Thursday, 17 May 2012

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Carbon Arc Cinema's screening list is pretty scattershot. I was there a couple weeks ago for their Heritage Minute showcase (which was packed), and went back last night for their screening of Charles Laughton's 1955 classic The Night of the Hunter (which was not packed). I'm sure that when Carbon Arc screens Beetlejuice, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Clueless in the coming weeks, it'll be to full houses once more. Still, I'm sad the Halifax hipsters didn't schlepp out for The Night of the Hunter. Not only was it awkward being one of maybe three twentysomething girls in an audience consisting primarily of elderly British men (I know they were British because they pontificated endlessly after the movie about German Expressionism and film noir and blah blah blah blah shoot me in the face), but this movie is also a forgotten masterpiece, one that deserves a slice of the hype modern cineastes lavish on a token few overrated snoozers (Citizen Kane, I'm looking at you).

Robert Mitchum VS Lillian Gish: place your bets.
The Night of the Hunter follows serial killer/preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) as he romances widow Willa (Shelley Winters) so he can get his hands on money her late husband concealed somewhere on her property. Willa's daughter Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) adores her new daddy; son John (Billy Chapin) is less enthused. Powell eventually kills Willa for being too sexy and tries to get the kids to divulge the location of the hidden cash. Pearl and John flee downriver to a neighboring town, where they are rescued by Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), a badass Depression-era foster mom with a shotgun. Powell shows up, Cooper shoots him, and she and her brood of orphans celebrate Christmas together in peace at The End (I love the way old movies announce The End when they're finished; do they think people might stay in their seats after the lights come up and wait for the next installment?).

I adore The Night of the Hunter. The story's caught somewhere between fairy tale and nightmare does a great job of capturing the scary helplessness of childhood -- the way how, when you're a kid, your fate always seems to be in someone else's hands, frequently someone who doesn't seem any smarter or stronger than you. The lighting is gorgeous, the framing is gorgeous. The performances are stellar. You can't take your eyes off of Mitchum as Harry Powell, who has LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles and not-very-subtly communicates his repressed sexual desires through the artful manipulation of a switchblade knife. And if only someone had thought of giving Lillian Gish a shotgun sooner.

I've seen people complain about the obviousness and artificiality of The Night of the Hunter (IMDB message boards, you will never cease to amaze me), but if you're looking for realism, you're missing the point. The Night of the Hunter isn't subtle or realistic, it's not trying to be, and (this seems to be where a lot of modern audiences get lost) that doesn't make it bad. And though aspects of the film might seem a little affected or baldfaced to today's moviegoer, The Night of the Hunter deals with themes like sexual agency and religious hypocrisy in a nuanced, evenhanded way that a lot of modern movies still can't match. 4/5 to the movie as a whole and an honorary 5/5 to every scene containing both Lillian Gish and a shotgun.

"I'm just a girl who can't say no...."
SCENE STEALER: Gloria Castillo as Ruby, Lillian Gish's oldest foster kid, whose boy-crazy shenanigans turn bad when she convinces Powell to buy her an ice cream. Female sexual agency is handled beautifully in The Night of the Hunter, especially for a movie made in 1955. There's every implication that Ruby has been sexually active, but she's never demonized for it: when she tearfully confesses to Rachel Cooper, Cooper assures Ruby she'll grow up into a "strong, fine" woman despite her involvement in what would have been a very real social taboo in the 50s. The motif of women's right to sexual freedom is echoed elsewhere (such as when Powell's wickedness is depicted through his shaming of Willa for her open sensuality) but is most prominently foregrounded in the character of Ruby, and Gloria Castillo does a great job depicting the girl's wounded pluckiness (although the 22-year-old actress is, admittedly, a little long in the tooth to play a precocious teenager).

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