Archive for June, 2009

The Pink Angora Series

Posted in Guest Blogger with tags , , , , on June 30, 2009 by mjprigge
I can't possible elaborate upon this image...

I cannot possible elaborate upon this image.

Enjoy this latest addition from my favorite guest blogger, Matt.  Stay tuned for more to come from The Pink Angora Series here at l’eclisse.

I remember once at a party, I put a hipster in his place. He was p-shawing a friend of mine for their adoration of sappy, early nineties cinema. I remarked pithily that any dope could enjoy a good movie, but it takes a real connoisseur of film to appreciate a terrible one. I might have been a bit aggressive in my delivery, but I think the idea holds merit. I’ve heard before that the best art happens when you don’t expect it, a lucky aberration that yields something beautiful. This would suggest that mediocrity is the norm, what happens when fate and genius do not intervene. But if mediocrity happens by default, then it would reason to stand that those lucky breaks of genius can break bad too. This blog is dedicated to exceptional films and I would not dream of changing that, but just as great movies are the exception, so are the downright terrible pictures. In short, Citizen Kane  is nearer to Plan 9 from Outer Space than it is whatever tepid picture is showing at your local mall this weekend

Ed Wood, schlock king, drag queen.

Ed Wood, schlock king, drag queen.

So in that spirit, I would like to announce a new series here at l’eclisse… The Pink Angora Series. Honoring the Orson Welles of the other side, Ed Wood (who had a knack for terrible movies and a soft spot for angora and heels), Pink Angora will take a look at what happens when everything goes wrong. Since I can’t rightly decide which steaming loaf to dig into first, I will throw the nomination to the floor.

SO! Here are the candidates…

The Buster Keaton Story (1957) – Biopic of my very favorite actor of all-time, starring two of other favorites, Donald O’Conner and Peter Lorre. It tells the story of Buster’s life about as well as Napoleon Dynamite tells the life story of Bonapaurte… and the story of TNT.

Wicked Stepmother (1989) – Best known as being the forgettable final film in Bette Davis’ legendary career. Known less

The sad end for Miss Bette Davis

The sad end for Miss Bette Davis

 for being the only time that bald guy from “Night Court” shared scenes with Howard Cunningham.

Blank Check (1994) – Disney kiddie film that speculates what might happen if an annoying prepubescent boy with thrifty parent suddenly came into a million dollars cash. SPOILER ALERT… he orders Chips-Ahoy factory-direct.

So there you have it. Cast your vote in the comments!

Summer Silents – Lillian Gish and Broken Blossoms (1919)

Posted in Silent Film with tags , , , on June 26, 2009 by leclisse

Theatrical poster for Broken Blossoms (1919)Broken Blossoms (1919) is a significant departure for D. W. Griffith away from the prestigious epics he had produced by 1918 (The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Hearts of the World), toward something more straightforward yet delicately ethereal.  Lillian Gish stars as Lucy, the 15-year-old daughter of prizefighter Battling Burrows (played to the sadistic hilt by Donald Crisp).  Waifish Lucy is the object of Battling’s abuse and the outlet for his anger.  Lucy cowers when she comes near him, ever fearful that she will receive yet another beating for some unknown offense.  Incredibly, Burrows reprimands her for her constant state of fear. “Why can’t you smile?” he snarls.  Ever compliant, Lucy takes two fingers and forces the corners of her mouth up in a bizarre attempt to smile for her father.  As in the climactic closet scene, Lucy is the picture of tragedy here, when we see that something so common as a smile is completely foreign to her abusive life.

Intertitle card for Broken Blossoms (1919)One day while in town shopping for the evening meal, we see that a Chinese shopkeeper, Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) lets his gaze linger adoringly on little Lucy.  There is no violent sexuality or malice in his look, as might be expected from her abusive father, but rather a sort of dreamy quality.  Lucy is his vision of heaven in the pits of the grimy Limehouse district in London.  Barthelmess as the Chinese Cheng does not stoop to easy ethnic stereotypes, which are readily available from Griffith (the film’s subtitle is “The Yellow Man and the Girl”).  Some of the film’s title cards contain an interesting mixture of Anglo paternalism (one referencing Battling’s attitudes toward Cheng describes how he hates anyone not born in his own country of England) with blatant ethnic slurs (after being rescued by Cheng, Lucy asks him, “What makes you so good to me, Chinky?”).  This is a step beyond the sort of typing exhibited in Birth, but it is nonetheless very visible.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess in Broken Blossoms (1919)Inevitably, Burrows goes on to beat Lucy into a senseless heap.  She struggles to make her way out of this den of violence, and wanders the fog-lined streets of Limehouse.  Exhausted, she collapses in the middle of Cheng’s shop.  In a slight opium stupor, Cheng cannot believe that this vision has come to his little cubbyhole.  Wasting no time, he carries the senseless Lucy upstairs and outfits the room into something fit for a princess so she can make a full recovery.

The climax of the film comes during the famous “closet scene.”  Burrows discovers that Lucy has been recovering in one of the upstairs rooms of Cheng’s shop.  Outraged that his daughter may have had relations with Cheng, he storms into the shop, racing upstairs and trashes the apartment.  He grabs Lucy and takes her back home, where he prepares to giver her the beating of a lifetime.  Totally given over to terror, Lucy locks herself in a closet, begging Burrows not to beat her because “t’ain’t nothing wrong.”  Lucy runs in circles within the narrow closet, her face a mask of total shock all the while clutching a little doll given to her by Cheng.  While preparing for this scene, Lillian visited a mental asylum in order to learn the true look of terror.  Her performance in this scene is nothing short of masterful, displaying the sort of tragedy that no child actor could ever achieve (Lillian initially balked at Griffith’s request that she play Lucy, because, at 25, she thought herself too old for the part).  Burrows takes a hatchet to the door, and finally kills Lucy with his rage.

The lifeless Lucy (Lillian Gish) in Broken Blossoms (1919)Of course, tragedy can be the only ending to the story of such brokenness.  Cheng finds the lifeless Lucy, and brings her back to his shop.  He lays her out on the bed she used, putting things around her as he would on a funeral pyre.  Cheng shoots Burrows, which is another tragedy in itself.  He originally came to England from China in order to spread the pacifist meassage of the Buddha.  With nothing else to live for, he then kills himself.

The photography in Broken Blossoms is some of the most beautiful that I have ever seen in a Griffith film.  Griffith makes liberal use of tinting in order to show daytime and nighttime, which further lends itself to the ethereal mood of the film.  Clocking in at only 90 minutes, the story of Blossoms is succinct and splendidly told.  Every scene has its place (which is more than I can say for the more operatic Birth) and every actor is allowed to explore the characters to the fullest extent of creativity.  This films is truly a masterful example of not only Griffith’s and Gish’s work, but of silent cinema as a whole.

Summer Silents – Lillian Gish and The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Posted in Silent Film with tags , , , , on June 24, 2009 by leclisse

I’ve decided to get a little more thematic during the summer months since I have a break from school work.  To kickstart this project is what I’ve called “Summer Silents,” where I focus on a particular personality in silent film that I don’t know much about.  Along with viewing several of that star’s films, I’ll also be reading a biography in order to get a better understanding of the film (and star’s) evolution within the context of general film history.

The first in this series is Lillian Gish.  I had already seen several of her films (Way Down East (1920), The Wind (1927), Night of the Hunter (1955)), but this really did not cover her profound partnership with D. W. Griffith.  Lillian (along with sister Dorothy) was introduced to Griffith at Biograph Studios in 1912 by actress Mary Pickford.  The sisters were hesitant to enter the immoral world of the “flickers,” as they had been performing on the “legitimate stage” for ten years by then.  Financial concerns won the girls and their mother over, however, and the Gish-Griffith partnership began.

Theatrical poster for The Birth of a Nation (1915)The Birth of a Nation  (1915) is perhaps the most controversial and discussed film in United States history.  Its reputation as a testament to the deep-seated racism of white America in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction is remembered first and foremost; it is rarely if ever popularly spoken of as a revolutionary piece of filmmaking produced while film was yet struggling to expand beyond the strictures of a few reels.  The story for Birth came to Griffith from Thomas Dixon’s The Leopard’s Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905), both literary bestsellers that portray the Ku Klux Klan as saviors of Southern whites.  Griffith was an appreciative audience for such characterizations.  As the son of one of the Confederacy’s decorated calvary, Jacob Griffith, the young D. W. was reared in the spirit of the Confederate South, which still simmered with resentment against their defeat.  Financing for such a technically unprecedented venture proved to be shaky.  Griffith even had to sell some personal stock in order to bring the films budget up to $110,000 — a remarkable sum for a film at that time.  Because Griffith was constantly short of much-needed funds, Lillian, Dorothy, and their mother Mary Gish even invested some savings in exchange for a return of the profits.

Lillian GishLillian’s role as Elsie Stoneman in Birth rarely gives her chance to stretch her talents as an actress or a tragedienne.  Rather, her presence seems to inhabit a largely decorative purpose.  Elsie is the daughter of congressman Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis), a northern abolitionist.  She is a doting daughter and a patriotic sister who sees her brothers off to war.  Inspired by the cause, she becomes a hospital nurse.  There is even one scene where, she passes by a young sentry who longingly sighs (twice) after watching her walk by.  Her grip on the audience does not clench until the latter part of the film, when one of her father’s underlings — the mulatto Silas Lynch (George Seimann) —  asks for Elsie’s hand in marriage.  Elsie, clearly disgusted at the prospect, refuses and tries to leave his lascivious presence.  Lynch grabs her, shaking her long, touseled blonde hair with his anger.  At the last minute, Elsie is saved by the fortuitous arrival of the Klan.  She even leads the victory parade that caps the film when, triumphant, the Klan march through town to the cheers of whites crowding both sides of the street.

Title cardGriffith rather famously excluded black actors from his cast because, apparently, he did not think they were talented enough to play the film’s black characters.  White actors in blackface substituted for them instead, bringing out the worst beliefs of white racism.  They are shown as buffoons, drunks, sexual predators, simpleminded lackeys, and every other conceiveable stereotype under the sun.  Charles Affron notes in Lillian Gish: Her Life, Her Legend, that a 1916 article in Photoplay magazine rather candidly reveals that Griffith also did not want black-blooded actors to touch one of his white actresses.

Birth is credited with revolutionizing several cinematic techniques, including the use of night photography, the camera “iris” effect, the extensive use of color tinting to convey psychological moods of the characters, and many others (see Filmsite‘s exhaustive list here).  This is not to say that this was the first time these techniques were employed — Griffith used at least some of them in his prevous Biograph works, and the international film scene (specifically in Italy) had already produced some impressive historical epics.  Technical achievements aside, I tried to appreciate this film from (at least) its irrevocable place in film history.  It is hard to really understand how audiences received the film in 1915, since we are so far removed from that time.  President Woodrow Wilson famously claimed that it was his favorite movie.  The primitive state of technology is evident, but what Griffith does with it is beyond much of the output of film generated at this time.  I can’t say I would want to watch Birth again, because it struck me more than anything as an artifact of its time.

Betty Boop and Friends (1930-1939)

Posted in Guest Blogger with tags , , , , on June 23, 2009 by mjprigge

Today’s guest blogger is Matt, who writes over at Yount Vs. Molitor.  While his blog is about baseball cards and other sports topics, Matt has a formidable knowledge of classic film and is always welcome at l’eclisse. Enjoy!

A few notable examples not withstanding, the realm of mainstream animated film, up until the last fifteen years or so, has been largely aimed at a young audience. The sixties saw both the last of the short animated films released in theatres and the sale of those libraries for broadcast on television. These broadcasts, particularly the Saturday shows that would become a cultural ritual, cemented the image of cartoons as child’s play. However, early animated sound films were intended for a much wider audience. The Fleischer brothers, Max and David, were two of the early giants of this industry. Fleischer Studios developed a method of combining animation with live-action film called the Rotoscope. The Rotoscope style gave Fleischer’s cartoons a distinctive three-dimensional look. The Fleischers also developed the “bouncing ball” device for sing-a-long cartoons. Among Fleischer Studio’s star players were Koko the Clown, Popeye the Sailor, and a plucky young starlet named Betty Boop.

Betty as nameless Frech Poodle. Note the large ears.

Betty as nameless Frech Poodle. Note the large ears.

Introduced in 1930 as a nameless poodle dressed in flapper fashions, the original Betty was the girlfriend of established Fleischer star pooch, Bimbo. In 1931, New Yorker Mae Questel took over vocal duties for Betty, providing her trademark squeaky voice. The following year, the character was officially christened as Betty Boop and assumed her more familiar human form, although she maintained her romantic interest in Bimbo for several films. Questel’s vocals, combined with Betty’s new look, drew comparisons to two flesh and blood stars, Helen Kane and Clara Bow. The original Betty poodle was indeed a caricature of Kane and she would later unsuccessfully sue the Fleischers, claiming infringement. The partnership of Questel and the Fleischers would being an eight year run of success.

Early Betty Boop cartoons reflect the unstable time in which they flourished. Betty is often shown at odds with modern urban life. Betty was a city girl, living in an absurd, Rube Goldbergian world. Just as Betty was an animal-come-human, the inanimate world around her would often spring to life, with talking clocks, galloping tables, and sexually-aggressive flowers. During the Great Depression, Betty’s struggles with the clatter of progress (Stop That Noise), ridiculous innovation (Betty Boop’s Crazy Inventions), or the decline of urban civility (Judge for a Day), resonated with an adult audience. The constant personification of everyday objects, combined with the generally trippy animating style of the Fleischers make the early Betty Boop Pictures a treat for the senses. The subtle cuteness and rhythmic silliness of it all works on levels that are far deeper than most cartoons of the era.

Classic Betty, pre-code. Note the short dress and exposed shoulders.

Classic Betty, pre-code. Note the short dress and exposed shoulders.

While not consciously political, Betty is unmistakably her own woman. She is only once shown to have parents and, aside from her canine boyfriend Bimbo, is rarely shown with a love interest. A female character, especially an animated one, who was not a wife, daughter, or object of pursuance was nearly non-existent at the time and remains a novelty today. Betty was almost always shown living by herself, driving (and sometimes flying) on her own. Betty worked, as a singer, as a business owner, even once as a candidate for President. Betty was also in command of her own sexuality. Much more prominently displayed in the early thirties, Betty had an obvious sexual nature. With a garter exposed and occasionally flashing a bit of cleavage, early Betty maintained an innocence that stayed true to her sly nature. While certainly also aware of her appeal, it was never used callously. Occasionally, her virtue was challenged, with 1932’s Chess-Nuts alluding to rape and Betty’s virginity. However, after a narrow escape, Betty proclaims that her “Boop-boop-be-doop” was not taken away.

Betty was tamed by the introduction of the Hays Code in 1933, with toned-down adventures and a more traditional home life and dress. Gone were the visible garter and low-cut dress, replaced with more modest clothing. Betty’s role in her own franchise also began to decline by the mid-thirties, while co-stars like Henry, an egg-bald nine-year-old sometimes billed (quite presumptuously as the ‘Funniest Man on Earth’), Pudgy, a troublesome pet dog, and Professor Grampy, an eccentric inventor. Betty’s role in these films would shrink as the decade progressed, eventually reduced to an ancillary character whose main contribution was musical, as Questel was busy with Popeye the Sailor, the Fleischer’s newest hit, providing the voice of Olive Oyl.

Betty in her final film, Rhythm on the Reservation.

Betty in her final film, Rhythm on the Reservation.

By the late thirties, Betty’s appearance had become even more human, with her tiny feet and hands and melonous head adjusted in size. Her style of dress was also updated, more accurately reflected the fashion of the time. Betty’s final film, Rhythm on the Reservation is an unfortunately crude attempt at humor involving Betty on an Indian reservation. The film is comprised almost entirely of a single musical number (a common trait of later Betty films) and features some ugly stereotypes of Native Americans. A final cartoon was released under the Betty Boop banner, but she did not appear.

Betty’s transition to television was not as lucrative as some of her younger peers, owing largely to the fact that the vast majority of her 110 films were done in black and white (Although several were later colorized). Despite this, Betty Boop gained a second life beginning in the 1980s as a marketing tool. Betty’s image has graced thousands of items, from clothing to action figures, and is how most people know her today. Even with her ability to more merchandise, her original body of work remains somewhat obscure. About one-fifth of these films are currently in the public domain and viable for free on various websites. An eight tape VHS definitive collection was released in the 90’s and can be found used online. No official DVD release of Betty Boop films has ever been produced, but her public domain work can be purchased on DVD through amazon.com or eBay. Larger, unlicensed collections are also available and well worth the effort.

Girl Shy (1924)

Posted in Dailies, Silent Film with tags , , , on June 16, 2009 by leclisse

Theatrical poster for Girl Shy (1924)Harold Meadows (Harold Lloyd) is an apprentice to his uncle, who is the town tailor in Little Bend, California.  Poor Harold has made it his life’s mission to study that most elusive of all species, women.  His problem, however, is that he develops a debilitating stutter if forced to interact with them.  He must content himself with observing from afar, and assembles his notes into a guide for the modern man called The Secret of Making Love.  Armed with the completed manuscript, Harold makes his way by train to the big city in order to sell his work to a publisher.  While on the train, however, Harold meets the adorable Mary Buckingham (Jobyna Ralston).  Harold saves Mary’s pet dog from being seized by the train conductor, and the two are obviously smitten.

When Harold finally arrives at the publisher, his manuscript falls into the hands of the office personnel, who find the whole idea of the guide to be uproarious fun.  The publisher doesn’t see the market potential in the book, and sends Harold away with his hopes shattered.  It is only after Harold’s departure that the publisher realizes the comic possibility of such a title, and sends him a check for $3,000 in advance royalties.  Meanwhile, Harold and Mary are in the haze of infatuation, and bump into each other once again.  Even though they are clearly smitten with one another, Harold is convinced that he is a nobody, undeserving of Mary’s love.  He pretends to lose interest in her, and Mary returns home, defeated, and agrees to marry the slimy Ronald De Vore (Carlton Griffith).  Unbeknownst to Mary, Ronald already has a wife that he keeps hidden away in Little Bend.

Harold Lloyd and Jobyna Ralston in Girl Shy (1924)Harold knows the woman who is Ronald’s wife, and the two of them happen to see a newspaper notice announcing Mary’s imminent marriage.  Horrified, Harold leaps into action and begins a lengthy chase scene when he frantically uses any means necessary (at one point comandeering an electric streetcar) to make his way to the Buckingham estate before it’s too late.  The wedding and the chase are shown one step at a time, each inching closer to the finale.  Harold leaps into the ceremony just before the priest is about to announce Mary and Ronald man and wife, and spirits Mary away in true “cave man” style.  Of course, all ends well for Harold and Mary.

Girl Shy is another delightful romp in the cannon of Lloyd films, and is his second pairing with Ralston.  Ralston came in as Lloyd’s choice to replace Mildred Davis as his recurring leading lady.  Their palpable chemistry produces a wonderful emotional depth that only adds to Girl Shy‘s appeal.  After some brief internet browsing, it does not seem that much is known about Ralston’s life.  She was born in South Pittburg, Tennessee in 1899 to stage struck parents who encouraged her to find a life on the stage.  After a brief stint on Broadway, comedian Max Linder convinced her to head West to Hollywood and carve out a career for herself in the burgeoning film industry.  By 1923, she achieved enough notice to be named one of that year’s selection of WAMPAS Baby Stars, an honor that Clara Bow would also go on to win in 1924.  With the WAMPAS award under her belt, she starred with Lloyd in Why Worry? that same year, which would be the first of their six feature-length pairings.

Jobyna RalstonPrivately, Ralston was married two times — the first to a childhood sweetheart, and the second to fellow actor Richard Arlen.  Ralston met Arlen on the set of Wings (1927), the classic WWI aviation spectacle co-starring Arlen, Clara Bow and Charles “Buddy” Rogers.  In Wings, Ralston plays Sylvia Lewis, the girl that both Arlen and Rogers pine for while ignoring Bow as the “girl next door.”  Ralston and Arlen had only one child together, future actor Richard Arlen, Jr.  Ralston ended her film career by 1930 after making only two talkies because she had a noticeable lisp.  She and Arlen finally divorced in 1945, and for the next 22 years she suffered from chronic rheumatism and (later) a series of strokes.  She died at the Motion Picture Country Home in 1967 at the age of 67.

Safety Last! (1923)

Posted in Dailies, Silent Film with tags , , on June 14, 2009 by leclisse

TCM had a line-up of Harold Lloyd films fairly recently, and I caught about 30 minutes of Girl Shy (1924) before having to head off to work that morning.  I had never seen a Harold Lloyd film before, but immediately I was intrigued.  Harold Lloyd was the most famous male comedian during the silent era, selling far more tickets than either Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton had managed to do.  Yet today it is Keaton and Chaplin who are remembered and revered, not Lloyd.  Part of this neglect no doubt has to do with the fact that Lloyd held on to copyright control of his films after retirement.  He refused to rerelease them to theaters because he did not want them to be accompanied by a pianist; theaters were just not equipped with organists anymore.  In addition to this preference, Lloyd charged $300,000 for a double showing of one of his films on television, which inevitably closed the door on his films for a large segment of the public.  Good thing most of his films are now remastered and available on DVD.

Davis and Lloyd in Safety Last! (1923)Safety Last! concerns a young man, Harold (Harold Lloyd), who goes to the big city in order to make enough money to marry his sweetheart, Mildred (Mildred Davis, Lloyd’s future wife).  Harold is unable to make a big break, however, and gives his all to a job as a floor clerk in a department store.  He faithfully writes to dear Mildred back home, but takes pains to create the impression that he is far more successful that his circumstances actually merit.  This charade is easy enough to maintain through the mail, but things get a bit more difficult when Mildred decides to take a trip to the city and visit Harold at work.  Harold is just barely able to keep his head above water when he pretends to order around his coworkers and occupy the boss’s office just long enough to satisfy Mildred’s curiosity.

Just as Harold begins to despair over the lack of money that Mildred will most certainly realize, he overhears the store manager trying to think up a gimick to get more customers in the store.  “I’ll give someone $1,000 to think of a way…” he remarks, which grabs Harold by the shirt collar.  He runs to hash out a plan with his roommate, who just happens to scale tall buildings for fun.  Harold offers to split the money if his roommate (Bill Strother) will agree to climb up the side of the department store to the roof.  He enthusiastically agrees, but the day of the stunt finds the two in some hot water.  It seems that Bill has gotten on the wrong side of the police officer who is heading crowd control at the site of the stunt.  He tells Harold that he’ll have to climb up a few floors himself, until he can lose the furious cop. 

Theatrical poster for Safety Last! (1923)What follows is one of the most famous sequences in silent film.  The clocktower sequence had me so nervous that my palms were actually sweating.  Apparently, the wall that Harold is climbing was actually built on the roof of a skyscraper, and then photographed so as to maintain the illusion of perilous height.  Whatever the authenticity of Lloyd’s stuntwork, each floor is a grueling ordeal.  He must deal with a flock of pigeons, a snarling dog, his own vertigo, and slippery step after slippery step.  The physicality of Lloyd’s comedy lends itself spectacularly to this scene, and his athleticism is astonishing.  I’m not much for slapstick, but Loyd is able to transcend the crudeness of completely physical comedy and meld it into a more subtle product, much as Buster Keaton does so splendidly in his own films.  The final result will keep me coming back for more.

Night of the Hunter (1955)

Posted in Dailies with tags , , , on June 12, 2009 by leclisse

Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter (1955)It would be difficult to think of another film that portrays the dichotomy of good and evil in such a sublime manner as Charles Laughton’s 1955 offering (I would even go so far as to say “masterpiece”), Night of the Hunter.  I had seen the title listed in a handful of definitive film lists, so I checked it out from the library the other day to see what the fuss was all about.

Robert Mitchum plays Harry Powell, a would-be revival preacher who is arrested at a burlesque show.  While in jail, he meets Ben Harper (Peter Graves), who stole $10,000 in a fatal robbery and is sentenced to die by hanging.  Peter tells Harry about the money, but refuses to divulge its secret location.  Nevertheless, armed with the information of the money’s mere existence, Harry tracks down Ben’s widow, Willa (Shelley Winters) and her two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce).  Harry ingratiates himself into the good graces of the town’s elders, and convinces the gullible Willa to marry him.  Willa blinds herself to the increasingly strange behavior of Harry, as he alternates between syrupy sweetness and wrenching evil in his efforts to learn of the money’s whereabouts.  The children, John, and Pearl, are the only ones who know that the stolen $10,000 is hidden in the doll that Pearl carries around with her (“the last place that anyone would think to look”).

Robert Mitchum descending to the cellar in Night of the Hunter (1955)Harry’s obsession turns deadly when he slashes Willa’s throat in a fit of rage.  He keeps his wits about him, however, when he ties her to the inside of a Model-T and drives it into the river, sinking her to the bottom of the lake.  He shuffles into town the next day, sobbing about the betrayal he’s experienced: Willa, he says, ran off with another man.  It is up to him now to mind her two motherless children.  Willa’s death has thrown John and Pearl into the harrowing hands of Harry, and nothing stands in the way of his killing them to get to the true whereabouts of the money.  In one of the most bone-chilling scenes ever recorded on film, Harry hunts the hiding children throughout the house.  “Chiiillldrennn…” he calls, until finally realizing that they are cowering in the basement.

John and Pearl make their escape after several minutes of nail biting on my part.  John finds a hidden rowboat amongst the trees on the shore of the lake, and takes off with Pearl.  Ragged and hungry, they finally decide to spend the night on land, but have to flee when John spots the shadow of Harry roaming the countryside in his relentless search for them (and singing in his lingering baritone all the while).  The children make it to the home of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), a mother earth figure who already cares for several other orphaned children.  Rachel is no fool, and realizes what a devil Harry is when he finally learns of John and Pearl’s whereabouts at her farm.  The ensuing stand-off between Rachel and Harry is somewhat like an apocalyptic struggle, pitting the earth mother against the encroaching forces of evil.

John (Billy Chapin) watching the approaching Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) The most striking aspect of this film is the photography, which is some of the most stunning that I have ever seen.  The way each scene is lit is very reminiscent of German Expressionism, with the exaggeration of shadows and distortions of reality.  Laughton is careful to clearly show the forces of good and evil, locked in their eternal struggle through the characters of the film.  Needless to say, the performances across the board are superb, and it was a relief to actually appreciate Shelley Winters on screen (I am not much of a fan of hers).  The movie comes together as an eerie, dreamlike fantasy that at turns feels both coldly real and intangibly fleeting.  Oddly enough, the film was not received well at all when it was released, which prompted Laughton to retire from directing.  That was really a shame, as one can easily imagine what other masterworks could have come from Laughton as a director. 

For further reading, AMC’s Filmsite offers a fantastic analysis, and there is a wonderful entry from Wonders in the Dark, located here.