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
Mitchum didn’t play a lot of villains. But boy, when
he did it was a wonder to behold.
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.
“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.
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.
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
only wrote one other screenplay. You might have heard of it
— “The African Queen.”
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”).
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
she’s played by rising star Shelley Winters, we get
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.
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.
send me a widow!”
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,
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’.”
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.
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.
plays Willa as shocked and martryed, a jaw-dropping choice
that makes her death all the more memorable.
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.
is a goner. Little John? He’s going to be a more formidable
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.
worse, but Icey and the hate-filled mob are no prizes.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
picture still delivers suspense, shocks, laughs and heart-touching
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.
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.