The Night of the Hunter (1955), Charles Laughton’s horrifying masterpiece

Can you believe it’s October already? I certainly can’t. But you know what that means. Horror Month is here! And we kick off this year’s celebrations with Robert Mitchum’s terrifying turn as the Reverend Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter (1955, dir. Charles Laughton). But before we go any further, I must confess something: I cannot stand Shelley Winters. There I said it. Been sitting on that for 15 years. Some actors grow on me, some don’t. She never has. And yes, I’ll acknowledge that she has her moments – you don’t win two Best Supporting Actress Oscars if you don’t – but she just doesn’t do it for me and I can’t quite figure out why. So I’ll refrain from going too deep into her contribution to this film, which, again, I acknowledge is good and needed, and instead I’ll focus on the man of the hour.

Robert Mitchum plays the utterly wicked Harry Powell, a preacher who preys on women, marries them, then kills them. And when he finds out that Ben Harper (Peter Graves), the man he’s sharing a prison cell with, has hidden money somewhere in West Virginia, his wife, Willa Harper (Winters), becomes his next victim. After Ben’s execution and Powell’s release, he goes after Wilma and her two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce)…

Based on the Davis Grubb novel of the same name, and adapted by James Agee, Charles Laughton’s only directorial effort is a truly frightening tale from start to finish. From Walter Schumann’s eerie, ominous music, cut off by Lillian Gish’s lovely voice in the opening narration, to her ‘duet’ with Powell in the name of good and evil, the film explores contrasts stunningly. The LOVE-HATE thing is now, of course, iconic and endlessly re-created, but its irony still stands and makes its point beautifully, even if we’ve seen it a million times. Laughton’s and cinematographer Stanley Cortez’s blunt use of horror tropes – the lighting, the shadows, good vs evil – is also effective and makes for one incredibly visually striking film, almost like something you’d see in a True Crime documentary these days (Willa at the bottom of the river, anyone?). And Harry Powell… I mean, has Mitchum ever been this… uncool? Actually, I take that back. Even as one of cinema’s most terrifying characters, he still manages to be cool (ish). Because of course he does. Not to mention that Powell’s evil ways can only come to fruition because of his enormous charm. Powell is clearly a narcissist, on top of being a psychopathic serial killer. But he’s not cool-cool, Robert Mitchum-cool that is, and that’s why his performance is so great. And if he can pop into the Horror celebrations for once, instead of next month’s Noir festivities, then that shows you how versatile he really was. And yes, some have claimed that The Night of the Hunter has noir elements here and there, and obviously it does, but out of the two, it is a lot more horrifying than anything else. And it stays right here. Happy Horror Month, everyone!

WORLD CINEMA: Charlotte and Her Boyfriend (1958)

Granted, it’s a 12-minute short so we don’t get to look at Jean-Paul Belmondo for as long as we’d like. Granted, his voice is dubbed by director Jean-Luc Godard so we don’t get to listen to him either. And yeah, after the devastating news of his death earlier this month, I could have easily chosen his most iconic performance, in Godard’s Breathless (1960) or any of his films with best friend Alain Delon. But everybody’s been doing that. So I decided to go for the short film Charlotte and Her Boyfriend (Charlotte et son Jules) for this month’s WORLD CINEMA instead.

In this poignant tribute to Jean Cocteau, the boyfriend, played by Belmondo, berates his ex-girlfriend Charlotte (Anne Collette) upon her return home one afternoon. Everything from their relationship to her carefree behavior to all the men who want to sleep with her and the filmmaker who she is indeed sleeping with. All the while, Charlotte remains silent and aloof, casually entertaining herself with a few things around the house while he rants. The conclusion is a rather funny one, even though most of the film’s twelve minutes are spent in this Parisian apartment as we listen to him go on and on and on, going from one extreme to another, to the extent that it may be uncomfortable at times. Still, this early Godard flick shows us exactly why Belmondo remains one of cinema’s coolest cats. With his natural charm, a rough-around-the-edges touch about him, his bedroom eyes and luscious lips as well as his general swagger and natural acting ability, it’s easy to why Jean-Paul Belmondo was destined to be a star. Indeed, a year later, he was. No doubt he’s charming everyone in Celebrity Heaven as we speak.

The beauty of Dark Suburbia and Douglas Sirk

A few weeks ago, I posted an article on Medium about my 30 favorite Cold Case episodes of all time and, coming in at number 30 was The Brush Man (Season 6, episode 14), in which I referred to its main plot device as my favorite film and TV trope: the perfect suburban neighborhood with its dark secrets lurking underneath. This is, of course, an almost tired trope at this point, but it still stands.

Dark Suburbia began making itself known in the 1940s and 50s and there was, of course, a very good reason for it. The war had just ended and people wanted to get back on their feet. The devastation that came with it, on so many levels, was enough for people to want to try and rebuild themselves as well as their society, economically, socially and emotionally. And nothing proved to be easier or more appealing than moving to the beautiful green suburbs in order to make a life for themselves with some semblance of control over their image and welfare. And in the hands of, most prominently, director Douglas Sirk, this seems like a never-ending vacation, with Jane Wyman’s beautifully lit face guiding us through her hopes and dreams as a middle-aged widow who falls in love with Rock Hudson in All That Heaven Allows (1956), or… the exact same thing in Magnificent Obsession (1954). But more than the stunning cinematography or Wyman and Hudson’s stunning faces or indeed Lana Turner’s in Imitation of Life (1959), Sirk’s films told a deeper story than they seemed to let on. The fluff around them wasn’t so much style over substance as it was style on top of substance, you know, to get the point across. The futility, insipidness and impossible standards of the perfect life in the perfect neighborhood could only go so far before it all starts to fall apart: friendly neighbors become enemies, secrets come out, mistakes get scrutinized, you name it. What better way to make your point about society’s shortcomings than by showing its superficiality unashamedly? And the audience, to a certain extent, seemed to understand this. The critics, for the most part, didn’t. Sirk’s films were big box office draws, yes, but gorgeous melodramas with a message and ‘female-led’ plots – though everybody could relate to them, which was very much the point – weren’t big with critics. Which is ironic, in and of itself… The point is, Sirk didn’t deserve it. If Frank Capra can tell the same story about the everyday man caught up in a world too big for him time and again and be poignantly relevant, then Douglas Sirk can hold up a mirror to society with Russell Metty’s over-the-top cinematography to back him up.

These days, Dark Suburbia is still one of those ‘go to’ tropes. Because it works. The suburbs are the perfect backdrop to all that the human heart desires. They are the perfect tool for the necessary conflict and the perfect contrast to the ugliness of man. If done correctly, it is one of the most endlessly fascinating plot devices, with so much in it, so many angles, so many possibilities… Take 1940s noirs like Fallen Angel (1945) or The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), nearly every horror film from the 70s onwards, Todd Haynes’ filmography, or the premise of Twin Peaks and Stranger Things. They all have a different take on it, but all of them come from the same place. And all these years later, Douglas Sirk’s original Dark Suburbia is still the purest and most straight-forward use of the trope in film, its message still resonating with audiences to this day. Of all the misunderstood directors of yesteryear who are finally getting their due amidst the onslaught of new film critics, bloggers and reviewers, Douglas Sirk makes the most sense.

WORLD CINEMA: Late Spring (1949)

For this month’s WORLD CINEMA, we go to Japan with one of Yasujiro Ozu’s greatest films, Late Spring (1949). A beautiful, sweet, simple tale with some of the greatest emotional depth ever put to film, Late Spring is the first film in the Noriko trilogy.

Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is a 27-year-old single woman who lives at home with her father Shukichi (Chishu Ryu). Everybody, including her aunt Masa (Haruko Sugimura), says it’s time for her to get married and settle down, but Noriko wants to stay at home and take care of her father instead.

Not an uncommon theme for films of the era, Late Spring deals with Noriko’s plight in a way that feels fresh, genuine and compassionate. She’s a free spirit. An unapologetic young woman who values her freedom and especially the choice to be at home with her father which, to her, is the epitome of happiness. But, of course, society won’t have it. A constant struggle between an older and a younger generation, society’s norms vs one’s needs and desires and, of course, the harsh reality of the passage of time and how we’re hopeless in the face of it. Throughout the movie, we are confronted with all of these things, and in a simple and rather quiet way, which makes it even more poignant. Beautifully shot and wonderfully acted, Late Spring reveals itself to us slowly, calmly, letting us breathe and take our time getting to know these characters and their stories. A truly moving film and one of Japanese cinema’s greatest achievements.

Max Steiner and Now, Voyager (1942)

When you have Casablanca and Gone With the Wind under your belt, it seems strange that anybody would pick any other film score as their favorite. And yet, here it is: Now, Voyager is my favorite Max Steiner score. Now, I’ve already talked about Bette Davis’ incredible performance in the 1943 Best Actress Oscar nominees article, but the recent BFI season dedicated to her – if you live in London, don’t miss it! – made me think, again, about that magnificently wonderful score.

For those who haven’t had the pleasure, Now, Voyager (dir. Irving Rapper) tells the story of Charlotte Vale (Davis), a single and, by society’s standards, unattractive woman who, after freeing herself from the controlling claws of her mother (Gladys Cooper), finds the love she never had with architect Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid). I mean… only Max Steiner could have scored that. And boy, did he! One of THE greatest weepies of all time, Now, Voyager is beautifully enveloped by that melancholic, ultra-romantic melody that thankfully pops up every ten minutes or so, much to everyone’s delight. Every heartbreak and every desolation that Charlotte goes through, every moment of joy and every moment of pain she feels comes with Steiner’s rousing masterpiece. And nobody understood this better than Bette. In 1939, during the making of Dark Victory (dir. Edmund Goulding), Bette stopped the climactic scene and asked Goulding if Steiner was going to score the picture. He said he didn’t know and asked what the big deal was. She famously said, ‘Either I’m going to climb those stairs or Max Steiner is going to climb those stairs. But I’ll be goddamned if Max Steiner and I are going to climb those stairs together!’. They did and she always referred to him as ‘my beloved Max Steiner.’ He scored 21 of her movies. And won an Oscar for Now, Voyager. Beautiful.

WORLD CINEMA: People on Sunday

The absolute star power behind the little-known, 73-minute German delight People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag) is astonishing. Billy Wilder, check, Fred Zinnemann, check, Edgar G. Ulmer, check, Eugen Schufftan, check, the Siodmak brothers, check and check. As lovely as People on Sunday is, and it is, all of that Austrian and German up-and-coming talent, later put to good use in Hollywood for years to come, is quite powerful and it’s what makes people want to see it.

Here’s what we’re dealing with here: People on Sunday follows several people on a sunny weekend in Berlin, as they enjoy themselves at the beach, the parks, boat ride, etc, when romance blossoms and friendships are put to the test. These people, it should be noted, were not actors but rather real-life people who were essentially playing themselves, in that sort of German realism way that has become so popular over the years. People on Sunday, of course, is not as dark as other German pictures of the era, and it’s actually bittersweet to know how unaware they all were of the horrors that were to come a few years later. Nevertheless, it stands out as an absolutely delightful film. Obviously the big thing about it is the huge amount of talent involved in the making of the film: screenplay by Billy Wilder and Robert and Curt Siodmak, cinematography by Eugen Schufftan and Fred Zinnemann, direction by Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer. All of them fled Germany a few years later and became, as we all know, huge in Hollywood. I kind of like to think they didn’t know how big they’d all be while they were making this picture. It’s sweet.

Re-recommending summer movies!

Summer’s here! (I need to stop doing that)

I’m not going to recommend any more classic summer movies because I’ve talked about enough of them, so instead I’ll just re-recommend a few, complete with links! Here’s a little recap:

  • Million Dollar Mermaid, a.k.a. Esther Williams as real-life swimmer Annette Kellerman and Thrill of a Romance, in which she and Van Johnson embark on a cute summer romance. This was a Double Bill from three years ago. Ah, Double Bill, I miss those.
  • Purple Noon, a recent WORLD CINEMA one, and the original The Talented Mr Ripley starring Alain Delon
  • And my personal favorite summer flick of all time, and Hitchcock’s most light-hearted one, To Catch a Thief. Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, the French Riviera… it’s just too much. To Catch a Thief (1955) <- you get two reviews, ’cause I’m just obsessed with it.

WORLD CINEMA: Victim (1961)

Pride celebrations continue here at the Garden and this month’s WORLD CINEMA is all about Victim (1961, dir. Basil Dearden), the iconic British thriller highly believed to be partly responsible for the changes in the illegalization of homosexuality in the UK (the Sexual Offences Act of 1967) and the general attitudes of the British public regarding the subject.

Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde) is a successful barrister who takes on the case of a young man, Jack Barrett (Peter McEnery), after he kills himself as a result of being blackmailed for being gay. When the blackmail ring proves to be much bigger than initially thought, Mel’s own private life and involvement with Jack come to light…

Let’s just get a few things out of the way first: Sir Dirk Bogarde was gay in real life and it’s obviously not a surprise that this was an extremely personal project for him and perhaps his greatest performance. As you probably know, I’m not a big fan of the ambigious expression ‘ahead of its time’ but in this case, it is totally deserved. In 1961, homosexuality was still a crime in the United Kingdom and for screenwriters Janet Green and John McCormick to write such a brave, bold and frankly badass story took guts. The subtle but clear interactions between the several characters leave no room for error: for instance, at around 30 minutes, the two police officers who just arrested Jack talk about the gays and express their very different opinions on the matter, with an attitude that is both refreshing and quite jarring for a film made in 1961. Not to mention that Melville’s now legendary confession to Laura (Sylvia Syms), his wife (‘I wanted him!’) is still incredible to watch. Victim may seem tame by today’s standards, but its impact on British culture cannot be overstated.

PRIDE MONTH: John Ireland and Montgomery Clift in Red River (1948)

June is Pride Month and, like always, celebrations abound here at the Garden. And while I’ve already talked about some of the big ones, like Morocco (1930), Hell’s Highway (1932) and Some Like It Hot (1959), as well as the more obscure stuff like Young Man With a Horn (1950), there is no shortage of LGBT-related content in Classic Hollywood films, however brief. And because I’m in a Westerns mood lately, I’ve decided to go with the precursor to Brokeback Mountain, Red River (1948, dir. Howard Hawks).

Now, while the homoerotic undertones are just that rather than the plot of the film – no kidding, thanks a lot, Joseph Breen… – it is quite wonderful and something everybody always talks about when Red River comes up. Especially when it’s up against the intense masculinity of the film: Tom Dunson (John Wayne) and his adopted son Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift in his debut film) lead a cattle drive to Missouri over a period of fourteen years until Dunson’s obsessive behavior becomes too much for everyone, leading to a war between the two men. Among the cattle ranch is Cherry Valance (John Ireland), a gunslinger who immediately strikes up a rather intense friendship with Garth. Right away, we know exactly where we are with these two: Valance asks to see Garth’s gun, after which they compare each other’s weapons, quip about Swiss watches and women, before having a shootout between them to show each other their skills. Their sizzling chemistry isn’t lost on anyone, least of all Groot (Walter Brennan), whose assessment of the whole situation is almost as erotic as the scene itself… Their subsequent conversations, which include Valance claiming Garth initially ‘turned him down’ when he asked to join the ranch, are equally charged with undertones that are impossible to overlook in 2021. They say this might have been the reason for why Valance’s part was gradually cut from the film, as Howard Hawks realized what was going on while in the editing room. This is, of course, surprising, considering the undertones of some of the characters in his biggest films: Cary Grant wearing a robe, saying he ‘went gay’ in Bringing up Baby (1938), the relationship between Geiger and Lundgren in The Big Sleep (1946) – as far as anybody can tell in that madness of a plot -, Cary Grant, again, in drag in I Was a Male War Bride (1949), among many others. Either way, it’s hot, it’s grand and it leaves you wanting more.

WORLD CINEMA: Purple Noon (1960)

We’re back in France (and Italy)! This time, with the first film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr Ripley, Plein Soleil or Purple Noon (1960, dir. René Clément). You know the story: Tom Ripley (Alain Delon) is sent to Italy to get Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) to come back to America to take over his family’s business. Instead, the two of them, along with Philippe’s girlfriend Marge (Marie Laforêt), enjoy an idyllic summer, drinking and partying, until one morning when Tom kills Philippe on his yacht in an attempt to steal his identity. What follows is an increasingly tense game of cat-and-mouse as Ripley continues to act out his plan…

The role that propelled him to stardom, Alain Delon, twenty-five years old and obscenely, almost offensively good-looking, is Tom Ripley at his most deliciously conniving. A classic example of a villain we root for, sort of, maybe, Tom Ripley is charming, smug, smart and heartless and he uses all of that to his advantage. And, in one of my favorite tropes in cinema, his crimes are set against the backdrop of a gorgeous place to further contextualize their horribleness. Such crimes are, of course, nearly impossible to pull off in this day and age, which makes them even more fascinating when played out in a film from 1960 (or even 1999) and it’s almost a privilege to watch his mind at work as he gradually descends into something we’re not sure he’s going to get out of… The screenplay written by Clément himself and Paul Gégauff conveys this beautifully and the climax is equally rewarding – in fact, they won the Edgar for Best Foreign Film Screenplay in 1962 for their work on the film.

With a score by Nino Rota resembling, yes, the one from The Godfather, Purple Noon’s dream-like essence is intoxicating as we fall under Tom Ripley’s spell on that lovely Mediterranean coastline. *sigh* a French film set in Italy… my heart can’t take such perfection!