Friday, February 4, 2011

Day 172: The Night of the Hunter

Ranking: #181
Year: 1955
Director: Charles Laughton
Starring: Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters

Charles Laughton was an incredibly prolific actor, both on stage and in on screen, but he only stepped behind the camera once in his illustrious career, to direct 1955's The Night of the Hunter. It's a shame, because more than probably any other non-Ford, non-Kurosawa, non-Bergman film from pre-1965, his single outing had a profound influence on so much of what I like. I loved every moment of The Night of the Hunter. It was at times uncomfortable and hard to watch, but it was so well-acted, and more crucially, so well-constructed from a directorial standpoint that it demands full attention. It has echoes in the work of everyone from Spike Lee, who included a direct callback of one of its recurring scenes in his masterpiece Do the Right Thing to Isao Takahata, whose Grave of the Fireflies so strongly recalls the latter half of Hunter that it at times feels like a tribute. So Laughton's lone film surely must be considered one of the finest of its decade, if not of all time.

Laughton owes plenty to Robert Mitchum, though – his terrifying lead presents himself as a preacher but goes on to do commit some of the most morally bankrupt acts ever recorded on celluloid, highlighted, of course, by his obsessive pursuit of two young children whom he would have no qualms about laying low for a little bit of money. In every line from his mouth and look on his face there is the mark of a truly depraved man, and Mitchum plays Rev. Harry Powell like his life depends on it. He was as prolific on the screen as his director was, and like his director, this was his high point. I've never hated anyone billed first as much as I hated Mitchum by the end of this film, so, naturally, he did his job.

The visual style of the movie is robust. When the children are boating down the Ohio River, the shots are gorgeously framed by bullfrogs and branches that seem to be lording over them and keeping them safe on their journey. When their mother sits dead in the front seat of her car at the bottom of that river, the way the undertow pulls at her hair evokes just the right amount of tragedy in the situation. Laughton may not have directed many films because of what a perfectionist he was, if The Night of the Hunter's careful brilliance is any indication. For all its perfectionism, though, it's still a raw, emotional wrecking ball of a film. It's hugely influential but unlike some films that can be described that way is also inherently watchable. I'd gladly give it two more hours of my life, and it's unquestionably the best movie from the 1950s not directed by John Ford, Akira Kurosawa or Ingmar Bergman. Which still might only put it in about 8th place for the decade, but still.

The Good: Everything that Charles Laughton put into this film. It's unfair for film connoisseurs that he only made one movie.

The Bad: The kids aren't great actors. I mean, they're kids, so whatever, but it's true.

The Skinny: I could deal with it a hell of a lot higher than 181, but it's nice to see it getting its due on the list at all considering its far from A-list status.

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