Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Weird and The Night of the Hunter

I'm being quite serious and careful when I say Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter is, above all, weird. It came out of Hollywood at a moment (1955, the same year as Rebel Without A Cause) when very few members of the establishment were just dipping their toes in the stylistic and narrative risk-taking that would become more prominent in 60s and 70s American cinema. Night of the Hunter plays with light, mixes and matches angles, includes scenes and whole montages for their aesthetic/emotional effect, and generally paints with the brush of German Expressionism. It is incredible Laughton pushed this experimental gem out of and into its 1955 cultural and aesthetic context, but the real magic of the film arises from its very conscious play between this stylistic risk-taking and more traditional characters, settings, and modes of storytelling. In better words, Night of the Hunter tips its hat to the film it "should have been" before it completely departs from it; It politely acknowledges the culture's expectations and then delves into a deep underworld of experimental cinema past and future. In this way and in its existence as a major Hollywood motion picture, Night of the Hunter does not keep to itself and the expressionistic art world in which it belongs but engages in the rather aggressive art of subversion.

The film has a simple story: two kids with the onus of knowing where their dead father's fortune lies. One ridiculously evil, bible-wielding, manipulator (Robert Mitchum) pursuing the little ones into dark cellars, forests, rivers, and deserted Ohio Valley landscapes. As Michael Atkinson describes, "Hunter contains no social critique—the issues are elemental, the morality biblical, the trials Homeric." It's good and evil rendered so literal it's even inscribed on ole Reverend Powell's hands.
This simple story is given a predictable cast of characters. The evil preacher (Mitchum), the gullible and blasé mother/wife (Shelley Winters--about whom a wise best friend yelped, How did she ever have a career!? She's so dumpy and bland!?), the smart older brother who spends the whole movie desperately trying to protect what remains of his family, and the cabbage-patch-kid younger sister constantly making near-fatal mistakes. The town is composed of the kind of dumb, gossipy Americans you might find in the chorus line of a 1950s musical. They wear hats and assume that, since they live some place where nothing happens, we'll understand if they're being a little too nosy about their neighbors' business or sipping the whiskey a little too hard and a little too frequently. The place and the land are similarly recognizable; it's the Ohio river valley in all its bleak horizons and American flags and pictures of Abraham Lincoln. All of this extreme "normalcy" makes you think The Night of the Hunter is the movie it was sold as:

But, the world Laughton composes is not this Hollywood world and neither is it a pure art cinema revolt against it. The Night of the Hunter rests beautifully in between by using Expressionism's language and its love of the weird to create a world just one beat off of the expected Hollywood picture. It's this complicated and awesome trait of Laughton's film that gives rise to Night of the Hunter's similarities with all things Lynch; in its elements, the filmic world appears very "normal" or at least a very normal Hollywood adaptation of what is "normal," but in motion, this world is just oddly enough paced, just dark enough, just ugly enough, just surprising enough to be just perfectly off. John and Pearl, Laughton's two kids and the two characters closest to any sort of off-screen reality, could have been the kids next door in Twin Peaks. They commit to their prescribed characters--older, responsible boy and younger cute and gullible sister, but they look so weird!
They look like little Aliens
alien baby redux
And they do weird little things all the time! Four year old Pearl is constantly falling asleep. Pearl and John have just made their break for it and run to find help and Rev. Powell is on the prowl and I'm sweating on the couch and changing positions and clutching my best friend and Pearl, little crazy faced Pearl, is fast fucking asleep. What!?!
thanks a million, Pearl.
The Mitchum character is really bazaar too. Again, Reverend Powell pays an homage to a beloved cliché--the villain who wields a manipulative brand of Christianity and flaunts his own supposed piety in order to score some serious cash. And, of course, nobody's gonna get in his way, not even the pale and dumb Shelley Winters, who he'll ruthlessly murder, or the sweet Pearl, whose puppy-like devotion and trust he'll use and abuse. So, on paper we've got Rev. Powell pinned and it looks something like this:

Obviously, Rev. Powell is going to become monstrous as he gets closer to that money, but Laughton, using his bag of Exprissionistic tricks, makes him into really stunning, surprising kind of monster.

Watch first half of this clip for a bunch of reasons: First, related to this last point about Mitchum's character, the sound he makes in this scene is other worldly--this ain't no ordinary monster. Second, related to the previous point, Pearl's yawn is amazing. Third, the scene on the river and Pearl's song is really why this movie pushes and stretches the boundaries.

Finally, this scene with the underwater, murdered Shelley Winters provides the perfect encapsulation of what I'm trying to say. In a film where most scenes (save the above river boat scene so similar to this scene's lyricism) are about 12 seconds long, we're allowed to meditate on hair, water, weeds. It's beautiful and haunting and a very strange break from the action. But what makes this scene most remarkable is the same thing that makes this movie most remarkable. The art of this scene is not continuous; there's a cut to above water where a hyper-typical fisherman, replete with his less-mystical score and predictable expressions, sees the drowned angel. We cut back down to the solitude and beauty of the underwater art cinema. It's this interplay between cinematic modes, one of convention and the other of experimentation, that brought me in and took hold.

1 comment:

Brady said...

This is a video that my buddy Todd directed that was the first thing I produced. It is an homage/ripoff of Night of the Hunter.