Starring Vincent Price as an artist turned into a monster by the greed of those around him, House of Wax was one of the big 3D spectacles of the 1950s. It is available on 3D Blu-ray from Warner Bros.
Robert Mitchum’s silhouetted figure must be one of cinema’s most menacing presences. It lurks outside clapboard houses and swaggers its way across expanses of Depression-hit West Virginia. Its stark Puritanical dress provides an eerily alien vision as its warm, rich voice repeats a trademark 19th-century gospel refrain: ‘Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms; leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms’. Mitchum as the Preacher, Reverend Harry Powell, does lean on God: he quotes the scripture; he talks of plans to build a tabernacle; he gives dramatic demonstrations of moral battles between good and evil, wrestling his tattooed fists (LOVE and HATE) like a Biblical Punch and Judy show. But, in a delicious treat of dramatic irony, we – the audience – see that this leaning is not heartfelt belief, but a reliance on religious doctrine to manipulate those around him.
The tension we feel as Mitchum cons and schemes his way through 93 minutes of spectacular cinema is very occasionally blackly comic, but mostly painfully unbearable. When Powell takes up with a young widow, Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), in an attempt to find a stash of stolen money hidden by her dead husband, her young son John (Billy Chapin) is alone in seeing the preacher’s true colours. That the only person to divine the truth is an easily dismissed child creates a throat-tightening level of suspense, reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1948). Hitchcock spent decades honing his narrative techniques but, as a critical and commercial failure on its release, The Night of the Hunter was actor Charles Laughton’s only feature as director. We can only dream what he might have created in the wake of this stunning debut.
‘…Dream, little one, dream’
The film opens with stars hung like beads across a make-believe velvet sky. Five innocent faces appear from the darkness while the sagacious narrator, Rachel Cooper (beautifully acted by Lillian Gish, star of the silent era), intones Sunday school lessons and makes an ominous warning to ‘beware of false prophets’. The camera cuts to an outside aerial shot of children scattering in a game of hide and seek. A crescendo of orchestral music fills our ears as a child points to two stocking-covered legs laid out on basement steps. We can only imagine the horrific end meted out to the victim. These succinctly shot opening scenes set out several themes and dichotomies at the heart of The Night of the Hunter: childhood innocence versus adult violence; dreams and fairy tales versus reality; and how action differs from the written word.
The Night of the Hunter may appear to be a simple, childlike story of the wrestling hands of good and evil, but it is much richer than that. When Rachel Cooper duets with Harry Powell, cradling her shotgun, prepared to fire if necessary, we see two competing forces, but both are singing a hymn to Jesus and both are ready to enact violence. Subtle parallels or ‘twins’ pop up throughout the film. The two bedroom scenes between Willa and Harry mark a beautiful contrast between Harry’s calculated, dogmatic rhetoric and Willa’s own feverish, heartfelt belief, gained in the wake of her suffering. The expressionist lighting in the latter scene is a work of art; the bedroom becomes a spot-lit triangular chapel while Willa lies out on the bed, like a saint’s stone tomb, her head glowing with a brilliant halo. The triangular church effect is echoed in the bedroom scene at Rachel Cooper’s house as the children huddle for shelter while Harry Powell waits outside, just as he earlier waited outside the Harpers’ home. Once you become aware of these fascinating symmetries, the film becomes much greater and finer textured. We see the hangman’s differing reactions to the task of execution. We see the differences between John’s father and Harry Powell, both wrongdoers in the eyes of the law. We see the apple recurring as a gift of purity and innocence.
The film’s credited scriptwriter, James Agee, wrote critically of his work in a letter to a friend: ‘Most of it has hung somewhere between satire and what I suppose would be called “moralistic” writing: I wish I could get both washed out of my system and get anywhere near what the real job of art is: attempt to state things as they seem to be, minus personal opinion of any sort.’ I would argue that while Night of the Hunter does deal with simple moral questions and presents satirical views of religion and society, it reveals itself to be more complex and thought-provoking than at first impression; just like the gullible cast, perhaps we are too ready to buy into those fists of ‘LOVE’ and ‘HATE’.
Agee worked on the script as an adaptation of a novel by Davis Grubb (although due to disagreements between Laughton and Agee, just how much of Agee’s script ended up on the screen has been contested). Both Grubb and Agee aimed to present the reality of the Depression through their writing; Grubb in his novel and Agee in the text of his 1941 book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which presented the era-defining photography of Walker Evans. The images captured by Evans’s camera are partially re-created in the film as John and his sister Pearl take to the countryside, their clothes turning to rags and their faces etched with grime; but, in parallel to this realist aesthetic, there are several stylised, fantastical sequences, sculpted by Stanley Cortez’s high-contrast lighting and Walter Schumann’s haunted music. They are quite possibly some of the strangest, most beautiful scenes I have seen on film. Perhaps that’s because they surprise the audience, nestled away among more conventional narrative. They provide a wonderful lilting counterpoint to taut, suspenseful scenes. In bringing together these two different approaches, Laughton made a unique and sublimely stunning film. It enchants, haunts and frightens in equal measures.
Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms…
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Vincente Minnelli’s insider look at the golden age of Hollywood is sly and slickly entertaining, with Kirk Douglas as the unscrupulous producer Jonathan Shields adding a tough edge to the black and white melodrama. Told in three long flashbacks, it recounts the relationships of director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), writer James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) and the luminous Lana Turner, who plays the actress Georgia Lorrison, to the ambitious Shields. Shields woos them, puts a magical gloss on their burgeoning talent, and then carelessly, casually ditches them when they’ve outlived their usefulness to him.
Charles Schnee’s whip-smart script, packed with sharp one-liners and passionate dialogue is a pitch-perfect accompaniment to the noir-ish look of Robert Surtees’s cinematography. There’s an extra layer of knowingness to the whole production too: shadows, odd staircases, extravagant stage sets and behind the scenes shots are nods to the mechanics of filmmaking, while in-jokes about directors and actors add an extra frisson to this gripping tale of Hollywood hubris.
Director Amiel is the first one to dish the dirt on Shields. A paid mourner at the funeral of Shields’s father, he insults the dead producer: ‘one of the mad men who almost wrecked it, a butcher who sold everything but the pig’s whistle’, unaware that he’s standing next to his son. He apologises and it’s the start of a beautiful friendship. The duo learn their craft on the B-movie production lot, their biggest success ‘The Doom of the Cat Men’, where the laughable, ill-fitting cat costumes are abandoned for the shadowy allure of silhouettes: ‘Because the dark has a life of its own. In the dark all sorts of things come alive.’ Soon after, darkness enters their relationship too, as Shields’s ruthless disloyalty becomes evident.
Lana Turner as Georgia Lorrison is next in line for the Shields treatment. Drunk, and crushed by the weight of the legacy of her actor father, she is rescued by the charismatic Shields from playing ‘the doomed daughter of the great man’. Shields coaches her, stops her drinking, makes her believe that he’s in love with her. Lana’s all aglow, like a damaged angel, tender and trembling and determined to do her best. Until fear overcomes her on the night before filming her first important role and she goes on a bender. Shields drops her in a swimming pool to sober her up, and sets her on the path to being a star. And then along comes the celebratory party where Georgia is feted and Jonathan is missing. Heading to his house wrapped in a white mink, and with her heart on her glittery sleeve, she’s determined to celebrate with him. But instead of a celebration, Georgia is faced with the heart-breaking realisation of Shields’s betrayal.
James Lee Bartlow seems the most likely candidate to resist the allure of the film world. A pipe-smoking Southern writer, with a delightful wife - Gloria Grahame, blonde and blithe and funny, with the catch phrase: ‘You’re a very naughty man, I’m happy to say’ - he nonetheless succumbs: ‘I’m flattered that you want me and bitter you got me.’ Jonathan and James go to work on the script, with constant interruptions from charming Rosemary Bartlow, until Shields, unbeknownst to James Lee, arranges a distraction with fatal consequences. It’s the end of another relationship, a definitive severing of all ties, like those with Amiel and Georgia.
But this is Hollywood, and in the final scene the three protagonists are clustered around a phone, listening to the scintillating, despicable Shields pitching them a new project. Until the very end we wonder if they will be sucked in again by his treacherous charm.