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A-quiverin' with Christmas ...

One of the greatest Christmas movies of all time: Get the Criterion. Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter.

It's all about that apple. An apple that's appreciated. An apple quickly wrapped in a doily and handed to good hearted Lillian Gish as a Christmas present. These are the things, like those little critters she wishes to protect, that makes a person feel the urge to run through the town like a bi-polar George Bailey, hollering at everyone to have a Merry Christmas. Scaring people. Or perhaps, this is the thing that makes a person simply cry -- to say the moment is touching isn't strong enough. It's more like, as Harry Powell -- that squacking, lying, handsome devil exclaims: "But wait a minute! Hot dog, love's a winning! Yessirree! It's love that's won, and old left hand hate is down for the count!" It does win. But what a struggle!

Of course that a struggle is created by Harry Powell a.k.a. Robert Mitchum  -- a man's man and a hep cat who projected a natural-born charisma entirely his own -- the American original -- who starred in the above masterpiece, Night of the Hunter. There is no actor or man quite like Robert Mitchum. Brimming with understated talent (the kind that’s always underrated), the actor could run the spectrum from gorgeous leading man (Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison) to light comedian (What a Way to Go!) to war hero (The Story of G.I. Joe) to Western existentialist (Pursued) to flawed noir antihero (Out of the Past, Angel Face, Where Danger Lives) to aged gumshoe (Farewell My Lovely) to sexy psycho (Cape Fear) to hillbilly moonshiner (Thunder Road) and so much more, with nary a trace of effort. Though he was quoted as saying he sleepwalked through many of his roles (and that heavy-lidded, laconic demeanor was a large part of his barrel-chested appeal), he did work at some (or many) of his big-screen characters. Nowhere is this more evident than in one of the actor’s greatest and most terrifying roles -- as that demented preacher and scariest stepfather who ever lived, Harry Powell in Charles Laughton’s masterpiece, The Night of the Hunter.

Adapting Davis Grubb's novel (with film critic James Agee as screenwriter) into an expressionistic children's fairy tale/nightmare, Laughton not only directed a movie, but cast an elegiac spell over the audience with dreamlike, angled compositions (by cinematographer Stanley Cortez), chilling religious motifs, dark humor, disturbed perversity and pure horror. And casting Mitchum was just another of Laughton's ingenious moves -- the actor took viewers aback with his inspired, demonic weirdness, creating an unease that’s still palpable today.

From his first moment on-screen, we know there’s something off about Mitchum’s preacher -- and that creepiness grows and expands with each succeeding scene (the switchblade popping from the pocket while watching a dancer is a terrific moment of phallic sex and death). He’s a handsome hunk of man (which makes him even more frightening), he can sing hymns, he can preach the Good Book and he can seduce -- particularly the weaker of the fairer sex.

The weaker one here is cinema's notoriously easy catch -- the lonely, vulnerable Shelley Winters (poor, sick Shelley -- she's always gotta die) with the intent of stealing the money her late husband recently lifted. After disposing of Winters (her underwater death scene is one of cinema’s most startling, yet beautiful, moments), Mitchum's faux reverend famously hunts down her two children (wonderfully played by Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) with big talk, questioning threats ("Where'd you hide the money, Pearl?") and finally just plain murderous intentions.

For those of us who revere the picture, apologies for stating the obvious. But, from the picture’s famous scene involving Mitchum's love-and-hate speech using tattooed knuckles, to the poetic shots of the children fleeing their pursuer down a dreamlike river, to the frightfully gorgeous way Mitchum sings "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," especially with pure-hearted Gish -- every moment of this picture and especially Mitchum’s performance is scary, stunning and paternally demented.

What's so powerful here is that, even as he loses himself in the role, you constantly fight a bizarre, though understandable attraction to this animal (think of Lillian Gish's teenage orphan who can't resist) and then recoil from his unadulterated evil (it is a hard world for little things, dammit). Mitchum is a monster, a beast of a daddy, but one of bad, beautiful brilliance. And tough, tender hearted Gish is all the good in the world we so yearn for, and rarely witness. And again, everyone should appreciate an apple the way Gish does. Or at least once in life, everyone should experience how it feels to be appreciated that way.

Comments

David K.

Good call Kim !! great stuff , Mitchum is among my Favorites of all time , maybe i'll watch this later along with "Holiday affair" not Noir-ish , but still a film i really enjoy this time of year , Happy holidays Kim , be safe & looking into 2011 .

Jake Cole

One of my all-time favorites. The part that's started to catch my eye over ensconced images like Winters' floating corpse and the "Chilllllldrennnnn" bit is the initial chase that leads the children to the river as Mitchum just loses his mind. Going from the Frankenstein monster in the cellar to the howling werewolf on the river bank is hysterical. And is it just me or does Mitchum, hair flattened by the water and face contorted in petulant, impotent rage (especially in relation to children slipping through his fingers) make him look in a certain light like Peter Lorre in M? I'm amazed at how un-Mitchum he always looks in that shot as he devolves into screams.

Vanwall

When some movie villain list of AFI's came out, my grown son told me it wasn't a real list if Harry Powell wasn't at the top, 'cause he'd been scared by Mitchum's powerful acting in the film as a boy. That's when I found out he'd snuck down to watch it without me knowing, and all these years he was still a little affected by it. Great choice!

Ian Burns

A terrific,surreal swirl of a film with a couple of genuinely scary moments and a brilliant performance from Robert Mitchum.I'd put it near the top of any top twenty scary films list.

Olivier Eyquem

Beautiful piece. “Night of the Hunter” offered Mitchum the best opportunity to show his vast potential and his greatness as an actor. It seems quite a few people find Harry Powell to be his most frightening character, but I would hesitate between Powell and Max Cady in “Cape Fear”, a total beast intent on revenge and rape, and with none of the “redeeming” dark humour and twisted seductiveness of Powell.

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