Sunday, April 13, 2008

When good picnics go bad

Last night, as part of TCM's series "The Essentials", Robert Osborne and Rose McGowan presented the 1955 movie The Night of the Hunter. Rose McGowan says that it's one of her all-time favorite movies (indeed, it was one of the four she selected when she was a TCM Guest Programmer back in November), and it's one of mine, too.

Robert Mitchum stars as Harry Powell, a man claiming to be a preacher who has quite the shady past: when we first see him in the movie, he's driving a stolen car, for which he gets sent to prison for 30 days. While in prison, Powell meets Ben Harper (played by Peter Graves, later of the TV series "Mission: Impossible"), who is on death row for having killed two men while robbing a bank. He learns that Harper got $10,000 in the robbery, which is hidden someplace. Powell, being the thoroughly corrupt man he is, naturally wants that money, and will go to any length to get it. The only thing is, the money is in the possession of Harper's two kids, who are the only people who know where it is, and who swore to their father that they would never tell anybody where the money was hidden.

When Powell gets out of prison, he goes looking for Harper's widow Willa (played by Shelley Winters), charming her and at a church social eventually asking her to marry him. She's oblivious to his evil, but her son John (well played by Billy Chapin) isn't. Good picnics go bad, though, and Harry marries Willa, finds that the kids are the only ones who know where the money is, and gets Willa out of the way so that he can go after the kids with impunity. (There's a magnificent shot of Willa here that I won't post, simply because it gives away an important plot point more than I already have.) But John will have nothing of it, figuring out a way to escape from Harry and run away with his sister Pearl.

John and Pearl steal a skiff and head off down the Ohio River, with Powell not far behind, eventually getting caught by Miss Cooper (Lillian Gish), a woman who's taken in several orphans, and finds that, well, what are you going to do when God grants you two more orphans? She, too, quickly realizes that something is the matter, but can't quite figure out what, until Powell comes along, looking for "his" kids. She's more of a person of God than Powell, despite his claims, is, and as the Bible says, "By their fruits shall you know them"; Cooper finds Powell's fruits to be very unpalatable indeed.

The Night of the Hunter is full of suspense. Robert Mitchum is truly nasty and foreboding on the screen, creating one of the screen's more frightening villians. Shelley Winters is also quite good, despite appearing only in the first half of the movie. By the same token, Lillian Gish is excellent too, despite the fact that she only shows up in the second half of the movie. There are also some wonderful performances by the supporting actors. In addition to Peter Graves mentioned above; veteran James Gleason, who had been playing supporting characters as far back as 1929's The Broadway Melody (and whom I've previously recommended in The Clock), plays the drunkard "Uncle" Birdie, to whom John and Pearl futilely turn to for help in a key moment; and Don Beddoe and Evelyn Varden as the Spoons, who own the ice cream parlor where Willa Harper works.

Charles Laughton directed The Night of the Hunter, the only time he directed a movie. The movie was not a financial success when it was first released, and this apparently soured Laughton on directing movies. It probably didn't help, either, that he didn't like children, which must have made this movie an exceedingly difficult task for him. Apparently, Robert Mitchum had to act as a go-between for Laughton and the child actors. But while the movie didn't do well at the box office when it was originally released, we now have cable channels and DVDs to enable us to re-examine the old movies, and the reputation of The Night of the Hunter is rightly much higher now than it was 50 years ago. This is a movie to which I can give one of my strongest recommendations.


Gloria said...

Fine film, indeed.

Still... when will the "Laughton hated children" urban legend be over? Nothing further from the truth: check the very thorough book"Heaven and Hell to Play With" or the documentary "Charles Laughton directs The Night of the Hunter", which bring testimonials and filmed proof of Laughton's work with the kids.

In fact, the urban legend originates in Laughton's widow, Elsa lanchester, who never set foot on the shooting of "Hunter", and wasn't keen on having children (much to Charles' regret).

Ted S. (Just a Cineast) said...

I could swear I first heard the comment about Laughton and children from Robert Osborne himself, one of the times he presented Night of the Hunter.

As they say, however, you learn something new every day.