Tag Archives: Hitchcock

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

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Dressed to Kill

Dressed to Kill
Dressed to Kill

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 29 July 2013

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Brian De Palma

Writer: Brian De Palma

Cast: Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen

USA 1980

83 mins

The legendary New Hollywood director Brian De Palma has had a more erratic filmmaking career than most. Iconic classics (Carrie and Scarface) rub shoulders with legendary disasters (The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Black Dahlia – not coincidentally, two unwieldy adaptations of classic American authors). Impassioned, personal labours of love (Blow Out, Femme Fatale) vie with hire-a-hack studio gigs (The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible). His trajectory is an unpredictable swerve: De Palma has often seemed like an outsider in the fickle world of Hollywood, persecuted first by critics who decried his unoriginality and apparent bad taste, and then by censors balking at his films’ often transgressive content.

Dressed to Kill, newly reissued on Blu-ray for the first time in uncut form, and made at a convenient mid-point in De Palma’s now 50-year career, provides a timely opportunity to evaluate this uncommonly talented auteur. The film has aspects of the passionate, personal side of his directing, as well as his underrated commercial instinct: its box office success marks it as an early populariser of the modern erotic thriller. De Palma was enamoured with Hitchcock; a science whiz as a young man, he fell in love with film at college via Hitchcock, Welles and Godard, and spent his career crafting elaborate cinematic love letters to the three of them (Antonioni was also a favourite). Dressed to Kill is one of his most overt Hitchcock homages: it overflows with lush audience-baiting orchestral music cues, bravura wordless set-pieces, and erotic perversity.

De Palma was more compelled by the voyeuristic strands in Hitchcock’s films than by his studies of wronged-man innocence. So if Obsession cribs from Vertigo, and Blow Out from Rear Window, Dressed to Kill set its sights on Psycho; it lunges knife-in-hand at this overbearing predecessor, extracting the juiciest ideas and discarding the dated fat. Yet as De Palma retrofits and enhances Hitchcock with modernised sexuality and violence, the result only amounts to a blandification; it reduces the master’s fascination with human behaviour and rare empathy into something insincere and unfeeling. We leave Dressed to Kill staggered by De Palma’s technique and craftsmanship, while still unconvinced by the cold void imparted by the button-pushing plot.

Revealing too much of that plot would be cruel. Someone is offing psychiatrist Dr. Robert Elliott’s (Michael Caine) patients; Elliott believes it might be ‘Bobbi’, an unseen and unknown transgender patient, who leaves him threatening, desperate answer-phone messages throughout the course of the film. A well-heeled, bored housewife patient, Kate (Angie Dickinson), and a hooker with a heart of gold, Liz (played by De Palma’s then-belle Nancy Allen) may be in danger. It’s then left up to Liz, and Kate’s teenage computer-boffin son (Keith Gordon) to unlock this taunting mystery.

Uncharacteristically, the film’s highlight sequence is ultimately tangential to the main thrust of the plot. After a meeting with Elliott where, in rather cheesy racy-thriller form, Kate confesses her sexual attraction to him, she then takes a lazy mid-morning detour into a modern art gallery. In a sequence reminiscent of the recent Spanish arthouse film In the City of Sylvia, we follow her as she alights upon a male admirer stalking the gallery for pick-ups. What ensues is a formidably choreographed cat-and-mouse chase of attraction through the white gallery hallways, the glances and reactions of the two conveyed first in split-screen, and then in one breath-catching long take.

Yet it’s a shame that De Palma instills most of his energy into the film’s most conspicuous ‘action’ scenes; as a result, the concluding twist’s lack of psychological credibility exposes this thriller as just another giddy ‘gotcha’ contraption, rather than peering into the heart of its characters with any genuine curiosity or insight.

David Katz

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Dial M for Murder – 3D

Featuring a tense script and superb acting, Dial M for Murder (1954) marked a departure from Hitchcock’s man-on-the-run suspense movies in more ways than one. Faithfully adapted from the successful Broadway play, Hitchcock opened up the action by shooting his legendary marriage and murder thriller in 3D, using the stereoscopic Natural Vision method. Sadly, the format fell out of favour just before the film’s original theatrical release, but thanks to Park Circus, Dial M for Murder – 3D now returns to the big screen in a gorgeous, newly restored and remastered version. Below, Paul O’Connell revisits the Hitchcock classic in 3D, released in selected UK cinemas on 26 July 2013, and available on Blu-ray by Warner Home Video.

Comic Strip Dial M for Murder 3D_1
Comic Strip Dial M for Murder 3D_2
Comic Strip Review by Paul O'Connell
More information on Paul O’Connell can be found here.

Double Take

Double Take

Format: Cinema

Release date: 2 April 2010

Venue: BFI Southbank, Curzons Mayfair, Wimbledon (London) and key cities

Distributor: Soda Pictures

Director: Johan Grimonprez

Writer: Tom McCarthy

Cast: Ron Burrage, Mark Perry

UK 2009

80 mins

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Somewhere in Belgian artist Johan Grimonprez’s film - a vast montage of Hitchcock’s television appearances, Cold War footage and coffee commercials - is an adaptation of a Jorge Luis Borges story by art world luminary and novelist Tom McCarthy. Borges described meeting his younger self in ‘The Other’ and returned to the idea in ‘August 25, 1983’. Here it is Alfred Hitchcock who meets the 1980s version of himself during the filming of The Birds in 1962, which leads him to plan the perfect murder. ‘If you meet your double, you should kill him, or he will kill you,’ one tells the other.

This war between doubles is mirrored in the cultural tensions of the late 50s and early 60s. In the dialectic battle for supremacy we have: communism v capitalism, television v cinema and instant v ground (coffee that is). Hitchcock is an odd (but somehow perfect) choice around whom to build such a film - a seeming mass of contradictions who fails to add his weight decisively to either side of any argument. To him the Cold War was a handy plot device, a MacGuffin. Soviet agents, like the Nazi spies in Notorious (1946), or even the birds in The Birds, were simply the faceless danger to set the plot in motion. In the latter film, the apocalyptic fear of the Cuban Missile Crisis is stripped of any political content and turned into an animal class war (aves v mammalia). And yet, in contrast to the rest of Hitchcock’s oeuvre, it is a film that seems to invite allegorical readings. Is mankind’s faltering position at the top of the evolutionary tree a reflection of the Red Peril or perhaps even of cinema’s battle for the biggest share of the market place with television (that smaller, less intelligent but more numerous and successful upstart)? Among the highlights in Double Take is some excellent footage of Vice-President Richard Nixon defending his country in a ‘good-humoured’ debate with First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev: we may be losing the space race, he argues, but we have colour television.

Although it would take some years before television began to gain artistic credibility, the small screen was by the early 60s commercially (in America at least) whooping ass. And with the advent of colour it must have seemed that cinema’s days were numbered. Although Hitchcock appears to sneer at the new technology - there is a great joke about adverts being specially placed throughout the programme to stop the audience from getting too involved - he was, as always, adaptable - after all, he had already made the move to sound, to colour, to widescreen and even shot Dial M for Murder (1954) in 3D. And with Alfred Hitchcock Presents and its follow-up The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (the hilarious intros from these make up the bulk of Hitchcock’s appearances in this film), he became for a while more famous, certainly more recognisable, as a television host than as a director of films.

It seems that in Double Take Grimonprez is not really interested in Alfred Hitchcock the artist - there is no mention of voyeurism or the manipulation of the audience that dominate other studies. The Master of Suspense is reduced to a figure of his time - as much a 2D representation as the famous line drawing from his TV show. And yet this is somehow refreshing. Perhaps because he is ‘cinema’s greatest artist’, his art has dominated discussions and the socio-political context of his films has been often overlooked. This may also be because Hitchcock himself was as disdainful of when and where his films were set as he was of the plausibility of his plots. And yet he was forever setting his films amid contemporary political turmoil; the Cold War itself serves as background for both Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969).

Read our Reel Sounds column on the Psycho soundtrack.

It must also be said that Double Take is a very entertaining film and is at times very funny - aside from the Hitchcock intros, there is also the strange comedy double act of Nixon and Khrushchev. The pleasures the film offers are perhaps not unlike those of an ‘I love 1962’ compilation, but at the same time it is intelligent and complex with enough layers of reality to rival the Curb Your Enthusiasm ‘Seinfeld’ episode; we see the actor and Dead Ringers star Mark Perry practising Hitchcock’s voice and reading from Truffaut’s interview book (based on recordings made in 1962) and celebrity look-alike Ron Burrage, who shares a birthday with the filmmaker, posing with Tippi Hedren.

For those who need reminding of history’s relevance to the present we also have the true story of a plane crashing into the Empire State Building in 1945, among other references to 9/11. But such forced links are hardly necessary; we still have a capitalism v (Chinese) communism conflict; television and cinema are now both fighting a battle with newer media; but Folger’s ground coffee is still a bestseller stateside and, ‘as good as fresh perked’ or not, the instant variety remains as popular as instant tea in Britain. Perhaps what is genuine and authentic will prevail if only we can recognise it.

Paul Huckerby

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