys her an ice cream, and suddenly, the girl is infatuated with Powell and, despite the fact that he’s threatening her family with a knife, she still walks around mooning over him—until he leaves the scene and she acts like she never met the man. The film falls apart on me at the end—a number of things happen with the angry mob, the group of Rachel’s children, and the movement of Powell that just feel odd to me, like that part of the script was filmed in the middle of a rewrite, or was two halves of two different edits.

I like The Night of the Hunter, but I like it based not on the story as a whole, but on the role that Mitchum was given and the incredible strength of his performance. It almost makes me wish that the film could have been rewritten to remove the children and pit him instead against Shelley Winters for the length of the film.

Why to watch The Night of the Hunter: Robert Mitchum is a scary mo-fo.
Why not to watch: Pearl is out-acted by her rag doll.

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