Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 22, No. 5, 2023
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Robert J. Lewis
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film appreciation



Roger's reviews have appeared in McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, Spin Magazine, The World, Orlando Magazine Autoweek Magazine among others. He is the founder and editor of Movie Nation


Robert Mitchum didn’t play a lot of villains. But boy, when he did it was a wonder to behold.

“Cape Fear” is a iconic thriller that parked Mitchum opposite stoic Gregory Peck in what turned out to be a classic, and a rare one that was almost as good when it was remade with Robert DeNiro, Nick Nolte, Martin Scorsese behind the camera and Grand Old Man Mitchum in a pivotal supporting role.

But “The Night of the Hunter” is so singular a cinematic landmark that you’d think no one would dare remake it. It’s shown in film classes, at film festivals and in film societies. It’s quoted, borrowed from and paid homage to in films as diverse as “Do the Right Thing” and “What Lies Beneath.” Yet somehow the Davis Grubb novel was remade as a disastrous TV movie in the ’90s with Richard Chamberlain. And in 2020, Universal announced it was plotting a new big screen version of this 1955 black and white classic.

As it’s been three years since that was reported, let’s hope they’ve had time to reconsider. The series of great decisions and happy accidents that made the original a masterpiece would seem impossible to replicate.

Novelist Grubb’s gritty, Depression Era West Virginia parable of good and evil, greed and righteousness, of a murderer in the middle of idyllic, riverfront slice of Americana, was his first book. It overshadowed his half-a-dozen-novel career, because when Hollywood grabbed the screen rights, it was James Agee, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, poet, critic and screenwriter from just south of West Virginia — a fellow Appalachian from Knoxville, Tennessee — who would sympathetically adapt it.

Agee only wrote one other screenplay. You might have heard of it — “The African Queen.”

Director Charles Laughton is best remembered as a larger-than-life British character lead who played Henry VIII, Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and a Captain Bligh for the ages in “Munity on the Bounty.” Laughton only partially directed one other film, and that’s barely worth recalling (“The Man on the Eiffel Tower”).

And even though the tall, dark and handsome baritone Mitchum only played two heavies, this psychopathic “preacher” almost pushes his Max Cady from “Cape Fear” into the sinister shadows.

Mitchum’s Harry Powell charms. He judges. He preaches, and Mitchum even sings in a career-peak-period (1955) role that was so far removed from his stoic, man’s man heroic persona that it may be the best argument for “The Oscars rarely recognize the greatest” ever.

Whatever the cost of playing the murderous, grudge-toting ex-con Max Cady, it took guts for a leading man of Mitchum’s stature to play a “Bluebeard,” a perverse, widow-murdering, child-hunting monster hellbent on finding stolen loot hidden by the children of a condemned cellmate.

The film, in immaculately-captured sound-stage and West Virginia locations, looks and plays like a grimmer-than-Grimm fairytale, with a monster-sized villain often-filmed in the shadows, a plucky heroine bathed in angelic light and two kids on the run on the river fleeing a killer who took their mother away from them in a time when it wasn’t nearly as hard to get away, and get away with murder.

Stanley Cortez, the director of photography who made Orson Welles look like a genius, yet-again, via “The Magnificent Ambersons,” frames every shot like a glossy art print and fills frame after frame with innocence menaced by malevolence. Cortez would go on to have a band in “Chinatown.”

It wasn’t just writers, actors and the directors who made those films masterpieces. This was a cinematographer/artist who painted with light, shadow and fog in forced-perspective shots that are some of the most perfect ever conceived.

In the middle of the 1930s Depression, a father (Peter Graves) dashes home and stuffs the cash from a bank heist into his little girl’s (Sally Jane Bruce) doll. He’s killed people in the robbery, but before the cops grab him, he makes his boy (Billy Chapin) “swear” to look after his sister, “guard her with your life,” and keep the secret of the $10,000, even from his mother.

As she’s played by rising star Shelley Winters, we get it.

Dad is arrested, bringing his little boy to tears. He’ll be tried and hanged, and their cruel, small town classmates torment young John and little Pearl so that they have to stop going to school.

But they have bigger problems on the way. We’ve already met booming, smiling, Bible-quoting Harry Powell, the sort of psycho who inveighs against sin and hates himself for hitting the strip clubs, who talks to God in sicker-than-sick prayers.

“Lord, send me a widow!”

A car-theft bust — we’ve seen one of his dead widows, but the police haven’t — throws Harry into Moundsville Prison and in the same cell as convicted killer Ben Harper (Graves). Powell’s tricks and preacherly nagging don’t get him any closer to that hidden cash. But the gallows might,

“Lord, you sure knew what you were doin’ when you brung me to this very cell at this very time. A man with ten thousand dollars hid somewhere, and a widder in the makin’.”

Harry gets out and sets out to find the riverside village where the Harpers live, to meet and win over the widow Willa (Winters) and arm-twist the children into giving up the loot.

Thanks to peer pressure from the village busybody (Evelyn Varden) and her “You need a man” to raise two kids” insistence, Willa does the “respectable” and practical thing and pairs up with the preacher with “Love” and “Hate” tattooed on his knuckles.

Winters plays Willa as shocked and martryed, a jaw-dropping choice that makes her death all the more memorable.

Mitchum lets us sense the psychosis of this fatally-flawed fanatic. He lets us see how Harry narrows his search down to John and the cunning verbal traps he sets for the boy and his much younger sister. He isn’t shy about underscoring Harry’s bullying, woman-hating perversion and creepy association with sex. And Mitchum never had a problem with the good looks and manly charisma it takes to sweep a woman off her feet.

Willa is a goner. Little John? He’s going to be a more formidable foe.

The Southern savvy script backhands small town cruelty and naïveté, that unwillingness to see anyone wearing “the cloth” as a threat. And it lets us see how quickly those fooled are to pretend that never happened and bay for blood when this “Bluebeard” is outed, the hypocrites.

Harry’s worse, but Icey and the hate-filled mob are no prizes.

The money is meant to weigh on John, so much so that sees it as a destructive force. It killed his father and his mother and may get him and Pearl killed, and it so possesses his instant-stepfather that it won’t be good for Harry’s health, either.

The children only escape the darkness when a blunt, bluff and righteous woman takes them in. Rachel tells the cast-away-children she’s raising tales from The Bible as life lessons, good vs. evil homilies about “that sneaking, ornery no-count King Herod and (baby) King Jesus.”

Lillian Gish plays Miss Rachel as a speaking version of the idealized Southern woman D.W. Griffith made her out to be in their silent film collaborations. She is defender of the right, protector of children and embodiment of the Woman Who Passes on Western (Christian) Civilization to her young charges.

Yes, this character seems to connect her to Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” and its racist ideal, but Gish’s warmth and steel inform the character’s unimpeachable piety and tolerance. A young teen in Rachel’s care swoons over the handsome murderer who shows up in clergical garb, croons “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” and Rachel forgives her, even if the hormonal teen has put them all in peril.

“The Night of the Hunter” is the kind of classic that reveals more of itself in repeated viewings, the stark beauty of the soundstage forced-perspective shots that show critters in the foreground, John and Pearl paddling downstream in the background, or them in their dad’s skiff in the lower front of the frame, a killer preacher on horseback in silhouette, singing that hymn as he hunts his tiny prey.

The innuendo Laughton and Agee got in this script about marriages and sex — “When you’ve been married to a man for forty years you know all that don’t amount to a hill of beans. I’ve been married to Walt that long and I swear in all that time I just lie there thinkin’ about my canning.” — the lusty way young teen Ruby (Gloria Castillo) gulps in Mitchum, the matter-of-fact way Gish’s Rachel acknowledges it and forgives her, is eyebrow raising even today.

The film’s Southern Gothic folktale feel comes from Grubbs, Ages and Cortez. Laughton seems to be the font of its wicked weirdness and fun. There was a time when he would have grabbed the Mitchum role and played it with relish.

But could be sing?

The lovely duet that Gish and Mitchum produce as they’re in that third-act standoff still raises the hair on the back of my neck. But the ending is just treacley enough that there’s room for doing something fresh and twisted with this story, should it be remade.

The best argument for Universal getting another film out of this title might be how this film still plays to a crowd, and how rarely classic films are seen in that context which they were intended. I’ve seen viewers hoot and gasp and talk back to the screen, even film buffs at film festival showings of “The Night of the Hunter.”

This picture still delivers suspense, shocks, laughs and heart-touching sentiment.

And 70 years after its release, we still feel the sting intended by the Appalachian author, the mountain-born screenwriter, the manly movie actor and gay British director who dared make a film that acknowledged that the “Americana” depicted here wasn’t whitewashed The Disney Version.

Evil wrapped in religion, the twisted sexuality of the supposedly pious, the helpless gullibility of conservative rural folks for any wolf in sheep’s clothing, it’s a tale both timeless as it ever was, and shockingly timely even today.











Arts & Opinion, a bi-monthly, is archived in the Library and Archives Canada.
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