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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

Hickesy

Great review of one of my favourite films ever. At the Irish Film Institute in Dublin, this was shown on the big screen as part of the annual 'Horrorthon' film festival. My boss let me leave work early to attend, as he knew how eager I was not to miss it. A dark, gloomy Friday October afternoon, and I was snuggled in the cinema at 4pm watching this - it was a perfect moment.
*wanders off after leaving comment singing 'lean-ing, lean-ing...'

Vern

I've never been a fan of Mitchum, always agreeing wholeheartedly with his own self-evaluation: sleepwalking, indeed. He always seemed like a conceitedly diminutive John Wayne.

But last weekend I watched a most unfortunate double feature of NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. I'll be damned if Mitchum didn't make Bardem (who had the benefit of Mitchum's performance) look like a cartoon cut-out.

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