Tag Archives: Charles Laughton

The Night of the Hunter

The Night of the Hunter
The Night of the Hunter

Format: Cinema

Release date: 17 January 2014

Distributor: Park Circus

Director: Charles Laughton

Writers: James Agee, Charles Laughton

Based on the novel by: Davis Grubb

Cast: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish

USA 1955

93 mins

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…

Eleanor McKeown

Watch the trailer:

Island of Lost Souls

Island of Lost Souls

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 28 May 2012

Distributor: Eureka

Director: Erle C. Kenton

Writers: Waldemar Young, Philip Wylie

Original title: Hadaka no shima

Based on The Island of Dr Moreau by: H.G Wells

Cast: Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams, Bela Lugosi, Kathleen Burke

USA 1932

71 mins

Hard-up 1930s Depression-era cinema-goers were eager to escape the everyday in a tantalising world of the strange and uncanny. The success of Universal’s Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) saw other studios keen to carve themselves a bloody slice of the action. Paramount seized H.G. Wells’s anti-vivisectionist novel The Island of Dr Moreau, adapted to become Island of Lost Souls (1932). Designed to combine grotesque thrills with jungle drama (another hot genre at the time), it was knocked out quickly by work-a-day director Erle C. Kenton. Little did the studio know that the end product would be one of the weirdest, creepiest films to emerge in the pre-Hays Code era and would defy time to become a transgressive horror classic.

Finally out on DVD after years of fuzzy bootleg VHS copies, Island tells the tale of square-jawed Edward Parker, marooned on the eerie South Seas island of sinister scientist Dr Moreau (the wonderful Charles Laughton). Parker is shocked to discover that Moreau has created a shambling experimental race of half-human, half-animal creatures, some cloven-hoofed, some sprouting hair in unusual places, who live in the jungle, obedient to Moreau lest they be summoned to his sadistic ‘house of pain’. Moreau’s latest creation is the sensual Panther Woman. Looking rather unlike Moreau’s other creations – more like an alluring animalistic Betty Boop – she has never seen a handsome man before. In the name of science, Moreau unleashes her on hunky Parker - and that’s when the trouble starts.

As mad Moreau, Charles Laughton dominates proceedings with an incredible performance that veers expertly between quietly understated and the edges of overblown. Like Colin Clive’s Dr Frankenstein, he compares himself to God; but Laughton’s Moreau is not a misguided would-be do-gooder; he is a cheerfully unhinged genius who revels in doing evil. Beaming proudly at the screams of his botched animal-human hybrids, cracking his whip over the awful monsters he’s created, lounging decadently across his vivisection table like a modern day Roman emperor, or simply oozing creepiness as he offers a guest a cup of tea, Laughton plays his part with delicious relish. Somehow he convinces the viewer that despite his odious transgressions against nature, humanity and God, he’s rather a fun fellow really; despite the fact that he is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, we remain sympathetic to him right to the end. This creepy moral paradox is central to the film’s unique, unsettling, perverse power.

Bela Lugosi, the ‘Sayer of the Law’, the chief experimental-reject responsible for conveying Moreau’s orders to the beast-men, deserves mention (as always). Despite sporting a mighty brush of facial hair that would infringe upon anybody’s expressive powers, he turns a lemon of a minor part into lemonade, delivering a convincing, memorable portrayal through pure energetic force of will. “Are ve not men?” he demands of his savage brethren, in that inimitable distinctly un-South Seas voice of his. And he means it. Some of the so-called ‘civilised’ characters are equally fascinating - from the booze-addled, neglectful skipper who thinks nothing of heaving Parker from his boat, before later attempting to chat up his fiancée, to a pipe-puffing disgraced medic, who finds hope of redemption in Moreau’s demise.

It all looks terrific thanks to legendary cinematographer Karl Struss. Like many of the early sound horrors, it has that distinctly creepy quality, an indefinable spookiness that faded away somehow as horror got glossier towards the 1940s. Struss’s camera is always moving, pulling back and forwards through crowded, labyrinthine sets. From the fog-shrouded ship-bound scenes to the steamy verdant undergrowth, he takes us to a distant place. We feel the oppressive claustrophobia of the jungle. In one justly renowned sequence, a succession of imaginatively made-up horrors lurch vengefully towards the camera to attack their master (British make-up specialist Wally Westmore gives Universal’s Jack Pierce a run for his money here). Briefly glimpsed, gangly, dark and hairy, they strike a potent contrast with glistening, corpulent, baby-faced Laughton in his vivid white suit, before they gleefully turn on him in one of the most gloriously twisted finales to grace a 1930s horror.

Wells was outraged by what they’d done to his novel and disgusted by the insertion of a sexual, sensual edge. The British censor banned the film outright for many years; and, even today – perhaps especially today, in these times of genetic experimentation - this tale of man messing with nature retains its creepy potency. Throw out your VHS, the DVD looks great. This is absolutely your best chance to see whether – as is rumoured – Buster Crabbe, Alan Ladd and Randolph Scott really make unbilled appearances as beast-men. Let’s hope some of the other great forgotten horrors of this era can get a similarly lavish make-over. Can we start with White Zombie (1932)?

Vic Pratt